Essential oils are used a number of ways to help promote a night of restful sleep.
Experts are discovering that potent, plant-based scents may have a place in the science of healing and health — including sleep.
Sleep deficiency is a common public health problem in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, sleep deficiency not only causes daytime sluggishness, but it is also linked to many chronic health problems, including heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity and depression (1).
Early evidence shows that essential oils can help individuals relax, mentally and physically, and make it easier to fall asleep and sleep more soundly.
While lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the most studied essential oil for sleep, there are other oils that may be helpful sleep aids, including Roman chamomile, jasmine absolute, Mandarin, valerian, rose and sweet orange.
Experts stress, however, that while results appear promising, more scientifically rigorous studies and larger clinical trials are needed to investigate the true effects of essential oils on sleep.
1. Essential oils can improve sleep quality. A 2017 study compared the effectiveness of aromatherapy and acupressure massage on the sleep quality and quality of life in career women. The study lasted four weeks and 133 women (24-55 years) were randomly assigned to placebo, lavender essential oil, an essential oil blend and acupressure massage groups.
At the end of the trial, the blended essential oil exhibited greater dual benefits on improving both quality of life and sleep quality compared with the interventions of lavender essential oil and acupressure massage in career women (2).
2. Essential oils may help treat insomnia. Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that can make it difficult fall asleep, stay asleep, or cause early waking and the inability to get back to sleep. While many adults experience short-term insomnia (usually due to stress or a traumatic event) some experience long-term insomnia, lasting a month or more.
In one animal study, repeated application of lavender (diluted in olive oil) in mice demonstrated a more rapid sleep onset with longer duration of sleep (3).
In a 2019 study, oral intake of lemon verbena significantly improved mean scores of sleep quality and its four components including sleep latency, habitual sleep efficiency, daytime dysfunction and subjective sleep quality after 4 weeks of treatment when compared with the placebo group (4).
3. Essential oils can relieve stress and anxiety — obstacles to restful sleep. Research indicates that aromatherapy using essential oils can help to relieve stress and anxiety symptoms, which may indirectly help improve sleep.
Studies in laboratory animals and humans have demonstrated that inhalation of such essential oils as lemon and lavender oil can produce anxiety-reducing effects in participants exposed to stress by modulating the central nervous system.
In a 2015 study, researchers evaluating the effects of aromatherapy in relieving symptoms related to job stress among nurses, were met with promising results.
Aromatherapy was shown to be effective in the reduction of the number of stress symptoms for 3 or 4 days. The stress symptoms of the experimental group decreased from a score of 6.1 to 2.8 after aromatherapy was carried out. In contrast, the stress symptoms in the control group increased from 5.6 to 5.8 (5).
In another study, an oral lavender oil preparation (80 mg/day) showed a significant benefit on quality and duration of sleep and improved general mental and physical health without causing any unwanted sedative or other side effects (6).
A word of caution: The practice of taking some essential oils internally is controversial since safety research is limited. In addition, only a few specific essential oils are suitable for oral administration; many essential oils are considered toxic when swallowed.
4. Essential oils can improve depressive symptoms for better sleep. According to Psychology Today, the results of several studies show that aromatherapy can help improve depression (7). It is important to note that essential oils are not a cure for depression, but are a drug-free option that may help relieve some of symptoms and help manage the condition.
One study found aromatherapy improved both depression and anxiety in a group of postpartum women.
A 2017 systemic review of the effectiveness of aromatherapy for depressive symptoms, concluded that aromatherapy showed potential to be used as an effective therapeutic option for the relief of depressive symptoms.
Aromatherapy massage in particular proved to be more efficacious than inhalation aromatherapy to alleviate depressive symptoms. However, inhalation aromatherapy also showed some benefit (8).
5. Essential oils may increase the amount of slow- or deep-wave sleep. Stage 3 or slow-wave sleep is the phase of sleep that allows the body to direct its resources to regenerating tissues, building bones and muscle, recharging energy stores and strengthening the immune system (9).
A 2005 study, assessing how lavender essential oil affected 31 young, healthy sleepers, found that lavender increased the amount of slow- or deep-wave sleep in participants. All participants reported feeling “higher vigor” the next morning (10).
6. Essential oils may improve sleep in hospitalized patients. Sleep deprivation is a common problem many patients experience during their hospital stay. Sleeping pills are commonly prescribed as a sleep aid.
An increasing number of health caregivers are turning to complementary medicine to treat their patients’ sleep disorders due to its effectiveness and safety.
To test the efficacy of aromatherapy in improving sleep quality in a hospital setting, a clinical trial on 64 cardiac patients (male and female) hospitalized in the critical care unit was performed in 2010.
The intervention included 9 hours of aromatherapy with lavender oil for three nights for the experiment group, while the controls received no intervention.
Data analysis showed that quality of sleep in patients was significantly improved after aromatherapy with lavender oil (11).
7. Essential oils can improve sleep quality and reduce pre-surgery anxiety. It is common for patients to experience some anxiety prior to having surgery, especially in the days before a scheduled surgery, which can lead to sleepless nights.
