Restful sleep is one of the most crucial elements of a healthy life, yet for many it’s harder and harder to come by these days. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70% of the population reports having one sleepless night per month, while 11% say they receive insufficient sleep every night. 

It has almost become a badge of honor in our always-on, digitally-enabled culture to power through the night with a non-stop pursuit of our professional lives. Between our work, our families and personal lives, sleep is often relegated to the back burner.

While arguably solving our sleep problems in the long term may lie in our ability to proactively change our sleep-limiting behaviors, there are many natural products that we can use to boost the effectiveness of our pre-sleep routine and improve our sleep hygiene.

As so many of us know, two of the biggest blockers of quality sleep are stress and anxiety. That’s why essential oils fit in so well to your pre-sleep wind-down routine. There’s certainly no shortage of options to choose from. 

Essential oils are a common, safe and long-term solution to improve your sleep. For many people, they’ve become a reliable aid because they’re naturally-derived and don’t have the negative side effects of medications. 

The best essential oils for sleep

For starters, there are two different classifications for essential oils that can help improve sleep: 

  • Oils that calm the mind and reduce anxiety. 
  • Oils that clear the airways, reducing sleep apnea and improving breathing. 

There’s something miraculous about the power our sense of smell has over our nervous system. A single sniff has the power to bring back detailed memories from our past. Presently, there is still a limited amount of research on the efficacy of essential oils in improving sleep.

However, there are studies showing essential oils improve symptoms of anxiety, and as a result, are helpful in improving sleep-related troubles associated with anxiety. Indeed, aromatherapy has been demonstrated in multiple studies to have a calming effect and to facilitate relaxation before sleep.

Let’s explore some of the different essential oils, their origins, and the symptoms they’ve been shown to improve.

Lavender 

Lavender is the most well-known essential oils that has helped people improve their sleep. 

Long a staple in the culinary world and as a beautiful, aromatic component of gardening, lavender has a rich and deep history, dating back almost 2,500 years. 

As one of the most studied essential oils, lavender has been associated with relaxation and relieving anxiety. The therapeutic effects of lavender essential oil have been demonstrated in numerous studies to improve sleep quality

While the actual effect of lavender oil on the brain causing better sleep remains undiscovered, it is clear,  and has been demonstrated that lavender essential oil has stress and anxiety-relieving effects. 

Further, anxiety and stress are some of the primary causes of sleeplessness and insomnia in its different forms. 

Chamomile

Chamomile oil is extracted from the flowers of the chamomile plant, a daisy-like plant used since ancient times for its medicinal qualities. One of the most popular varieties of chamomile used in aromatherapy is roman chamomile. Roman chamomile essential oil has a soothing, apple-like aroma. 

It is well-known for its skin health-promoting properties and general calming effects on the brain and body. Its calming properties make it an ideal natural sleep aid, especially when the sleeplessness is due to anxiety, restlessness, or irritability.

Bergamot

Bergamot is a part of the citrus family, derived from a mixture between an orange and lemon. In eastern medicine, it has been used to treat digestive issues. Today, it’s been blended in many people’s favorite nighttime tea regimens as a way to relax and unwind before bed. 

Clinical studies of bergamot essential oil have found that it can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and importantly for sleep, lower cortisol levels.

Cerol

Cerol is a component of cedarwood, a woodsy-smelling scent, and has a primary sedative function. 

For the purposes of cedarwood in aromatherapy, cedarwood essential oil influences the release of serotonin, which facilitates the conversion to melatonin, which aids in a good night’s sleep. 

Cypress

Cypress is fresh, clean, and woodsy-smelling. Its oil is distilled from the twigs, leaves and cones of evergreen trees. 

While it’s known for improving mental clarity, its relaxing properties and sedative effects help reduce anxiety, lower stress which can lead to better sleep. 

Vanilla

Vanilla is a scent and flavor that comes from the beans of a variety of orchid that has been cultivated since the 15th century. Today, it remains the second-most expensive spice (following saffron) due to how much labor is required to create it from the orchid. 

Aside from its culinary applications, it has been a big part of aromatherapy. In that vein, it’s had a long tradition of providing relaxing qualities and has a sedative effect. In one research study, it showed improved sleep for 94% of patients involved in the study at the United Kingdom cancer center. 

Sandalwood

Sandalwood, an aromatic wood that has been used in eastern medicine for treating a variety of physical and mental symptoms. Burning of sandalwood is common practice for Buddhists who believe that it stimulates focus and alertness during meditation. 

