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Sleep deprivation has reached epidemic levels across the U.S. According to the CDC, one in three adults doesn’t get the recommended seven or more hours of sleep per night. While we all know that scrolling through social media late at night, binge-watching Game of Thrones, and stressing over work deadlines can contribute to restlessness, it turns out that taking time to smell the roses — quite literally — could put you in the express lane to dreamland.
Essential oils for sleep and relaxation have become an increasingly popular option for those who struggle with slumber. “Scents can be one tool for better sleep,” says Dr. Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., a.k.a. the Sleep Doctor. “Essential oils to help sleep are fairly inexpensive and can be part of your nightly routine.” Lavender oil for sleep is probably the most well-known and thoroughly studied, but there are many others.
In a nutshell, essential oils can help ease the anxiety that keeps many of us up late at night. The trick is finding the right combination — peppermint oil, for example, will wake you up and give you a bit of pep.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are aromatic extracts derived from plant materials, or the molecules that compose the smell of a plant, explains Amy Galper, co-founder of The New York Institute of Aromatic Studies. “Most plants have some composition of essential oils, but the capability of humans to detect them in all plants is a little more limited when compared to animals and insects.”
Galper’s institute specializes in teaching people how to use and understand these powerful plant extracts. “Essential oils can be blended to help support the innate healing ability of our bodies; if you’re struggling to get rest, you can create a blend to promote relaxation.”
The Benefits of Essential Oils for Sleep
“For sleep issues, essentials oils can help you relax, mentally and physically,” explains Breus. “They can make it easier for you to fall asleep and sleep more soundly.”
Essential oils have been linked to improvements in sleep, stress relief, mood, and cognitive performance. Since sleep deprivation has been found to increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, and infections, maximizing sleep time and quality is considered critically important.
How Do Essential Oils Work?
Smell is one of our most powerful senses, and fragrances trigger reactions in our brains. Fragrant molecules activate receptors in our nasal passages that send electrical signals to the brain, which then modulates functions, such as memory, thought, and emotion. When you breathe in aromas, they interact with receptors in the central nervous system and can produce immediate physiological changes.
“Essential oils function on two levels: the scents affect our emotions and limbic mind, and when they’re applied topically, the actual molecules catalyze physical changes,” says Galper. Essential oils that specifically help with sleep do so by promoting relaxation. They are typically used topically, which means applied to your skin, or breathed in, whether it’s through a spray mist on your pillow and sheets, a diffuser, or a steamy bath. (Ingestion of most essential oils is not recommended.)
Are There Any Risks to Using Essential Oils?
For most people, essential oils are generally safe. However, as with any herbal medicine or pharmaceutical, following directions, taking recommended dosages, and monitoring how your body reacts is important — especially for newbies.
“It’s very important to follow the directions on how to apply them,” says Galper. “For beginners, I would recommend mixing them into a carrier oil like olive or jojoba, and starting with diluted, low dosages.”
Some medical professionals caution that lavender and tea tree oil are possible hormone disruptors linked to gynecomastia, or breast growth in boys and premature breast development in girls as young as 4 years old, and should never be used on infants. However, Galper believes those concerns are unfounded. That said, pregnant women in their first trimester, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems should not use essential oils without consulting a physician.
6 Essential Oils for Sleep and Relaxation
Blending essential oils is one of the most effective ways to use them. Essential oil blends for sleep are tailored to work best with your personal chemistry — similar to how perfumes smell different on different people.
“In an aromatherapy application, blending is kind of like cooking,” explains Galper. “You might be fine to just use one spice, but often, you find that a mixture of flavors is more profound.” Like an essential-oil recipe for sleep, mingling different scents can emphasize and augment aromatic molecules and their soothing effects.
“Lavender has a long history in the medical world as an antiseptic,” says Breus. “Going back to the Civil War, doctors noticed when they used it to treat soldiers, it made them feel better and sleepy.” It’s also one of the few essential oils that has been heavily studiedand has solid data on its effectiveness. When breathed in, it promotes relaxation and has anti-inflammatory properties.
The smell of freshly baked sweets might instantly relax you — and that’s not purely because chocolate chip cookies make everything better. “Vanilla can quiet the nervous system and reduce hyperactivity and restlessness,” says Breus.
The clean, light, floral scent of rose geranium has been linked to reduced stress and anxiety. “Rose geranium is made up of similar molecules to lavender,” says Galper. “It promotes relaxation and has anti-inflammatory effects.”
This plant native to the Mediterranean has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes, ranging from treating eye problems to wounds. As an essential oil, smelling it creates feelings of relaxation and may even positively affect blood pressure.
“Some studies have found that sandalwood can ease anxiety, help make you drowsy, and possibly increase non-REM sleep — in some people,” says Dr. Breus. “In other people, it makes them feel more alert and awake.”
Most essential oils that help with sleep have pleasant aromas, however, valerian which also helps with relaxation has a pungent odor that many people, quite frankly, say stinks. However, smell aside, it is linked to reduced anxiety.
But, Wait, What About CBD Oil for Sleep?
“CBD oil is not an essential oil,” explains Galper. “CBD is an abbreviation for cannabidiol, which is a naturally occurring compound found in the resinous flowers of cannabis.” It’s extracted from the plant using a method very different from that used to extract essential oils — and has a different molecular structure from an essential oil.
“CBD oil is a type of complex phytochemical that can be used in herbal medicine preparation, however, it can also be blended with essential oils in an aromatherapy product as part of the carrier or base. But on its own, it is not an essential oil.”