The results of a 2018 study, published in the Complementary Therapies in Medicine, found that aromatherapy massage with lavender oil increased the sleep quality and reduced the level of anxiety in patients with colorectal surgery in the preoperative period (12).
8. Essential oils may treat snoring. Although evidence is lacking in this area, one preliminary clinical trial showed that a special blend of essential oils can effectively reduce snoring in some people.
Eighty-five adult snorers were randomly chosen to receive a dose of essential oil gargle, spray or placebo for 14 days. Some of the essential oils used in the spray included: peppermint, lemon, clove, pine and sage.
Results revealed that 82 percent of patients using the spray had a reduction in snoring (as reported by their sleeping partner) compared to 71 percent using the gargle had a reduction. Forty-four percent of placebo users noted a reduction in snoring (13).
It is not clear why or how these oils work to reduce snoring.
It is important to note that this trial was sponsored by the makers of one of the essential oil throat sprays used to treat snoring.
9. Essential oils may help sleep disorders in cancer patients. Studies show that when sleep disorders in cancer patients are not regularly monitored or treated, it can lead to the worsening of many of the patient’s problems, such as fatigue, anxiety and depression.
The results of an Iranian clinical trial, published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, found that aromatherapy — specifically with Rosa damascena essential oil — has a beneficial effect on improving sleep quality in patients fighting cancer (14).
The results of a 2018 comparative study found that patients with different types of cancer receiving chemotherapy reported significant reduction in anxiety and improvement in sleep quality following inhalation of lavender oil (15).
When using essential oils there are two things to remember: less is more and always dilute them with a carrier oil before applying to the skin.
Many people think essential oils are harmless because they are natural and have been used for a long time. In some cases, that is simply not true.
1. Essential oils can cause skin irritation and rashes. The reaction will be represented on the skin as a red, itchy rash that can be very uncomfortable. It is caused by direct contact with an ingredient in the essential oil or an allergic reaction to it.
2. Essential oils can cause severe burns. Certain essential oils (namely, citrus oils, such as bergamot, lemon, lime, orange and angelica) are phototoxic and can cause severe burns if there is exposure to natural sunlight following skin applications.
If you know you will be in the sun, avoid them in products that are designed to stay on the skin, like body lotion0s or creams.
3. Essential oils can react with prescription drugs and supplements and they can cause adverse reactions when used in excess.
As with any supplements, it is recommended to talk to your doctor about any essential oils you use, especially if you are on medications or have preexisting conditions.
4. Essential oils can cause prepubertal gynecomastia. Regular exposure to lavender has been linked to abnormal breast growth in young boys — called prepubertal gynecomastia.
The results of study presented at the Endocrine Society annual meeting in March 2018 revealed that key chemicals in these common plant-derived oils act as endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Essential oils can be used a number of ways to help promote a night of restful sleep, these include:
Add oil to a bath: add a few drops of essential oil to warm bathwater to take advantage of the sleep-promoting effects of a warm soak, 90 minutes to one hour before bedtime.
Use in a diffuser: add 2-3 drops of these essential oils to a diffuser. This will release the stress-relieving scent into your bedroom, to help create a relaxing environment.
Scent bedding: an alternative to using a diffuser is adding a few drops of essential oil to your pillowcase shortly before bedtime. This allows the relaxing scent to linger throughout your sleeping hours.
You can also moisten a cotton ball with a relaxing essential oil, then placing it near your pillow where it can be inhaled.
Apply to pulse points: apply soothing essential oil to pulse and pressure points, such as the wrists, temples or behind the ears.
Before applying an essential oil topically, be sure to dilute it with a carrier oil to prevent irritation. Common carrier oils include coconut, jojoba, and extra virgin olive oils. As a general rule of thumb, you should use 1 teaspoon of carrier oil for every 1 drop of essential oil.
Massage areas of the body: Massage your neck, shoulders and any other areas with a relaxing essential oil blend.
What is aromatherapy? Aromatherapy is the practice of using aromatic essential oils extracted from plants to improve the health of the body, mind and spirit.
Although scientific evidence backing its medical effectiveness is lacking, it remains a popular complementary therapy for helping with certain health conditions.
What are essential oils? Essential oils are any plant-based, volatile oil that contains a mixture of chemical compounds and have an aroma characteristic of the plant.
Essential oils are extracted naturally, either by steaming or crushing various parts of the plant and are often made from tree bark, roots, flowers, leaves and herbs.
They have been used for thousands of years for the treatment of various ailments.
What essential oils are good for sleep? Lavender (Lavandula angusifolia) is the most studied essential oil for sleep and seems to be widely helpful for many people. A few others that may be helpful for sleep include Roman chamomile, Jasmine absolute, Mandarin and valerian.
How do you use essential oils for sleep? Essential oils can be applied to the skin, inhaled or diffused; the method selected comes down to personal preference.
