For many, winter is a season filled with joyous holidays, delightful walks in the snow, cozy evenings curled up by a fire with a cup of hot tea or cocoa—a time for introspection. For some, however, the colder months seem bleak, dark, and endless. Sometimes, this melancholy turns into full-blown depression. If this depression fluctuates with the seasons—if warmer months and brighter days alleviate misery—these people may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
It is estimated that SAD affects as many as one person in 20. Fortunately, there are natural remedies available that can help. Lack of light is often the culprit, so light therapy can be especially helpful, along with taking certain supplements, following a healthful diet, and getting adequate exercise. But one of the most powerful (and often overlooked) tools in the natural medicine arsenal is aromatherapy.
“Aromatherapy works on our brain and nervous system to alleviate depression in a unique way,” says Betty Cucciaca, DC. “Aromas from natural oils and essences have a direct and immediate affect on our brains, allowing for quick relief or easing of emotional distress. The scents of essential oils move through our bodies with great ease, meaning you don’t have to worry about unpleasant or dangerous side effects as you might with certain drugs. And aromatherapy is versatile. Uplifting essences can be incorporated into our daily lives in many ways.”
According to Valerie Ann Worwood, author of The Fragrant Mind, aromatherapy is immediately effective because aroma molecules connect directly with our limbic system, which is evolutionarily the oldest part of our brain and the seat of our emotions. “Aromas reach our brains via receptor cells in the cilia extending from the two olfaction bulbs, which are themselves actually extensions of, and part of the brain,” writes Worwood. “Through our sense of smell, aroma molecules set off a cascade of reactions that all lead to an electrical impulse being sent instantaneously to the brain.”
So what are the best vehicles for delivering a healing dose of feel-good scents? Keeping aromatherapy candles or diffusers in all the rooms throughout your home is one good choice, as they emit scent even when not lit. Lighting the candles in a well-ventilated and supervised room will intensify their effects even more. Another good—and safer—option is electronic diffusers. These can be plugged in throughout the home and even at work without using much electricity. Room sprays also offer subtle, but powerful essence. A little lavender sprayed on your pillow at night can go a long way toward chasing away the blues and helping you get a good night’s rest. Some essences that can help ease SAD include basil, bergamot, clary sage, frankincense, geranium, ginger, grapefruit, jasmine, juniper, lavender, lemon, melissa, neroli, orange, patchouli, Roman chamomile, rose, rosemary (good for nervous depression), rosewood, sage, sandalwood, tangerine, and ylang ylang.
“Baths are an especially effective way to utilize aromatherapy,” says Long Beach, Calif.-based herbalist Julie James. Not only do essential oils enter the body via the olfactory system, but when infused in a bath, they can also enter the body via osmosis. “Water carries the therapeutic benefit of essences directly through the skin in a gentle and safe manner,” says James.
It’s important to dilute potent essential oils with milder carrier oils before using in a bath so they won’t irritate sensitive skin. Oils used for massage such as coconut and jojoba make appropriate vehicles. Both warm water and cold water baths can be effective. Warm water baths are soothing and have a sedative quality, which can be helpful if your depression is taking the form of anxiety. But some research suggests that cold water, which increases circulation with its invigorating quality, may also help to alleviate mild depression.
Other personal care items offer effective ways to enjoy the uplifting effects of aromatherapy as well. Body oils, lotions, shampoos, and body washes can all be used in conjunction to create a symphony of healing essence that will stay with you all day.
Tracy Rubert is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.
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