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Anyone who’s smelled fresh cookies baking in the oven know that scents have a strong influence on how we feel. When we smell something, our olfactory nerve sends signals directory to our limbic system and amygdala, the parts of our brain responsible for our memory or mood. That’s why certain scents can instantly make us feel brighter, or recall a favorite memory.
Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine that relies on the powerful sense of smell. Practitioners use the essential oils from plants to heal the mind, body, and soul. Essential oils can be used for a variety of purposes, from boosting mood to relieving migraines, but in this article we’ll focus on how they can be used to calm and relax the mind and body, preparing you for sleep.
Choosing scents that promote relaxation can help get our bodies into a restful state ready for sleep. Essential oils also just smell nice and can be a pleasant way to enhance the sleeping experience. Making essential oils part of your bedtime routine can also help train your mind to associate the specific scent with falling asleep.
Many people prefer to use essential oils because they’re natural and don’t create the common side effects associated with many sleep medications, such as daytime drowsiness or more serious health risks. For example, a 2010 study found smelling jasmine to be just as effective at calming the nerves as a sleeping pill or sedative, but without any adverse side effects.
Many essential oils are adaptogens, which means they adapt to the person taking them and have different effects on different people. For instance, vetiver oil relieves insomnia for some people, while creating a feeling of refreshment and alertness for others during times of exhaustion. Of course, some oils are known precisely for their activating effects, like energizing tangerine or lemongrass, and should be avoided as a sleep aid.
The best essential oils for sleep fall into two main categories: oils that stave off insomnia by calming the mind and reducing anxiety, and oils that alleviate snoring and sleep apnea by clearing the airways.
Overall, more research is still needed regarding essential oils and sleep. However, the studies done thus far do suggest that using essential oils before bedtime can help alleviate mild sleep problems.
There are many ways to use essential oils for sleep. Some of the most common include:
Topical application of essential oils can be especially beneficial, since the oils will actually permeate your skin due to their transdermal properties. As a result, not only will you smell them through your olfactory nerve, but they’ll also enter your bloodstream more quickly. However, if you have sensitive skin or allergies, you should avoid applying topically altogether, or otherwise diffuse the oil with a carrier oil such as organic coconut oil, grapeseed oil, or olive oil. Children also should avoid topical application, use more diluted amounts than adults, and shouldn’t begin using essential oils until they are at least 6 months old.
You can buy essential oils at pharmacies, health food stores, online, and large retailers.
It’s key to purchase oils that are advertised as “pure” or “100%” essential oils and list the oil’s botanical Latin name. Ones that say “perfume oil” or “fragrance oil” often use synthetic ingredients, so while they smell nice, they don’t provide the same benefits and may even contain other additives more likely to irritate your skin. If possible, look for organic oils with a non-GMO or “Therapeutic grade” label, meaning they don’t have toxins and only use pure chemicals.
Any of the below oils can be used to facilitate sleep and relieve insomnia. You can also find many “sleep oil” aromatherapy products that combine many of these to produce an overall sedating effect.
Chamomile may be the unofficial “official” tea for sleep, but lavender reigns supreme when it comes to essential oils. Multiple studies have been done to assess and reveal the calming effects of lavender aromatherapy.
Lavender calms the nervous system by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature – all processes which take place during the body’s natural transition to sleep. Lavender essential oil alleviates mild insomnia and reduces anxious thoughts by literally changing your brain waves to a more relaxing state. One study focused on ICU patients found it to significantly reduce their anxiety and increase sleep quality. Lavender aromatherapy is so effective at calming anxiety that it’s recommended as a complementary therapy to other treatment options for anxiety and depression in postpartum women.
However, lavender can cause prepubertal gynecomastia in boys and increase estrogen levels so people using it topically on a regularly basis should consult their doctor first.
Valerian root is often taken as a sleep aid, and is a common ingredient of many sleepytime or bedtime herbal teas. The essential oil contains valerenic acid to produce the sedative effects the root is known for. Multiple studies have shown it improves sleep quality.
Although related, clary sage is different than regular sage and better for sleep. One study found clary sage essential oils had antidepressant effects for menopausal women.
There are also multiple forms of marjoram, but the sweet kind is the one most recommended for insomnia.
There are several types of chamomile, but Roman chamomile essential oil is the best for relieving insomnia and anxiety. Research has even shown that the light floral oil can reduce nightmares.
Bergamot is a citrus fruit that got its start in Italian folk medicine. Unlike most citrus oils, which are stimulating, bergamot is calming. Multiple studies have found bergamot essential oil both induces the physiological changes that accompany sleep – like reduced heart rate and blood pressure – as well as reduces the thoughts that keep people up at night, like feelings of stress and anxiety. However, bergamot is photosensitive and makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, so topical applications should be avoided before going outside.
Ylang ylang is another fruity oil that comes from a tropical tree in Southeast Asia. It slows the heart rate and reduces blood pressure, providing an overall calming effect for the nervous system helpful for individuals with sleep problems or depression. One study showed patients taking a combination of ylang ylang, lavender, and bergamot essential oils experience less stress and anxiety.
Woody sandalwood essential oil is a mood balancer. It grounds the person using it, calming the mind so they can relax for sleep. However, sandalwood is one of the most expensive oils in the world, due to the high demand and very low demand.
For individuals who prefer a woody scent, cedarwood essential oil is a more affordable option. It relieves stress and anxiety, by kickstarting serotonin production and elevating your mood. It also has natural sedative properties.
Besides promoting restful sleep, essential oils can also help alleviate symptoms of sleep apnea, chronic snoring, and temporary snoring due to a cold, sinus infection, or allergies.
If a person has allergies or is experiencing nasal congestion from an illness, their airways get blocked up and they start snoring. People with obstructive sleep apnea have consistently blocked airways due to being overweight, deviated septums, enlarged tonsils, or another physical feature that causes their throat muscles to collapse and block their airways.
Both peppermint and eucalyptus essential oils are anti-inflammatory, natural decongestants that can reduce inflammation inside the nostrils. To open up your airways, gently rub a few drops on the bottom or inside part of the nose, or try steam inhalation. Drinking a few sips of olive oil can also moisten and relax the muscle tissues below the palate, allowing air to flow freely.
Thyme is often used to treat respiratory problems. Thyme essential oil can help central sleep apnea, which is caused by a miscommunication between the brain and respiratory system. Thyme essential oil helps keep the respiratory system strong and healthy, and is often used as a natural treatment for the cold. Like lavender, it also has antibacterial properties.
Many parents have found that using essential oils for their children helps them fall asleep faster and reduces bedtime anxiety.
Only using pure essential oils free of additives or synthetic ingredients is especially important when using essential oils to help your baby sleep. Check both the oil and the carrier oil’s lists of ingredients to ensure they don’t contain anything your baby is allergic to, such as peanut oil. Although it can be safe for adults, you should never apply undiluted essential oils directly to your baby’s skin or allow them to ingest the oil.
You should not use essential oils before your child reaches 6 months, and you should always consult your pediatrician first. Before regular use, apply a small dime-sized or smaller amount to your baby’s arm or leg and wait 24 hours to see if there is a reaction. If there is, don’t use the oil.
Essential oils for babies should always be diluted using a carrier oil. The carrier oils help ensure the essential oil doesn’t irritate your baby and is more evenly distributed. Just as adults react differently to different essential oils, so do babies, but on the whole they are more sensitive. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy recommends a dilution ratio of .5 to 2.5 percent, and avoiding some oils overall.
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