Have you ever lit a candle to help you relax – so the pleasant scent can let you to drift into a restful sleep?
Have you ever made yourself a cup of chamomile tea for its mild, natural sedative effects?
Have you tried other natural sleep aids like melatonin or taken a valerian root supplement to overcome insomnia, just so you can close your eyes and get a good night’s rest?
If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, the ability of essential oils (EOs) to help with sleep issues shouldn’t be surprising. Many of the oils best able to help you get a good night’s sleep are derived from the same plants that are commonly suggested by naturopaths, aromatherapists – and the Internet – for insomnia.
It’s not just because of the lovely aromas which will provide a calming effect, though. EOs have other physical properties which can trigger a number of beneficial physiological reactions in the body.
How does that all work? And which essential oils can contribute to better sleep?
Let’s get some answers. We assume you won’t be dozing off before our discussion is finished.
Essential Oils: The Basics
You probably have a general idea of what essential oils are. They’re really just natural compounds which have been extracted from plants. In most cases, they contain the plant’s “essence” – in other words, its signature aroma and taste.
EOs can be extracted from a plant’s parts with several different methods; the most common are by steaming the parts and distilling the extracted liquid, or by mechanically pressing the plant material to squeeze out its oil. Solvents are sometimes used to help with extraction, if the plants are very delicate.
It might seem that essential oils are simply fragrant liquids, but they’re much more than that. EOs contain a number of substances with distinct chemical properties, many of which contribute the medicinal benefits essential oils are known for.
There are several ways to use essential oils, not all of them good. You’ll see some producers pushing their EOs as food or beverage additives, but almost all medical experts caution against that. Essential oils have the potential to be allergens, and their effects can be magnified when taken internally. Even worse, some may actually be poisonous when swallowed.
Essential oils are frequently mixed with health and wellness products ranging from creams to roll-ons, from bath bombs to perfumes. That makes their administration easy. Unfortunately, the mixtures seldom provide the same medical or wellness benefits as essential oils administered more directly. EO-infused creams and serums are a better choice when you simply want a health or beauty product that smells terrific.
The two choices that work best are topical administration (which includes the option of therapeutic massage), and inhalation via aromatherapy.
Applying EOs to the skin can work wonders when the goal is easing pain, but they can still provide some benefit when the goal is more “internal” than “external.” Be aware, though, that essential oils should always be diluted before they’re rubbed into the skin, since many undiluted EOs can cause side effects like irritation or burns. A few drops of oil mixed with a carrier oil like coconut oil, sweet almond oil or olive oil will do the trick.
Finally, there’s aromatherapy, the most popular way to use essential oils. The scent can be inhaled from a hand-held device like an inhaler or a piece of jewelry (like a necklace charm) that holds a few drops of the oil.
The most-commonly used approach, however, is to put essential oil into a device called a diffuser, which disperses the EO molecules throughout an indoor space. That allows everyone in the area to enjoy the oil’s benefits – as long as none of them are allergic or sensitive to it.
So that’s how you use essential oils. Why would they help you get a good night’s rest?
How Essential Oils Work to Regulate Sleep
When you inhale the scents of essential oils, they stimulate the nerves in the nose (which are called the olfactory nerves). They then send electrical signals through the nervous system to the brain’s limbic system, the area of the brain that controls emotions. Emotions unquestionably play a role in whether you feel sleepy or wide awake, but the limbic system does much more. It is also responsible for triggering the release of hormones like dopamine (the “feel good” hormone) and serotonin.
Dopamine is responsible for a number of important health and wellness functions; among them are controlling movement and regulating blood pressure and heart rate. And the pleasurable feelings that dopamine can produce may certainly make it easier to sleep. What’s more important here, though, is that dopamine also regulates humans’ sleep-wake cycle.
Similarly, serotonin has an important role in functions like digestion, internal communication, and mood; the latter can obviously play a role in whether falling asleep is easy or hard. But like dopamine, serotonin is also crucial in controlling the sleep-wake cycle.
You probably know that some essential oil scents are more soothing than others, but there’s science involved there as well. Research has found that many EOs provide an anxiolytic effect, meaning they can treat or prevent anxiety disorders in the same way that medications like Xanax do. How does that happen? Among their other effects, essential oils can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
And studies on the effects of essential oils like lavender take the theoretical into the real world, finding that they can be an effective method for the treatment of anxiety and depressive disorders.
There’s even more. Lavender and a number of other essential oils contain substances like linalool, which has been shown to produce a sedative effect when the EO’s scent is inhaled. A sedative effect is good when you’re trying to sleep – right? We thought so.
One caution: lots of the essential oils you’ll find at natural foods stores or on Amazon can provide a wealth of health benefits, thanks to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Not all, however, can help with sleep.
How do you know which ones to choose when you’re having trouble finding the doorway to dreamland? Our advice is to keep reading.
