Aromatherapy and Seasonal Affective Disorders

It’s always seemed strange to me that even though the shortest day of the year is officially around Dec 21, I always feel that the days in January and February continue to get shorter still and there is less light to be had. It is especially in these months that people suffer the most from Seasonal Affected Disorder (known as SAD) and drop into the “Winter Blues” for that very reason. People need light and in the deep winter months, when there is seemingly less daytime and longer nights, there is more of a propensity to feel irritable and depressed; to overeat and gain weight; and to be tired and need to sleep more. In winter our internal biological clocks (circadian rhythms) have shifted into hibernation mode and we feel out of sync with our natural schedules. This is particularly true for younger people and women. It is as if there is never enough time in the day to get things done and we end up feeling more frustrated, stressed, over-worked and overly exhausted.

Studies have shown that one possible cause, which could play a role in SAD, could be related to a lack of serotonin and serotonin polymorphisms. Serotonin is the “feel good” hormone in the body and when the uptake of this hormone is challenged by the change in circadian rhythms, then symptoms like depression can set in. Conventional medicine would prescribe an anti-depressant that blocks the uptake of serotonin in the body, leaving higher levels for the brain. But often, conventional medications can have detrimental side effects. And this is where aromatherapy’s essential oils can help for depression! Essential oils, when inhaled, head straight for the limbic system, which because of its relationship to the endocrine system allows for balanced hormone production and release. When we stimulate the hypothalamus part of the limbic system, we return it to “set point” much like a thermostat adjusting hot and cold. Among other things, the hypothalamus regulates hunger, thirst and response to pleasure and pain, which are key factors in depression. Essential oils that can assist in relieving depression are basil, bergamot, chamomile, clary sage, geranium, jasmine, lavender, melissa, neroli, patchouli, rose, sandalwood, and ylang ylang.

Another theory of why SAD might occur in the winter may be related to melatonin, a sleep related hormone, which is produced by the pineal gland in dim light and darkness (since there are direct connections between the retina and the pineal gland.) The body’s production of melatonin usually increases during the long nights of winter because of the dim light, which then throws off the circadian rhythms. This disruption of our natural sleep cycles can upset the functioning of the brain, and in particular, our old friend the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus also affects, through the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, one’s blood pressure, heart rate, the sleep/awake response and sexual arousal. If we have an increase of melatonin, then we may suffer from feelings of fatigue, anxiety, lethargy, loss of energy, difficulty concentrating, irritability, loss of libido, oversleep and social withdrawal – all symptoms of the SAD /melatonin link. Essential oils that can stimulate and awaken our systems are rosemary, peppermint, lemon, basil, ginger, tea tree and cypress. For anxiety, irritability and fitful sleep patterns chamomile, lavender, marjoram, clary sage and linden berry, celery seed and rose can help calm and reduce stress. SAD creating social withdrawal and lack of enthusiasm can isolate a person, leading to deeper despair. Essential oils that can assist in building self-worth and confidence, bringing a more positive attitude are frankincense, cedarwood, sandalwood, jasmine, ylang ylang and neroli. For connection to others, many of the winter spices also appear to increase interest in others, and these are cinnamon, ginger, cloves nutmeg and allspice. The aphrodisiacs like neroli, patchouli, sandalwood, jasmine, ylang ylang, and rose can stimulate sexual arousal, raising the libido and encouraging more social interaction. Appetite suppressants that help with over-eating and over-indulgence are bergamot, juniper, lavender and celery seed oils.

Essential oils are very useful in these dark times, especially when burned in an aroma lamp or used in a bath. In addition to oils, there has been a study that shows using a Light Box can also be very effective in easing the symptoms of SAD. A Light Box is a specially designed light that throws out far more light than a lightbulb. The study showed that some individuals who used a 10,000-lux box received benefits from only 30 minutes of daily light treatment. (However, the amount of light needed varies widely from individual to individual.)

Now imagine sitting in front of a Light Box, basking in its full-spectrum rays AND smelling a wonderful mixture of essential oils. Sounds like a great combo to me! If you are suffering from SAD, you might want to get a Light Box, then create a formula of essential oils from the list above that most applies to you. Three drops of up to five oils can be mixed in combination and either burned in an aroma lamp or added to sea salts or bubble bath for an added pleasure in your bath. Because these essential oils tend to float on the top of the water, it is best to mix them first in some medium like bath salts or bath oils; otherwise they may have a tendency to burn if they come in direct contact with the skin. In an aroma lamp, it is safe to use a concentrated formula because there is no contact with skin.

So, in these dark and dreary days of February, when all that you want to do is curl up under the covers and sleep until spring, instead, brighten your life with some essential oils and light therapy and enjoy winter to its fullest!