Preparing for bed is a full sensory experience. A dark, cool, quiet space is important and the fragrances you use can help with sleep, too.
Certain scents — particularly lavender and chamomile — are renowned for their soothing capabilities, and can help ease you into relaxation before bed as essential oils.
If you use an infused body lotion or light relaxing candles, you’re already practicing a form of aromatherapy. While research around this popular holistic health trend is limited, what we do know about aromatherapy for sleep is promising. Whether you choose to create a relaxing pillow spray, scent your room with an oil diffuser or knead your muscles with body oils — there are many ways to incorporate essential oils into your routine. Many large chain stores carry oil-infused products, or sell oils themselves that can assist with your bedtime wind-down routine.
But the sheer number of scents options in the aisle can make it hard to tell which truly work. To find out how to make the most of an aromatherapy practice, we looked at the research and spoke to sleep professionals. Read below for how to find — and use — the best essential oils for sleep.
Which Essential Oils Help With Sleep?
Essential oils are the natural oils of a plant source which, after dilution, may be applied to the skin or breathed in from a diffuser. And according to Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., psychologist and sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, some — like lavender and jasmine — have been shown to be as effective as medications for managing anxiety.
“Since so many sleep problems are rooted in anxiety, reducing anxiety can help with sleep,” explains Naiman.
These are the top oils for relaxation and sleep.
1. Lavender Oil
Scent: light, earthy, and herby
Research suggests that lavender may help decrease the time it takes to fall asleep, as well as improve sleep duration and increase restorative, slow-wave sleep. Another 2010 study determined lavender to be a safe and effective alternative to benzodiazepines for relieving anxiety.
If you are experiencing congestion, you may also find benefits using lavender, which is anti-inflammatory, and may help with reducing swelling.
2. Jasmine Oil
Scent: sweet, floral, warm
In a 2010 study compared jasmine oil to valium, and found that the natural remedy proved more effective for sleep.
3. Chamomile Oil
Scent: herbal, sweet, smokey
Ingesting chamomile, through teas or capsules, is known to help older adults with sleep. A 2010 study looked at a blend of chamomile, lavender, and neroli oil, and found that participants who breathed in this blend experienced lower anxiety and improved sleep.
4. Sandalwood Oil
Scent: woodsy, sweet, floral
Indian sandalwood is known to have sedative effects, increasing relaxation in people who inhale it. A 2016 study followed up on this with Australian sandalwood as well, and found it comparable with lowering blood pressure and stress.
5. Valerian Oil
Scent: earthy, vanilla
Valerian root, especially in its tea form, is shown to highly benefit sleep. This flowering plant has become more popular for people with insomnia because it’s an accessible plant with few side effects. While most research looks at consumption, an older 2006 study of rats found that valerian aromatherapy helped them fall asleep faster and longer.
6. Vetiver Oil
Scent: smokey, leathery, woody
Though some find vetiver oil unpleasant, more recent studies of this scent have shown it to help with anxiety in rats.
A 2009 study looked at the effects of vetiver, lavender, vanilla, and ammonium sulfide on sleep and breaths. The results suggest that our sense of smell may be a good way to improve quality of sleep and breathing at night.
7. Cedarwood Oil
Scent: piney, woodsy, smokey
An old 2003 study with rats found that cedarwood oil had sedative effects, and older studies also show promising effects in people. However more recent studies have mostly been done on blends with cedarwood oil. In 2017, Japanese researchers looked at two essential oil blends, one of which contained cedarwood, cypress, and pine and found them to be helpful for increasing sleep time.
8. Whatever helps you relax!
While some scents have more research than others, the association between a smell and a sense of calm is really a personal preference, says Kelly Murray, owner of Kelly Murray Sleep Consulting. For example, if you it relaxing to hike in forests, you may prefer woodsy scents. If camping stresses you out, you might want to avoid earthy smells. If your happy place was baking with your grandmother, opt for sweet vanilla-based scents.
Other essential oils that may help destress and improve sleep:
- Ylang ylang: sweet, spicy, floral
- Bergamot: bitter orange, spicy, herby
- Marjoram: sweet, herby, like oregano
Which Essential Oils Should You Avoid?
Any essential oil that you consider energizing shouldn’t be part of your sleep scents rotation.
These can be scents can include:
- Lemon balm, or other citrus-based scents
- Black pepper
However, as Murray mentioned, scents are a personal preference. If these scents calm you and help you relax in bed, adding a drop into your diffuser shouldn’t hurt. You can also mix these scents with the more well-researched scents to create your own blend.
If you buy a few different fragrances, be patient, and commit to only one at a time for about a week each, to get a sense of whether it’s helping with your pre-bed relaxation. Chronicling your selections and the resulting sleep in a dedicated sleep diary could help you assess the true impact each evening.
Why Do Essential Oils Work for Improving Sleep?