Some methods include: Using an essential oil diffuser to disperse essential oils as a fine vapor to circulate the oils throughout the room; adding one to two drops of lavender on a pillow case or adding a drop of essential oil on a tissue or cotton ball and placing it near the head where it can be inhaled.
Lavender baths before bedtime have also been found to be helpful, as well as massaging diluted essential oils into the skin.
Where do you apply essential oils for better sleep?
Dab a little on pulse points before bed or rub a bit between your palms and inhale with a few deep breaths to feel calm and relaxed.
A few drops can also be diluted with a carrier oil and rubbed on temples, back of neck or bottom of feet.
How long should I diffuse essential oils for sleep? Experts typically find that less is more when it comes to using essential oils, even when using them in a diffuser. Limiting your exposure to 15 minutes to one hour has been shown to be effective.
Prolonged exposure can cause headaches, vertigo or nausea (16).
A study performed on 100 spa workers in Taiwan found that while exposure to essential oils for between 15 minutes to an hour led to relaxation in the spa workers observed, exposure that lasted more than an hour, resulted in an rise in blood pressure and heart rate (17).
What essential oils are best for helping children sleep? German chamomile and Roman chamomile as well as lavender are gentle essential oils that can be beneficial for babies who have trouble sleeping.
As a bonus, one study found that an abdominal massage using lavender oil to be effective in reducing the symptoms of colic — frequent, prolonged and intense crying or fussiness in a healthy infant (18).
Parents should consult with their child’s pediatrician for the proper use. According to the National Association of for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) infants, toddlers and young children are more sensitive to the potency of essential oils and safe dilutions generally range from 0.5 to 2.5 percent depending on the condition (19).
How do essential oils work for sleep in the brain? Inhaling essential oils stimulates the olfactory system, the part of the brain connected to smell, including the nose and the brain.
Molecules that enter the nose or mouth pass to the lungs, and from there, to other parts of the body.
As the molecules reach the brain, they affect the limbic system, which is linked to the emotions, the heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress and hormone balance. In this way, essential oils can have a subtle, yet holistic effect on the body.
Studies also have shown that certain herbs can intervene in the stress response by keeping cortisol levels in check and restoring calm to the nervous system, which in turn, translates into getting a good night of sleep.
What essential oils are best for snoring? In one preliminary trial, an essential oil throat spray containing a blend of oils — including peppermint, lemon, clove, pine and sage — showed some positive results.
These results, however, have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA.
Are essential oils safe? They are generally safe when used properly. Risks vary depending on several factors, including how the oils are used, whether or not they are properly diluted and personal body chemistry.
Avoid the use of undiluted essential oils on the skin, unless otherwise indicated. Applying undiluted essential oils can cause severe burns to the skin.
Stay out of the sun for at least 24 hours after treatment if photosensitizing essential oils were applied to the skin.
Do not use essential oils internally unless directed by a qualified practitioner.
As with any new product, you should do a skin patch test first and discontinue use if any skin reactions or allergies occur.
What are carrier oils? Essential oils are highly concentrated and should never be applied directly to the skin. Doing so can cause troublesome skin irritations, burns and other skin reactions.
Carrier oils are oils with little to no scent that are used to dilute essential oils prior to application. Diluting oils helps them become less irritating.
Examples of carrier oils include: jojoba oil, olive oil, coconut oil, grapeseed oil and avocado oil.
How do you dilute essential oils? As a general rule of thumb, you should use 1 teaspoon of carrier oil for every 1 drop of essential oil.
How do you pick essential oils for sleep? Look for pure, authentic, and genuine essential oils that are purchased from a reputable supplier.
It is important to do your research and to carefully read labels, especially the list of ingredients. Is it a concentrate? Is it diluted? Look for high quality options that are free of additives and solvents.
It is also important to learn whether or not the manufacturer regularly tests oils for purity and protects them from oxidation, which can change their composition and make them irritating to the skin.
Keep in mind that essential oils are also not regulated by the FDA for medical treatment.
Where can essential oils for the sleep be bought? Essential oils are available at health food and natural food stores, vitamin shops and other stores.
Medical experts warn, however, that not all essential oil companies test their oils for quality. Only purchase essential oils from reputable manufacturers.
Where can carrier oils be bought? They can be bought at health food and natural food stores and vitamin shops.
How long do essential oils last? This varies, depending on the essential oil, temperature they are stored and their exposure to light and oxygen. In general, essential oils last 2 to 3 years.
To recognize if oils have broken down, look for changes in color, scent and appearance.
Experts are discovering that essential oils may play a role in helping individuals get a night of restful sleep.
Lavender oil is the most researched and has been shown to be the most effective. Essential oils can be used in a diffuser, inhaled, applied to pulse points or massaged into the skin.
While most essential oil aromatherapies have not yet been rigorously scientifically studied, preliminary research shows that certain essential oils may help promote relaxation and, in turn, encourage quality sleep.
Research is underway to learn how essential oils may also improve sleep in hospitalized patients, help sleep disorders in cancer patients and possibly treat snoring.