Conversely, while it also promotes alertness, sandalwood also seems to have the ability to help relax. 

In a Japanese study on sleep-disturbed rats, scientists researched the effects of santanol (a component of sandalwood oil) and found that when they inhaled it, they experienced a significant decrease in time spent awake, and most interestingly for future human studies, saw an increase in NREM sleep. 

Valerian

Valerian is a flowering plant that grows in Europe and North America. Its use as an herb for medicinal purposes stretches back many years to ancient Greece. 

In contemporary times, valerian essential oil has been come to referred to as “nature’s valium”. Of the many research experiments done to validate its impact on sleep as an essential oil, a few have shown interesting results with improvement in sleep quality

How to use Essential Oils for Sleep

So, how do you actually find ways to integrate these essential oils into your daily, or nightly routine? First, it helps to understand the methods in which they can be used. 

There are two distinct methods one can use to take essential oils.  

  • Apply Directly Onto The Skin.
  • Inhale them directly.

In the United States, rarely are essential oils ingested, and definitely not without proper consultation. 

Creating and mixing essential oils is very complicated and ingesting them can lead to risks associated with certain body organs (some essential oils are toxic to the kidneys if ingested), and others can lead to dangerous drug interactions. 

Essential Oils Taken By Skin

Essential oils can be transported into our body by moving past the primary layers of the epidermis. The molecules that essential oils are comprised of, are so small that they're able to be quickly absorbed into the body's bloodstream. First, they're absorbed through the skin by moving through the follicles of hair and sweat ducts. 

Certain areas of the body are easier to absorb essential oils than others, including the inside of wrists, behind the ears, palms of the hands, soles of the feet, under the arms, and the scalp of the head. 

By rule, the thinner the skin, the easier the absorption will be. The thicker the skin, like on our legs, arms, stomach, and back, the harder it will be to absorb essential oils. 

Before you rub any essential oils on your skin, you should test a very small amount and see if you have any specific reactions within a 24-hours period. Also, be sure to read the labels of the essential oils and double check for any interactions they may have with other medicines you’re actively taking, or conditions you may have. 

Carrier oils are essential when applying the oils, because the essential oils are so concentrated they need to be diluted to avoid skin reactions or burns. Examples of carrier oils that can be used to help apply the essential oils include avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil, sesame oil, apricot kernel, and almond oil. 

Here are a few ways that you can use essential oils via skin contact: 

Massage

The key here with essential oils is to be gentle, massaging essential oils (and their carrier oil) over the skin, you can achieve calming, relaxing effects. For those who are doing so to help with sleep, be sure to focus on gentle massaging, and avoid prolonging the massage. Pay close attention to the areas like the feet, wrists and hands. 

Bath

Mix essential oils in a bath, using about seven to 12 drops for every ounce of the carrier oil. Then, as the bath water is running, add it to the water and let it mix together. 

To avoid skin sensitivity issues or other skin reactions, keep the time in the water to under thirty minutes. 

Inhaling essential oils

Inhalation is an ideal way to get the benefits and fast impact of using essential oils. In order to understand why this is such a beneficial method, it helps to understand a little about how the olfactory senses work. 

The olfactory bulb acts as an amplifier for the molecules of the essential oils, and passes them through the olfactory nerve into the brain’s limbic system. 

Smell is one of the most powerful and intriguing of the senses. There’s a reason why a smell can instantly trigger super-specific memories from years past in your life. The limbic system is chiefly responsible for motivation, emotion, learning, and memory — hence, why the memories of smell are so powerful, immediate, and memorable when elicited by smell.

Depending on the type of essential oil being used, the impact can be stimulating, relaxing, or deeply memorable, and because of the way they pass through the olfactory nerve, they’re almost immediate. 

There are a few ways that essential oils can be used through process of smell and inhalation, including essential oil diffusers, candles, scent lamps, and spritzer bottles.

A little goes a long way

A small amount is enough to achieve the desired result. Continued exposure won’t increase the desired effect.

Essential oils are a great way to wind down and get ready for bed. If you’re lucky it will be enough to effectively put you to sleep. If not, fear not, we’re here to help you find your way towards a better night’s sleep.

For more ways to calm your mind and prepare yourself for sleep check out this article on how traditional Chinese medicine uses natural herbs to improve sleep.