Aromatherapy and essential oils for sleep are great for giving us that extra little nudge towards the land of nod. Whether you struggle to sleep or are simply a fan of relaxing in a sleep-inducing bedroom, aromatherapy has a host of benefits. Our sense of smell is much more powerful than we first realise and can affect our mood, reduce stress, and even help balance hormones. This is why essential oils are more than just a placebo. So, if you’re interested in essential oils for use in aromatherapy to help with sleep, keep reading for some great suggestions on how you can make them work for you.
Does aromatherapy work for sleep?
While studies on aromatherapy for sleep are limited, it’s a practise and art that has been used throughout nearly all of human history. From the mountains of China to the sand-dunes of Persia, the pyramids of Egypt to the temples of India, aromatherapy has played a major role in the healing and medicinal approaches of numerous civilisations. Taken from the extracts of certain plants and herbs, essential oils have long been seen as a holistic medicine that can help with plenty of health concerns. And while improving poor sleep is just one of aromatherapy’s uses, it’s certainly one of the most popular.
What do scientific studies have to say about essential oils for sleep:
As mentioned, studies into how aromatherapy affects sleep aren’t wholly conclusive. But that’s not to say that science doesn’t back up the claim that aromatherapy helps sleep. Rather, there are positive signs but there hasn’t yet been enough research for absolute certainty. Digging into the studies that do exist on the matter, we were able to find plenty of evidence for why you should consider aromatherapy and essential oils for sleep.
In a study on sleep quality in the elderly, researchers set out to find out the impact of essential oils on sleep. They compared the existing sleep habits of 19 participants with a period where essential oils and scents were added to their sleep routine. The study found that a number of sleep quality indicators had improved. This included a greater length of uninterrupted sleep and fewer occasions of waking up too early.
“In 19 subjects, normal sleep was observed for a 20-day control period, inhalation aromatherapy was then applied for a 20-day intervention period, and the control and intervention periods were compared. During the intervention period, essential oils were placed nightly on towels around the subjects’ pillows. The measured sleep conditions were sleep latency, total sleep time, sleep efficacy, duration of the longest sustained sleep period, wake time after sleep onset, early morning awakening, total daytime sleep, and the Neuropsychiatric Inventory.”
“These results indicated positive effects of inhalation aromatherapy on symptoms of sleep disturbance in elderly individuals with dementia.”
Another study measured the impact of smells on sleep for those suffering from heart problems. The participants for the study where those who were on a hospital ward, suffering from serious cardiac problems. The reason for using these as a test group was simply because this group are more prone to sleep disorders. That’s for a number of reasons, including: the anxiety of illness, as well as the loss of privacy and night-time noise levels experienced on a hospital ward. The study had similar results to the previous and can therefore be used as reliable evidence that essential oils can help improve sleep. The conclusion stated that:
“Aromatherapy with lavender and peppermint essential oils can improve the sleep quality of cardiac patients. Therefore, use of this non-pharmacological intervention, as an effective and simple approach, is recommended for cardiac patients.”
The study also identified results of similar results from wider research:
“Although there is no study on the effects of inhalation aromatherapy with peppermint essential oil on the sleep quality of cardiac patients, previous studies on other patients have shown its effectiveness in sleep quality (Lisa Blackburn et al., 2017; Lillehei & Halcon, 2014). Peppermint and lavender components seem to have sedative effects (Lisa Blackburn et al., 2017), and their impact on sleep quality has been investigated in various studies.”
Scientific terms and complex language aside, it’s clear that aromatherapy for sleep does have a positive effect. And while research is yet to be completed on the general population, there’s much to be said for the research undertaken so far on aromatherapy and essential oils for sleep.
Related: Do Scents Enhance Your Dreams?
What smell helps you sleep?
So, now we’ve explored whether aromatherapy is scientifically sound or just an old wives’ tale, it’s time to explore the best smells that help us sleep. We’ll kick off with two of the scents mentioned in the studies above. Then, we’ll explore more scents that are widely believed to improve sleep quality.
Lavender is a classic scent in the sleep world. Floral and aromatic, it’s known to not only help us drift off to sleep faster but to improve the quality of our sleep overall. The great thing about lavender is you can incorporate it into your bedtime routine in several ways — as an essential oil, as a warming herbal tea, as a bath oil, or simply by placing a lavender plant in your bedroom! If you’re choosing the latter, ensure the plant gets direct sunlight from a window for at least a couple hours each day and that you keep the soil moist to the touch, but never soaked.
