Essential oils have been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments and diseases. Some people doubt the effectiveness, and others worry that aromatherapy is nothing more than a ‘placebo’ science.
However, over the last decade, biomedical scientists have started to explore the clinical efficacy of essential oils for improving sleep. A large-scale literature review published on NBCI concluded that they are an effective intervention for improving sleep quality.
They are extracted from the flowers, roots, leaves, fruit or stem of a plant. As such, they are a truly natural product. Nonetheless, they should be handled with care as they are extremely potent. Referring to clinical evidence, we’ll reveal some of the best essential oils for improving sleep – and discuss how to use them safely.
Studies have shown that they directly improve sleep by promoting a ‘sedative’ effect on the central nervous system. They have therapeutic applications, so can improve sleep indirectly, too.
According to Eastern and Ayurvedic philosophies, medicine should focus on creating equilibrium in the body – rather than trying to treat health concerns in isolation. For example, traditional Chinese medicine is focused on creating a reciprocal relationship between ‘Ying’ and ‘Yang.’
It’s thought that when the body is ‘balanced’ it is at it’s healthiest. Traditionally, a balance has been achieved by nourishing the body with good nutrition, natural herbs, and essential oils.
Aromatherapy may be based on ‘traditional’ ideas, but that hasn’t stopped it from gaining a strong, contemporary following.
Below are just some of the ways that they can indirectly improve sleep:
Some stimulate the nervous system whereas others create a ‘sedative’ response. ‘Sedative’ essential oils can slow reaction times in the muscles, create a feeling of drowsiness, decrease heart rate and lower diastolic and systolic blood pressure.
Ones that produce sedative effects are a tremendous first-line natural treatment for insomnia. If your time is limited or you’re intimated by the breadth of oils on the market, then start by adding a ‘sedative’ essential oil to your bedtime routine.
However, as we’ll explore, sedatives can be used in conjunction with stimulative essential oils to enhance overall wellbeing – which generates a multitude of health benefits (including improved sleep.
‘Stimulative’ essential oils marginally increase heart rate, improve concentration, stimulate the immune system, and ‘lift’ the mood. Some aromatherapists compare the effects of these to the effects of caffeine – but without any of the negative side effects!
Stimulative oils can aid sleep in indirect ways. They achieve this by improving mood, reducing fatigue, relieving aching muscles and reducing the need to rely on stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine or sugar.
According to the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, ‘the way to good health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day.’ Bathing and massaging are both excellent ways to enjoy essential oils – particularly as these activities offer added therapeutic benefits.
For some, a bath or massage is too time-consuming to keep up daily. As such, aromatherapists often encourage their clients to learn multiple ways of using essential oils. This allows clients to select a method most suited to their daily mood and time constraints.
Although some are derived from natural ingredients, they are highly potent. As such, it’s important to use them safely, and in appropriate quantities. People with sensitive skin should be particularly cautious – and always perform a patch test.
Below we’ll explore the many ways to use them and discuss the safety precautions applicable to each method.
Essential oil diffusers are very easy to use, so there’s ample opportunity to experiment with a mixture of essential oils. Diffuser ‘basins’ can be purchased fairly inexpensively. You’ll need to fill them with a mix of essential oil (usually 2 – 5 drops) and water.
The diffuser will use vibrations to break down the oil molecules and disperse them throughout the air. The result is a room ‘fragrance’ that smells more pleasant and natural than conventional room fragrances. Moreover, because no chemicals are involved, essential oils are generally considered to be a very healthy type of room fragrance.
Many diffuser systems require the use of distilled water – rather than tap water – so keep this in mind when ordering the system. To avoid irritation, you should be sure to add the correct amount of essential oil to the diffuser– don’t be tempted to add more when you’re feeling especially tired!
When diffusing, do so in a well-ventilated area. Aromatherapists generally recommend using the diffuser for 30 minutes and then turning it off, to give yourself a break. Finally, make sure pets (especially cats) have the option to leave to room as they can become aggravated by certain oils.