As Naiman mentioned, anxiety and sleep tend to go hand in hand. Most oils that are shown to benefits anxiety and stress are also likely to help improve sleep quality, especially before bedtime. In fact, sleep wellness coach Kali Patrick points out that essential oils are often used for their ability to decrease anxiety and stress, rather than sleep.
“Essential oils help to reduce the amount of nervous system activation for some people, meaning that if people are mentally, emotionally, or physically agitated, then it's hard to fall asleep; It's hard to stay asleep,” Patrick says. “If they can reduce that agitation, it increases the likelihood they will be able to fall asleep quicker and stay asleep.”
“There is a direct connection between our sense of scent and our emotions,” adds Murray. “There's an olfactory nerve that runs from our olfactory receptors — there are like 10 million of these receptors in the nose — and goes directly to the portion of our brain, the amygdala, that regulates emotional response to stimulus.”
Many experts advise winding down with a relaxation routine before you go to bed. These routines may involve yoga, journaling, or meditation — as well as essential oils. Turning on the diffuser or incorporating a scented massage oil can help your body associate certain scents with relaxation first and, then eventually, sleep.
How to Use Essential Oils for Sleep and Stress Relief
Just like it takes trial and error to see which scents you enjoy, the ideal method of using essential oils will vary by preference.
1. Topical application (diluted)
If you want to apply essential oils on the skin, make sure not to apply them directly. Instead, Murray recommends that you use the ratio of one drop of oil per teaspoon of a carrier oil, such as avocado oil or coconut oil. Try rubbing the oil onto your chest (think Vick's VapoRub) or use it all over the body to hydrate and restore as part of a relaxing massage.
Naiman suggests using a diffuser to maximize essential oils’ benefits, as a diffuser allows the scent to dissipate continually throughout the night.
“You want healthy delivery, and diffusers are probably the best way to do that,” he says.
3. In a bath
Taking a bath with essential oils before bed can contribute to the relaxation factor that helps promote good sleep. Just a few drops should add ample fragrance to the tub. Not a bath person? The effects may be just as good with a foot soak.
4. As a spray
Add a few drops of essential oil to several ounces of distilled water, then spritz the mix around your bedroom, or better yet, onto your pillowcase, to help you wind down.
If you prefer to breathe in your oil, rub a drop of diluted essential oil between your palms (ideally with a carrier oil to minimize risk of irritation to your skin), then cup your hands around your nose to breathe it in. Before trying this, make sure you are in a well-ventilated room and that you take breaks every 30 to 60 minutes.
Before trying this method, run a patch test on your skin to be sure you don’t have a sensitivity reaction.
6. Pre-blended products
Because the integrity of the oils may not be as high in pre-blended products, it’s hard to know if purchased lotions, creams, and sprays will have the same effect, as quality can vary and most research focuses on the impact of pure essential oils. “It's so hard to say if the lotions you would get at [large chain stores] would have the same effect,” says Murray.
However, mind-body routines are also known to help with sleep. If you are incorporating a massage routine before bed, look for a brand that creates strongly scented products. Just remember to let the products absorb for 10 minutes before getting into bed, to minimize staining your sheets.
Are There Any Risks to Using Essential Oils?
Each method of using essential oils comes with different safety profiles. For example, pure essential oils must be diluted, such as in a bath or with a carrier oil, and never applied or inhaled directly from the bottle. While studies report few to no side effects with aromatherapy, undiluted application is known to cause stinging and burning sensations, among other effects.
To make sure you’re not over-inhaling or -diffusing, be sure to take breaks or set your machine to turn off after an hour.
The FDA doesn’t also regulate essential oil products, so you'll want to look out for exaggerated marketing claims, such as “therapeutic grade.” Murray also warns of buying oils from unreputable sources online, where re-sellers may be selling lower-quality products, including expired goods.
If you’re worried about pre-blended products, try to find one with the fewest ingredients so that if you have a skin reaction, it’ll be easier to narrow down the potential trigger.
Essential Oils Are a Sleep Aid — Not a Sleep Cure
Ultimately, the experts agree that while essential oils can be part of a relaxing bedtime routine, they won’t cure insomnia or other sleep disorders. They can help ease into a state of relaxation so that you find falling asleep easier, but there is little concrete evidence that oils directly impact sleep.
If you’ve tried essential oils in your routine and are still experiencing sleep issues, such as insomnia, restlessness, or difficulty waking up, there may be a more serious problem.
“Essential oils will help to improve your sleep, but if you have legitimate insomnia and sleepless nights, the oils need to be coupled with other therapies,” says Murray. “They may not be the panacea you're looking for to solve all your sleep problems.”
These can include practicing good sleep hygiene, journaling before bed to decrease anxiety, and other natural remedies. To track these, you may even want to keep a sleep diary to see if there are any other factors disrupting your sleep.
Need help waking up? Essential oils could help with that too, if you have the right tools. Check out these gentle alarm clocks that make getting out of bed a joy.
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