Most popular as a herbal tea, peppermint is also available as an essential oil. And as mentioned earlier, it’s been proven successful as a sleep aid in a number of studies. Whether you choose a peppermint tea before bed or look to essential oils spread across the room via a diffuser is up to you. Whichever you choose, you can rest assured that you’re in safe hands and should nod off to sleep with ease with this sweet, fresh, yet sleep-inducing herb.
Another one that’s great for sleep, the Valerian herb is native to Europe and Asia and has been used in both cultures for centuries as a sleep aid and for healing. Unlike peppermint and lavender, valerian smells incredibly earthy and, some say, rather pungent. It’s likely to be a bit of a marmite herb — you’ll either love it or hate it. But with such history as a therapeutic herb, we’d recommend you at least give it a try!
The first non-herb in our list of essential oils for sleep, Sandalwood oil comes from the roots and wood of the East Indian Sandalwood tree. Its first use can be traced to ancient Indian and Egyptian times, as far back as 3100 BC! It’s a warm, woody scent that is reminiscent of country cottages and log fires, creating a perfect sleepy scent. This is especially great for those who aren’t a fan of floral or perfume-like scents.
Back to the herb garden for this one. Chamomile has long been used as a natural sleep aid. It’s commonly seen on supermarket shelves in tea form, but chamomile scents are available in a range of other forms too. From chamomile candles to essential oils perfect for diffusing, this subtle scent is typically a fresh, herbaceous smell but can have undertones of wood smoke and a sweet apple tinge depending on where the original plant has grown and how it’s been distilled. Regardless of its origins, it’s safe to say that chamomile in all its forms makes a great scent and essential oil for sleep.
Magical and mystical, jasmine has been at the forefront of herbal healing and treatments for centuries. With a history steeped in Persian culture and originating from the mountainous plains of Pakistan, Afghanistan and across the Middle East, jasmine is widely considered the most exotic of herbal scents. In a study by key-note speaker Tim Noonan, this herb is described as:
“a delicate flowering plant with many varieties. Its scent has probably been described in literature with more superlatives than any other single essence. It has been described variously as heavenly smelling, exotic, exquisite, tenacious, sensuously rich, supremely sensual, intense, slightly heady, narcotic, intoxicating, sometimes clawing, warm with oily leafy-green, fruity undertones, illusive, sweet and warm.” With such descriptions, there’s no doubt that this is a scent you should at least try. For those with a more sensitive sense of smell, it may prove too strong. Start off small and don’t make too much of an investment. First, see how it helps.
So, there’s our list of the best essential oils and smells for sleep. Now, we need to work out how’s best to incorporate these scents into your bedtime routine.
Read more: Natural Sleep Remedies From Around The World
How to incorporate herbs, smells and essential oils into your bedtime routine:
As should already be clear, there are numerous ways to include the sleep-inducing properties of plants, trees and herbs into your bedtime routine. At it’s most basic level, you have the following options:
- Herbal teas: Easily picked up from your local supermarket or high street, herbal teas come in a wide range of flavours, from a wide range of plants. It’s worth noting that all herbal teas are sleep-inducing. Some actually kickstart our hearts and are great non-caffeinated substitutes for a morning brew. Stick to the list above or do you research if you’re going to incorporate herbal teas to your sleep routine.
- Essential oils: Essential oils have seen a real rise in prominence in recent years, especially when it comes to sleep. As they’re natural and non-invasive, they’re a great option for those who struggle with sleep but aren’t quite at the stage of speaking to their GP. To use essential oils in your sleep routine, you can either diffuse them, which we’ll come to later, or simply dab a few drops on your wrists or palms and take some deep breaths to draw in their scent and help you relax. At this point, it’s important to note that it’s worth doing an allergy test before you apply any oils to your skin.
- Diffusers: Diffusers come in a wide range of forms. Most common are the classic reed diffusers which simply draw the oil up through a small reed or piece of wood and then spread the smell around the room. But you can also get electronic diffusers which include a small try in which to place your oil which is kicked out into the room until the oil runs out. Whichever you choose, these are a safe option as they don’t pose any risks in terms of fire or similar.
- Candles: Scented candles are one of the most popular aids for relaxation. But don’t confuse this with sleep. Simply, leaving a candle to burn while you’re trying to nod off is dangerous and can result in house fires. If you plan to use scented candles, incorporate them into a yoga or meditation routine rather than your actual sleep routine. Or, place a few in your living room and let their aromatic scents relax you before you make the trip upstairs to the land of nod.
So, there you have it: the science behind aromatherapy for sleep and how to get started. In the meantime, check out our post on the best bedroom plants to help you sleep.