When purchasing a diffuser, be sure to choose one that is powered by vibrations rather than by heat. Diffusers powered by heat can degrade the quality of essential oils so many of the therapeutic benefits will be lost.
An aromatherapy massage is a great way of encouraging sleep. Peppermint, Lavender and Clary Sage oil are excellent for relieving sore muscles and promoting relaxation in the joints. If you’re looking for a quick and easy way of applying essential oils to the skin, consider adding a few drops to your regular moisturizer.
Alternatively, pre-mixed aromatherapy oils can be purchased. These include one or more essential oils diluted in a carrier oil such as Jojoba oil or Sweet Almond old. These massage oils can be expensive, but, if stored properly, have a long shelf life.
For the more adventurous, there’s the option to blend your own massage oil. In the long run, blending your own massage oils works out cheaper, and it gives you the opportunity to experiment with unique blends.
To blend your own aromatherapy massage oil:
This is a general rule, and it’s always best to check the packaging for any specific requirements. Some of the best carrier oils include Jojoba, Avocado, Coconut and Sweet Almond, as they help keep the skin soft and smooth. There are also some cheaper alternatives such as cold-pressed Vegetable or Rapeseed oil.
Where possible, it’s recommended to prepare the mixture directly before use. However, this is not always practical, and many essential-oil enthusiasts would say that its fine to make ‘batches’ of aromatherapy oil. It’s advisable to put the mixture in a dark glass bottle and store it somewhere cool to stop sunlight spoiling the oils.
Once you’ve prepared your oil blend, massage it into any sore muscles or joints. If you haven’t got time to massage the skin, simply spread the massage oil onto the skin and leave it to absorb. For it to be fully absorbed, it should be left on the skin for at least 20 minutes!
Most aromatherapists warn you should never apply undiluted oils directly to the skin as this can cause irritation and burning. For children under five, dilution should be altered to 1-2 drops of essential oil per tablespoon of carrier oil.
Also, Anise, Peppermint, and Rosemary are not considered suitable for children. As such, you should always take professional advice from an aromatherapist before applying them (even diluted) to your child’s skin.
Some essential oils such as Bergamot, Grapefruit and Bitter Orange (cold pressed) are phototoxic. This means that they increase skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. If you’ve applied a ‘phototoxic’ oil to your skin (even when diluted), you shouldn’t expose your skin to the sun for at least 12 hours afterward. Again, to avoid phototoxicity, apply essential oils to the soles of the feet only, as it’s easy to keep the soles of the feet out of direct sunlight.
Bergamot, a ‘sedative’ essential oil used to aid sleep is phototoxic, so this is something you should be aware of if you live in a hot sunny climate.
They can transform a bath from dull to indulgent. Lavender and Vetiver are popular choices for bath time and can be particularly helpful for encouraging relaxation.
Lavender and Vetiver are ‘sedative’ essential oils so they may lower blood pressure, make eyelids feel heavy and slow down reaction times. It’s important not inhale or apply significant amounts of ‘sedative’ essential oils before driving, as these may interfere with concentration.
Adding essential oils directly to the bath water is not a good idea as the oil will not diffuse effectively. Furthermore, it can ‘stick’ to the skin – causing irritation.
Consider the following solutions:
An aromatherapy bath is the perfect one-in-a-while treat to promote sleep and sustain wellbeing.
Adding essential oils to bedding is an easy way of incorporating them into your lifestyle. Adding a couple of drops of lavender to an unscented, eco-friendly fabric conditioner will encourage the bedding to absorb the scent.
This calming scent should remain on your bedding for days or even weeks. If you iron your bedding or nightwear, consider adding a few drops of vanilla or chamomile to the ironing water. This sweet, subtle scent will linger on your bedding, aiding rest and relaxation.
In a small number of cases, people with very sensitive skin are unable to tolerate any essential oils. In this case, it’s possible to use plants in other ways to aid sleep. Many people find that dried lavender placed in bags until the pillow significantly improves the quality of their sleep.
