Essential oils for sleep: do they really work?

Here are some  of the best essential oils for sleep and relaxation and the scientific reasons why they are so good at promoting sleep.

essential oils for sleep and relaxation

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are versatile natural compounds, usually found in the form of a concentrated liquid. As well as being used in perfumes, soaps and other cosmetic products, essential oils are popular for their natural healing and therapeutic properties, with a long list of uses including inflammation relief and of course, inducing a sweet slumber.

The word essential comes from the fact that the oil is said to contain the ‘essence’ of the plant’s fragrance. Essential oils are used in aromatherapy, a form of alternative medicine whereby healing effects are ascribed to the fragrant compounds found in essential oils and other natural plant extracts.

Although research is still limited, recent studies have shown promising results that aromatherapy may be an effective treatment for a range of sleep disturbances.

Using essential oils for sleep and relaxation may be something you’re unfamiliar with or unsure about but these pleasant and aromatic oils have been used for centuries as a natural sleep aid, to help babies sleep, to ease anxiety and insomnia, and even to relieve the effects of sleep apnea.

This article will give you the information you need to put your mind at ease and give you some solid answers.

Essential oils for sleep and relaxation

Sleep is a necessary activity for not only our productivity, but our health as well, but sometimes falling asleep or getting some quality rest is easier said than done. This is why many people are seeking solutions to help them get more and better sleep at night, and are constantly looking for alternatives to prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids.

Several essential oils have received increased attention over the last twenty years as natural sleep aids with little to no side effects, and many people swear by them, but what is the truth?

Do essential oils actually work, or is it just a bunch of smoke and mirrors?

What does research say about sleep and essential oils?

There have been countless studies on the use of aromatherapy for sleep, and many of them show signs that essential oils do, in fact, help people sleep better.

Take, for instance, this study published in 2013 in PubMed. It looked at the use of essential oils among ICU patients. This particular study showed a significant improvement in patients’ anxiety and sleep quality compared to those receiving conventional nursing intervention.

Then there’s this 2005 study from The Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research. This particular study looked at men and women ages 18-30 that were otherwise healthy. The results were an increase in deep and slow-wave sleep, and reduced time to actually fall asleep.

These are just two of the many studies that show the effectiveness of essential oils for better sleep.

How and why do essential oils work?

The olfactory system, or your nose, has the ability to trigger both your autonomic nervous system and your parasympathetic nervous system. These systems have incredible influence on your fight-or-flight responses (autonomic nervous system) as well as relaxation (parasympathetic nervous system).

Essential oils have the ability to trigger these systems, either waking you up or inducing relaxation. How this happens is because of small holes in the skull that connect to your brain, allowing nerves to send signals rapidly to the limbic system and amygdala.

That said, with long list of oils available, which one is the best to help promote sleep?

What are the best essential oils for promoting sleep?

1. Lavender

Lavender is by far the most widely studied and used essential oil for promoting relaxation and sleep, though there are many other oils that may help as well.

The great thing about lavender as a sleep aid is that it is backed by both personal testimonies and professional studies. Many individuals have lauded the oil’s ability to induce restful sleep and there’s no shortage of published studies to support these claims. It has also been shown to have a calming effect, helping to reduce anxiety and easing tension.

2. Roman Chamomile

Roman Chamomile is another well reputed essential oil for sleep and anxiety. Its calming, soothing properties work well on most people, both young and old, to bring a calm state that usually precedes a beautiful slumber.

3. Marjoram

If it is muscle pain, tension, or stomach ache that is keeping you awake, marjoram may be your solution. It’s known for the medicinal benefits (as well as for its use in recipes) that can it can bring by influencing the physiological response your body has to pain.

4. Cedarwood

Cedarwood has the ability to promote the release of serotonin. Not only will this neurotransmitter bring on a feeling of well-being, but it will also be converted into melatonin in the brain. Melatonin is a hormone that helps to regulate sleep and a deficiency of melatonin can lead to restlessness.

5. Sandalwood

The benefits of sandalwood create a large demand for its oil. Because of the inner harmony that it can invoke, it’s been used in religious celebrations and healing for centuries. If you’re feeling restless for reasons unknown, find peace with sandalwood.

6. Valerian

Often used in place of pharmaceutical sleep aids, valerian root has long been a staple sedative. Using this oil can actually increase the levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in your brain. GABA calms your central nervous system which will make your body ready to rest.

7. Bergamot

Bergamot comes from a hybrid citrus fruit. It has been shown to be one of the top solutions for helping to reduce anxiety and works great as a natural sedative. It also helps relax racing and restless thoughts that may plague you and keep you awake.

How to use essential oils to help promote sleep

Methods of use include inhaling the aroma directly from a bottle, or more frequently by adding the oils to a diffuser. While some people like to diffuse oils throughout the night, simply diffusing it for about 30 minutes before you retire works just as well, with additional diffusion not providing any extra benefit.

There are also a few who like to spray a mist including the essential oils on their linens.

Other lifestyle factors to consider

Essential oils are not the cure-all. There are many environmental and lifestyle factors that may also contribute to helping improve your sleep quality. Here are some you may want to consider:

  • Try reducing the amount of caffeine you take in, and keep it to first thing in the morning.
  • Reduce the amount of screen time, of any form, before bed. If possible, try not to have any screen time for about 20 minutes prior to when you want to go to sleep.
  • Reduce stress through exercise and meditation. Continued stress releases additional cortisol in your body, which triggers your fight-or-flight response, and is counterproductive to sleep.
  • Be sure that you do not exercise right before bed. It may seem counterintuitive because you’re thinking exercising will make you tired and ready to sleep, but the endorphins released may actually keep you awake longer.
  • Avoid large meals at least two hours before bed. A light snack 45 minutes before should be fine.
  • Nap early in the day or don’t nap at all.

About the author

Trysh Sutton is a wife, mother, strategic leader and teacher. She runs a website called Pure Path Essential Oils, which is a naturopathic wellness site that promotes healthy living and healing through the use of essential oils and sustainable living.

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