Aromatherapy/Essential Oils for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is an acronym for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition that some experts believe affects between three and five percent of all children in the United States. The condition was previously known (and still sometimes referred to as) attention deficit disorder (ADD). ADHD is characterized by a child’s inattention (inability to concentrate his or her attention on a task for any length of time), hyperactivity (tendency to be significantly more active than what is considered normal for his or her peers), and impulsivity (tendency to produce abrupt and often inappropriate responses or comments). ADHD has long been the subject of considerable controversy among professionals and laypersons, some of whom point out that these behaviors may be within the normal range of behaviors for young children, especially as they reach adolescence. Nonetheless, the treatment of ADHD has become an important challenge for psychiatrists, medical doctors, psychologists, and other healing professionals. Practitioners of aromatherapy are also interested in the problems of ADHD and have a number of recommended treatments with essential oils for the condition.

How is Aromatherapy Used to Treat ADHD?

The principle behind aromatherapy is that certain naturally occurring chemicals contained within essential oils can be used to treat a wide variety of physical, mental, and emotional disorders. The success of these essential oils arises from the fact that they stimulate parts of the body that are not functioning properly, restoring the body to its natural state. Over thousands of years, aromatherapists have experimented with more than 100 different essential oils and found the specific effect (or effects) each has on the body. Recent scientific studies have confirmed the presence of certain key chemicals in essential oils that may react with the nervous or muscular system—or some other part of the body—to encourage healing.

Aromatherapy treatments tend to differ for each individual. The correct essential oil—or combination of essential oils—is often determined by a consultation between an aromatherapist and a patient. However, some essential oils appear to be especially effective in treating ADHD because of their well-known properties.

Some oils that are often recommended include:

  • Lavender (Lavendula officinalis): One of the most widely used of all essential oils, it is often effective in producing a sedative effect, causing a person to calm down and relax. The value of this treatment for a hyperactive ADHD child is obvious.
  • Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica): This oil is often recommended because it is thought to stimulate the central nervous system and help correct hereditary problems, which ADHD may be.
  • Frankincense (Boswellia carterii): Known for its ability to lower anxiety and depression, frankincense oil may produce a calming influence on the hyperactive ADHD patient.
  • Vetiver (Vetivera zizanoides): A somewhat less familiar essential oil, vetiver has been used in scientific studies for the treatment of ADHD because it has a calming influence on patients.

Essential oils can be used with patients in a variety of ways. They are often added to a warm bath or a basin of warm water, allowing a person to inhale the vaporized fumes of the oil. Oils can also be applied directly to the body by rubbing them on the soles of one’s feet, the back of the neck, the shoulders, or the forehead. An important caution concerning the use of essential oils in the treatment of ADHD is that young children are more sensitive to these oils than are adults, and they should be used for therapeutic purposes only under the supervision of a qualified adult.

As is often the case in aromatherapy, combinations of essential oils may be used to treat ADHD because their synergistic effects (effects resulting from their being used together), which can sometimes be quite impressive. One commonly used mixture is called Peace & Calming, a name that reflects the effects it has on users. The mixture is a combination of blue tansy (Tanacetum annuum), orange (Citrus sinensis), patchouly (Pogostemon cablin), tangerine (Citrus nobilis), and ylang ylang (Cananga odorata).

What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is a system for treating medical disorders with essential oils. Essential oils are organic compounds (compounds containing carbon) that occur naturally in plants. More than 100 essential oils are known to have curative properties, such as the ability to arouse or calm the senses, sharpen mental acuity, and prevent or treat diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms. Aromatherapists apply essential oils most commonly to the skin or through the nose (by inhalation). Inside the body, essential oils are thought to affect the muscular and nervous systems and other organs that affect the way the human body functions.

What Causes ADHD?

Scientists still know relatively little about the causes of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They believe that a number of factors may be involved in the disorder, such as:

  • Genetics: ADHD tends to run in a family. Approximately a quarter of all children who develop the disorder have at least one other relative with the condition.
  • Exposure to environmental toxins: Children who are exposed to toxins (poisons) in the environment such as lead or polychlorobiphenyls (PCBs) are more likely to develop ADHD than are those who do not have that exposure. Studies have also shown a greater risk of children developing ADHD when born to women who smoked, used drugs, or were themselves exposed to environmental toxins while they were pregnant.
  • Altered brain function: Researchers have discovered significant differences in the activity of certain areas of the brain and the usage of neurotransmitters in the brains of children with ADHD compared to those who do not have the disorder.

Additional Resources

Buckle, Jane. Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Practice, 2nd ed.Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone, 2003.

Maloof, Rich. “Frankincense and Mirth: Is that psychoactive smoke wafting through the pews?” Brain & Body. MSN Health & Fitness. 2008.

Worwood, Susan, and Valerie Ann Worwood. Essential Aromatherapy: A Pocket Guide to Essential Oils and Aromatherapy, 2nd ed. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003.

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