Best Essential Oils for Sleep
This list is a pretty long one, but we’ll be starting with what most consider to be the best essential oils for sleep, lavender and chamomile – and then go from there.
Lavender is known to provide all sorts of health benefits, from treating fungal infections to easing menstrual cramps. There’s little doubt, however, that lavender essential oil is also the most popular choice for people trying to overcome insomnia or improve the quality of their sleep.
And users’ confidence in lavender oil is justified. Studies have shown that the EO’s sedative quality can improve sleep quality, effectively battle insomnia, and ease stress and anxiety that can make restful sleep nearly impossible. Some find that simply spraying a lavender solution on their sheets is enough to let them peacefully sleep through the night.
We’ve already referenced the popularity of chamomile tea as a sleep aid, but chamomile essential oil may be even more powerful. Long used as a treatment for depression and anxiety, chamomile also possesses sedative qualities which are apparently caused by the way that one of its flavonoids (apigenin) interacts with the brain.
The effects of chamomile EO can be experienced either with topical application near the body’s pressure points, or with the use of a diffuser. One important note: there are two types of chamomile; Roman Chamomile is more effective for sleep than German chamomile.
Sweet marjoram isn’t just a fragrant kitchen spice. Its essential oil has been used for centuries as a natural remedy for an enormous number of gastrointestinal, cardiac, neurologic and rheumatologic issues. One of the most interesting is the EO’s apparent ability to improve respiratory function, since breathing problems are often a major reason why people have difficulty sleeping.
Sweet marjoram has also been found to ease stress and anxiety, providing a sedative effect for those who are suffering with insomnia or poor sleep quality. (If you’re accustomed to using “marjoram” in the kitchen, that’s from the same source we’re discussing. “Sweet” is often added to distinguish the plant from “wild marjoram,” which is actually a type of oregano.
Bergamot is a citrus fruit that’s in the orange family, but looks more like a lime. Unlike most citrus oils which stimulate the senses, though, bergamot essential oil calms the system. Its use has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress, fight depression, lower blood pressure and heart rate – all obviously conducive to sleep. This EO has additional benefits as well, as its limonene and linanool provide powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
This essential oil sourced from South Asian Canaga trees has a lovely floral scent, and has been shown to have the ability to provide relaxation from stress – even when applied topically to the soles of the feet. The sedative effects are even stronger when used in aromatherapy, but many find that just putting a few drops of ylang ylang essential oil into their bathwater can ease them into a restful night’s sleep. (Incidentally, this EO has historically been used to treat many other conditions and illnesses ranging from malaria and gout to asthma.)
Sweet marjoram may be the marjoram you’re familiar with, but clary sage isn’t the sage you normally use to season soups and sauces. It’s the product of a perennial plant that’s primarily grown for its essential oil, and its floral scent is quite different than the minty aroma of the “common sage” used in the kitchen.
The primary benefit of clary sage essential oil is its ability to reduce stress and improve mood when used in aromatherapy, because it lowers levels of cortisol in the body. It can also help to lower blood pressure; that makes sense, since hypertension – and not incidentally, difficulty sleeping – are both byproducts of stress and anxiety. And clary sage EO is one of the best essential oils to use for sleep issues.
Cedarwood and Sandalwood
These two essential oils come from very different trees. For starters, cedar is an evergreen, while sandalwood trees are deciduous. They each contain different primary components; it’s cedrol in cedarwood oil, and santalol in sandalwood oil. And while they each have a definitively woodsy aroma, the two would never be mistaken for each other.
However, both cedarwood and sandalwood essential oils provide major sedative effects when used in aromatherapy diffusers or even applied lightly to bedding or pillows. You’ve probably noticed a trend, but we’ll spell it out anyway: sandalwood and cedarwood EOs are both effective at lowering stress levels as well.
Let’s stay in the forest; eucalyptus essential oil is another strongly-scented EO which is able to provide considerable help for the sleep-deprived. Researchers aren’t exactly sure what the chemical mechanism is that makes eucalyptus effective at inducing sleep, but a study of sleep disturbances showed that the aroma of eucalyptus oil was able to lengthen total nightly sleep time and extend sustained periods of sleep.
Other Essential Oils for Sleep
Many other essential oils provide the same types of benefits for those who have difficulty sleeping at night. They include:
There’s another way to use these oils. You’ll find an enormous number of essential oil sleep blends for sale online or at your local health foods or natural foods store. And if you consult an aromatherapist she’ll be happy to suggest the right blend for your specific needs. You can also experiment on your own by adding several different sleep-promoting essential oils to a home diffuser.
Finding the right blend isn’t as easy as it may sound. Different mixes of essential oils can, for example, help induce deep sleep (try blending lavender, cedarwood and vetiver), refreshing sleep (lavender, ylang ylang, sweet marjoram and cedarwood) or peaceful sleep (lavender and bergamot). Be careful, though: once you’ve experienced their effectiveness, mixing your own bedtime blends of essential oils can be addictive!
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