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Soothing Bitter Orange

Discover the calming properties of the bitter orange fruit.

| April 2019

Photo by Shutterstock/Enlightened Media

A feel-good fruit, bitter or sour orange is said to calm frazzled nerves, and science has confirmed its ability to calm, relax, and act as a mild sedative. 

About the plant: A small tree from Asia, East Africa, Arabia, and Syria, it’s cultivated in the Mediterranean, the southern United States, South Africa, Australia, and the Caribbean to produce the fruit used in marmalade. Its bitterness distinguishes it from close relatives bergamot and sweet orange. It has long, leathery green leaves, and its sweet-fragranced, yellowish-white flowers make one of the most beautifully scented essential oils.

History and folklore: A universal calming balm, bitter orange has been traditionally used in Chinese, Japanese, Ayurvedic, South American and Western herbal medicine for anxiety, as a sedative for minor insomnia, in epilepsy, and as a tonic to strengthen the nervous systems of adults and children. Basque people have historically used its leaves for insomnia and palpitations. The oils are used in perfumery, and the oil and peel in flavoring such as orange liqueurs. Bitter orange is added to supplements to increase appetite and help weight loss.

What scientists say

In humans: Bitter orange flower extracts and inhalation of its beautifully scented essential oil (neroli) have been shown in initial clinical trials to significantly reduce anxiety. Neroli essential oil also clinically reduces blood pressure and anxiety and improves sleep in coronary patients when inhaled with lavender and Roman chamomile. It reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels in hypertension when inhaled with other essential oils. Bitter orange extract has also been shown to alleviate anxiety and pain in labor. Commercial extracts, not the essential oil, increased blood pressure in some but not all trials. In a controlled trial, sweet orange (Citrus × sinensis) improved cognitive function in older people.

In the lab: Studies show bitter orange is sedative, reduces spasms, and is anticonvulsant via the brain’s calming (GABA) signal and also by blocking the brain’s stimulatory (glutamate) signal. It also has antidepressant effects via the mood-boosting (serotonin) neurotransmitter, and the flower extract, peel, and seeds are the all-important neuroprotective with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

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