It’s thought that inhaling essential oils is more effective for absorption than applying them topically to the skin. Not only that, inhaling them is generally less risky than applying them to the skin.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to inhale essential oils, simply keep a bottle by your bedside and inhale straight from the container. You can also purchase aromatherapy inhalers or necklace pendants to decant your oil into. These are good for protecting the life of your oils because continually opening and closing bottles can degrade their quality.
As mentioned above, room diffusers also enable you to inhale essential oils. Before purchasing a diffuser, many people opt to try steam inhalation. Add a few drops of essential oil to a bowl of hot water and place your head over the top – covering your head with a towel.
While steam inhalation is recommended for clearing congestion, it can also be useful for encouraging sleep and improving skin health. Cedarwood and Bergamot are both known for their sedative and skin-clearing properties, so combining these in a facial steam can yield excellent results.
When steaming your face, always close your eyes to avoid irritation. Also, don’t spend longer than 10 minutes without taking a break as this could cause you to become dehydrated and light-headed. Finally, don’t put your face too cold to the water, as you’ll risk scalding the skin.
A hot or cold compress is great for alleviating pain caused by injury or illness. Adding some oils can enhance this process.
Peppermint oil, for example, has antispasmodic effects which means that it disrupts painful muscle contractions and alleviates the stomach spasms inherent to irritable bowel syndrome. Studies have shown that Frankincense also works in the same way. Adding a few drops to a compress and ‘treating’ the area can help alleviate pain and prevent sleep disruption.
As with any topical applications of essential oils, be careful not to use more than the recommended amount. If you experience any skin irritation, you should stop using the oil immediately. Refrain from keeping the compress on all night as this might lead to a skin irritation.
Long lists of essential oils and multiple methods for using them can be intimidating and confusing for those who are new to aromatherapy. Below, we’ll discuss six of the most effective sleep treatments. These are ideal for anyone wanting to ‘try out’ aromatherapy.
Lavender essential oil (Lavandula angustifolia) can aid sleep in several ways. In her ‘Complete Guide to Aromatherapy,’ Battaglia argues that if you were going to a desert island and could choose one essential oil to take– Lavender oil should be top of your list!
A clinical study published on Taylor and Francis Online found that using Lavender oil before bed improves both deep and slow-wave sleep. Lavender oil can help people drop-off to sleep faster and stay asleep for longer. Before this study, it had long been thought that Lavender affected women to a greater degree than men. However, this study concluded that lavender improves sleep in both males and females.
When applying Lavender oil for the first time, it’s a good idea to dilute it in a carrier oil and apply it to your heels – where the skin is firm and strong. It’s common to apply perfumes or oils to the pulse points (i.e., wrists and behind the ears).
Contrary to popular belief, applying essential oils to the pulse points is not necessary for absorption. In fact, applying essential oils to the feet amplifies absorption because the pores on the feet are larger. Also, there are no sebaceous glands in the feet, so sebum will not obstruct absorption.
Finally, applying oils to the feet is satisfying and therapeutic; it encourages you to spend time on an often-neglected area of the body. This, in itself, promotes relaxation and wellbeing.
Eucalyptus Oil (Eucalyptus globulus Labill) is used to treat respiratory problems, such as bronchitis, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Snoring is often aggravated by respiratory conditions such as asthma or congestion of the airways. As such, inhaling Eucalyptus Oil is likely to improve respiratory function and ease snoring.
If you’re looking to use essential oils to improve snoring, inhaling them is the best option. The process of inhalation will help clear any congestion in the nasal passage. Some people choose to keep an essential oil inhaler close to their bed to use periodically throughout the night.
If you can’t get your hands on Eucalyptus Oil, consider using Thyme, Peppermint, Rosemary -or any other ‘decongestant’ essential oil. There’s limited clinical evidence in support of these oils, but as they’re ‘decongestants’ – they may help to relieve snoring in the same way.
Studies have shown that many oils have an anxiolytic effect on the body, that is – they reduce anxiety. Around 7 out of 10 cases of insomnia are thought to be psychosomatic. As such, it’s important to try and tackle common psychological causes of sleeplessness, such as anxiety
According to a review by OMICS online, essential oils from the citrus family are most effective at reducing anxiety. Orange (Citrus sinensis), bergamot (Citrus aurantium) and lemon (Citrus limon) have been shown to reduce levels of anxiety and restlessness and increase social interactions.
