Essential Oils for the Dark Months of Autumn & Winter

Last week I talked about some great herbs to help light the way through the darker months of autumn and winter.  A beautiful time of year, for sure, but difficult for those who don’t respond well to the loss of light or the holiday season. 

This week, let’s get into some fantastic essential oils to lighten the heart as the outside light grows dim.  

Lemon, Orange, Bergamot & other citruses (Citrus species)

Citrus equals joy!  Citrus are among the most supportive oils for melancholy, their bright sunny energy providing a little boost.  The scent ranges from tart and tangy like lemon, lime, tangerine, and grapefruit to downright sweet like mandarin and sweet orange. Then there’s bergamot, a more chemically complex oil with a delicious balance of tangy and sweet. 

Speaking of balance, citrus oils are balancing for emotional state:  Uplifting and motivating for those feeling the blues while comforting for those working through fear and anxiety.  All citruses share these properties, though each has its own unique twist. For example, I find lemon and lime help me wake up, get moving and be focused. The best way to find the best citrus oil for your needs is simply to sniff them. What a torturous thing to do! 

Citruses blend well with other oils, and I especially like them combined with frankincense and rose. This is a good blend for grief that has morphed into a long-term sadness or for old, difficult feelings that flare up as the light wanes and the holiday season approaches. 

Store citrus oils in the fridge.  Don’t use them on the skin if the bottle’s been open for more than a year or has been stored at room temperature for several months. This is because they oxidize pretty easily and become skin irritants.  Many citrus oils, if pressed rather than distilled, may cause skin discoloration if applied to skin that is then exposed to the sun.  The best way to use citrus oils, I think, is to simply sniff them, though I often use tangerine or mandarin in creams and body oils since they rarely cause phototoxicity. 

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary moves the blood, especially to the brain.  We are supposed to slow down this time of year, but if your energy, brain function, and motivation go off a cliff, then this is the oil for you. It helps clear mind fog, sluggishness, and apathy and is especially good combined with citrus oils for this. My favorite way to use rosemary is in the morning in the shower. One drop of rosemary and one of lemon on a wet wash cloth provides a bit of sun and a kick in the butt.  Rosemary is a stimulating oil that may help with the sort of funk where even getting off the couch requires a monumental effort. 

Be sure to smell different rosemary oils before buying. Its scent can vary wildly depending on the particular variety (“chemotype”) or blend of chemotypes in that little brown bottle. The scent ranges from refreshing with citrus notes to downright medicinal and camphory. 

Avoid rosemary essential oil if you have seizures or are taking any medication that increases the risk of seizures, like Ritalin, Adderall, and the like. 

Frankincense (Boswellia carterii)

Frankincense has a very distinctive but not super strong scent, unless the resin from which the oil comes is being burned. Then it can be quite strong!  The scent of the distilled oil is balsamic and what I call “powdery,” sometimes with notes of citrus. It’s in a majority of the perfume blends I make.  

Frankincense is used to break ties with either recent or distant past emotional wounds that can leave us stuck in anger, melancholy, fear, or anxiety (or all of the above). These feelings tend to get more intense this time of year for many of us.  Like citruses, frankincense is balancing emotionally…gently elevating mood while providing the sensation of comfort while helping one to stay grounded during the sometimes chaotic holiday season.  Also like citruses, frankincense blends well with many oils, going well with citrusy, floral, balsamic, woody, earthy, sweet, or green scents. 

Store frankincense in the fridge, as it has a number of components that are prone to oxidation.  I store most of my oils in the fridge, except for the heaviest base oils that actually do well with age (Spikenard, Patchouli, and others).  

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)

Cardamom is a warm, stimulating oil.  Anyone who’s had a spiced chai knows cardamom’s scent. In traditional Unani medicine, it’s considered a heart exhilarant…a spice to promote a joyful heart. Like rosemary, it is a motivating oil that lends a hand when you are dragging.  It provides a warm hug during the cold months. 

I love adding just a touch of cardamom essential oil to perfume blends, but use restraint: it’s a very strongly scented oil and can easily take over if you use too much. When used lightly, it has a warm, spicy note that ties other scents together. It’s a great addition to the citrus-frankincense-rose blend I mentioned earlier if a bit more energizing is desired.  Say 10 drops of frankincense, 3 drops of bergamot, 3 drops of lemon, 1 drop of rose—and then for cardamom, dip the very end of a toothpick in the oil, then stir it around in the blend. That should be plenty of cardamom, but if you want more, repeat with a clean toothpick.  Then add 7-8 drops of your blend per ounce of carrier oil for a soothing, pick-me-up all-over body oil.  Or use it in a diffuser a few times a day (not all day long…the blend will lose its effect). 

Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea)

Use clary sage to bring a bit of the summer sun and lightheartedness into the fall and winter. The scent of clary sage—green, floral, balsamic and spicy—is very strong and very distinctive, so go easy on it in blends.  

Clary is great for dream work, and this is the time of year to tap into the subconscious to see what we have to learn and use that knowledge to plant seeds for next year. 

Clary sage is helpful for those of us who cringe when we have to attend holiday parties.  Such parties evolved from traditional gatherings that fostered connection during the darkest months of the year.  Connecting is actually a good thing and clary can help foster a bit of social interaction and ease the funk that may keep us away from such gatherings. You don’t have to stay all night! As an introvert, I find that just popping in for a little bit to connect, then leaving before it gets too energetically draining works.   

Clary was the first oil I ever bought, and I got it for chronic depression. (Herbs and essential oils aren’t sufficient treatment alone, but they can provide some needed support.)  Even my dog Zoe was drawn to clary.  Her favorite place in the garden was under the huge clary sage plant, the scent of which she’d bring back into my flat…essentially a 4-legged diffuser. 

A note of caution with respect to holiday parties: Combining clary sage with alcohol may precipitate nightmares. 

This really is a beautiful time of year and it has a powerful energy.  It just helps for some of us to have some good-scented allies to bring on the journey through to the spring.