Does Orange Aromatherapy Reduce Anxiety?

Image Credit: Tim Sackton / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Orange Aromatherapy for Anxiety

Aromatherapy — the use of concentrated essential oils extracted from plants to treat disease — is commonly used to treat anxiety symptoms. Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent class of psychiatric disorders in the general population. However, their treatment is challenging, because the drugs used for the relief of anxiety symptoms can have serious side effects.

Thankfully, credible studies that examine the effect of essential oils on anxiety symptoms are gradually starting to appear in the medical literature. However, in most of these studies, exposure to the essential oil odor was accompanied by massage. This makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the effect of the aroma itself.

A typical example includes this study where patients in the intensive care unit the day after open-heart surgery got foot massages with orange-scented oil. Why not back massages? Because they just had their chests cracked open so they have huge sternotomy wounds. Patients showed a significant psychological benefit from the aromatherapy massage.

But how do we know the essential oil had anything to do with it? Maybe it was just the massage. If that’s the case, then great—let’s give people massages! I’m all for more ICU foot rubs. “There is considerable evidence from randomized trials that massage alone reduces anxiety, so if massage is effective, then aromatherapy plus massage is also effective.” One study where cancer patients got massaged during chemo and radiation even found that the massage without the fragrance may be better. The researchers thought it might be a negative Pavlovian response: the patient smells the citrus and their body thinks, “Oh no, not another cancer treatment!”

More recently the ambient odor of orange was tested in a dental office to see if it reduces anxiety and improves mood. Ambient odor of orange was diffused in the waiting room and appeared to have a relaxant effect—less anxiety, better mood, and more calmness—compared to a control group where there was no odor in the air. No odor, that is, except for the nasty dentist office smell. Maybe the orange scent was just masking the unpleasant odors. Maybe it had nothing to do with any orange-specific molecules. More research was necessary.

So in another study, highlighted in my video, Orange Aromatherapy for Anxiety, researchers exposed some graduate students to an anxiety-producing situation and tested the scent of orange, versus a non-orange aroma, versus no scent at all. The orange did appear to have an anxiety-reducing effect. Interestingly, the observed anxiety-reducing effects were not followed by physical or mental sedation. On the contrary, at the highest dose, the orange oil made the volunteers feel more energetic. So orange aromatherapy may potentially reduce anxiety without the downer effect of Valium-type drugs. Does that mean we can get the benefits without the side effects? I’ve talked about the concerns of using scented consumer products before, even ones based on natural fragrances (Throw Household Products Off the Scent), and there have been reports of adverse effects of aromatherapy.

Alternative medicine isn’t necessarily risk-free. For example, there are dozens of reported cases of people having their hearts ruptured by acupuncture. Ouch.

But the adverse effects of aromatherapy were mostly from skin irritation from essential oils being applied topically, or even worse swallowed. Certain citrus oils can also make your skin sensitive to sunlight.

Lavender may also help for both anxiety (Lavender for Generalized Anxiety Disorder) and migraines (Lavender for Migraine Headaches).

The only other aromatherapy-related video is Wake Up and Smell the Saffron, though I have others on natural ways do reduce anxiety, including:

 Natural, though, doesn’t always mean safe. See, for example:

Of course eating citrus is good too! I have videos on Reducing Muscle Fatigue With Citrus and Keeping Your Hands Warm With Citrus, but Tell Your Doctor If You Eat Grapefruit.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

12 responses to “Orange Aromatherapy for Anxiety

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  1. Thank you for this, Dr. Greger. Since being a vegan and using essential oils I am the healthiest I have ever been(at 59), I haven’t even taken an aspirin in years. Thank you for doing all the research to show us the light!!!

    1. Hmmm that is a good question I am uncertain what brands they used in the study. Since you’re not ingesting the stuff I would think most any would do the trick. I know some folks add a few drops to a spray bottle of water and mist throughout home.

      1. I was looking for something more passive like a diffuser or something. Essential oils by disreputable companies are often diluted with vegetable oils, etc. But I will look around, thanks!

      2. I know this specific article was written about aromatherapy but is there a reason why organic, all-natural, plant-based, therapeutic grade essential oils should not be ingested? I know that they aren’t regulated by the FDA but many vitamins and nutritional supplements aren’t either… So, I was wondering if you had any opinion/experience or information on that. Thanks!

        1. Hi Christy, these are a couple of informative articles on the subject. The simple reason as to why they shouldn’t be ingested isn’t a matter of theory. It’s a matter of evidence, that essential oil ingestion has been shown to cause harm.

    2. Doterra –
      If you are really interested you can see if there is a Doterra rep in your area and they can give you all kinds of information. The key to Doterra is they are very careful about their oils and are of the highest quality. They are not added to with other oils, but are the pure oil. So very potent. You can dilute and mix them however you want. They are so high quality you can actually add most of them to your food. Some are not good for you to ingest, however, so please read which ones are appropriate to eat. They can be infused, or directly applied to the skin, or used in cooking. Not cheap but last a long time.

  2. Doesn’t matter how pure the oil or scent it goes straight to my brain and starts disorienting it. Next thing a migraine attack is starting. Some scents are worse or faster working than others.

  3. I know that when I walk by my flowering citrus trees I feel better – the oranges especially. Will have to try Orange essential oil for my anxiety – will Nerolie work, I have that.

  4. As a cancer survivor, over the years I have learned that chemotherapy and radiation can significantly increase your sense of smell. I have never read this, or seen it documented in any literature, however it it true for me, (although I only had radiation). As I am now involved in a cancer support group, I have learned this is not just me, but many have reported this especially those who have undergone chemotherapy. It is actually an issue that arrises between couples living with cancer as a heightened sense of smell can make one more sensitive to smell that never bothered them before. This may be why the smell of essential oils doesn’t work with cancer patients. Cancer patients may not be used to a change it their senses, or may actually be overwhelmed. Just food for thought…

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