It’s not fully understood how Citrus oils can reduce anxiety for sleep. Some studies have suggested that limonene – the key chemical component of Citrus oils – reduces levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in the body. Other studies have noted the ‘psychoactive’ qualities of limonene and have suggested it may interact with serotonin in the brain (in a similar way to antidepressant drugs).
If you live in a sunny climate, it’s advisable to diffuse citrus oils rather than apply them topically. Citrus oils are extremely phototoxic, so if you expose your skin to sunlight for up to 12 hours after applying the oil, you risk severe sun damage.
Joint pain is known to be a leading cause of insomnia, particularly in the older generation. Many people are aware of the benefits of massage for improving body pain. However, using a targeted essential oil while massaging can dramatically enhance pain relief.
Several essential oils have the potential to improve aches and pains in the muscles and joints. It’s advisable to choose an oil with ‘antispasmodic’ and ‘anti-inflammatory’ properties. Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis Linn.) oil has both of these qualities!
In the ‘Encyclopedia of Essential Oils’ Lawless states that a chamomile oil rub can dramatically improve the symptoms of joint conditions, such as Rheumatoid Arthritis. It can also improve general aches and pains caused by overexertion and injury. Because Chamomile oil is antispasmodic, it can also relieve spasms associated with menstrual disorders and irritable bowel syndrome.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita Linn.) is another oil valued for its antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory qualities. However, because chamomile is also a ‘sedative’ essential oil, it’s likely to be the better choice for an evening massage.
Cedarwood (Cedrus Atlantica) and Vanilla (Vanilla Planifolia) are both ‘sedative’ oils so taking a bath with these oils will encourage the body’s nervous system to ‘wind down.’
As mentioned, it’s best not to drop essential oils directly into the bath as the oils won’t disperse effectively. Instead, mix:
Add this mixture to your bath when the tap is running to encourage diffusion – and relax!
Mint oils have stimulating rather than sedative effects, so many people don’t consider them to be ‘sleep enhancing’ essential oils. However, this is short-sighted because ‘stimulating’ oils can improve overall wellbeing and help break the cycle of fatigue.
As mentioned, ‘stimulating’ oils excite the brain in a similar way to caffeine – but they do not cause periods of fatigue in the same way. To alleviate fatigue and increase energy levels, dilute Peppermint oil (Mentha piperita Linn) with a carrier oil and apply this soon after waking. This is a good option if you’re finding that you’re always feeling tired in the morning.
Apply this mixture topically to the back of the ears or the soles of the feet. When repeated daily this should provide you with a psychological ‘boost’ comparable to a cup of morning coffee. In time, this may reduce your reliance on stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and sugar.
According to a clinical review in Science Direct, Peppermint oil can improve mood, increase concentration and decrease fatigue. This might be because it reduces the need for other stimulants, or it might be due to the unique psychoactive qualities of Peppermint oil.
Alternatively, because Peppermint oil gives people a sense of ‘get-up-and-go’ it’s is likely to have a positive impact on a whole range of physical and psychological outcomes. In turn, this will improve fatigue and encourage positive sleeping habits.
Some people find Peppermint oil a little intrusive or unpleasant. If this is the case, there’s a suite of ‘stimulating’ oils available – which may help to improve overall energy levels. Studies have shown that Ylang Ylang when applied topically, can improve mood, increase the desire for social contact, and dampen the effects of depression.
Many people are aware of the benefits of Lavender for improving sleep quality. However, as demonstrated here, some lesser-known essential oils have incredible potential for improving sleep too. Eucalyptus, Cedarwood, Vanilla, Chamomile, Citrus, and Mint are all excellent oils to invest in. They’ll improve sleep and also encourage overall health and wellbeing.
Aromatherapists treat each case holistically, so they’ll design a unique blend of essential oils to meet the client’s concerns. Indeed, once you’ve learned the basics of aromatherapy, you’ll be able to design and blend your own essential oil remedies to improve sleep.
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