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More and more, health experts are recognizing how sleep disturbances are an extremely important health problem that affect the physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being of millions of people around the world. Aromatherapy, or the inhalation of essential oils, has been shown to be a safe alternative to sleeping pills and other drugs for mild to moderate sleep problems. The authors of a review of 15 studies examining the use of essential oils for sleep concluded that, while more research is needed, aromatherapy using essential oils “could provide a safe, cost-effective therapy for the growing public health issue of sleep.”
What is Aromatherapy and What Are Essential Oils?
Aromatherapy is the inhalation of essential oils derived from different types of plant sources. Essential oils are highly concentrated oils that are extracted by steam distillation from whole, fresh, aromatic plants. They are typically the volatile, organic constituents of fragrant plant matter that contribute to both flavor and fragrance. Hundreds of different oils derived from plants are used in aromatherapy today; some of the most popular essential oils include lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, chamomile, marjoram, jasmine, peppermint, lemon, ylang ylang, and geranium.
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Inhalation of essential oils using various types of diffusers is one of the most common ways to experience their healing benefits. A diffuser is any device which allows a liquid to evaporate thereby putting a scent into the surrounding environment. The process of diffusion is typically accomplished by heat, fan/ventilation, vaporization/humidification, or atomization/nebulization. Each of methods has its own pros and cons, but practically all have been used in studies with positive results. Certain essential oils are also safe for oral use and are ingested through teas, capsules, or other formats. Essential oils can also be used topically, added to bathwater or pillows, or used to make ointments, creams and compresses.
How Does Aromatherapy Work?
The specific chemical properties and composition of different essential oils gives them their therapeutic qualities. Inhaled essential oils may enter the body via the olfactory mucosa or the bloodstream by lung absorption. From there, they may directly influence the brain through its limbic system. Scent receptors in the nose send chemical messages via the olfactory nerve to the brain’s limbic region. Signals can stimulate the brain to exert neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin and dopamine) and can affect the binding of other brain chemicals, such as glutamate, GABA, and acetylcholine, to receptors. This, in turn, can alter nervous system function and affect emotional responses, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and other physiological responses.
Lavender oil, for instance, causes significant decreases in blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature, which indicates a decrease of autonomic nervous system arousal associated with relaxation. Many other essential oils contain linalool and other compounds that, when inhaled, have been shown to have hypnotic (sleep inducing) and sedative affects resulting in increased sleep time and sleep quality.[1,4,15]
Linalool, a major component in the essential oil of lavender as well as a number of other aromatic plants, is one of the primary compounds found to be responsible for these therapeutic effects. Inhaling linalool from lavender induces sedation, increases sleeping time, and reduces body temperature. Linalool inhalation also inhibits glutamate receptors in the central nervous system to produce antidepressant effects and represses the negative effects of stress on the immune system.[5,6] Essential oils can also help induce a good night’s sleep by reducing anxiety levels[7-9] and relieving emotional stress and pain[11-14].
Lavender Essential Oils for Sleep
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is one of the most used and most studied plants in aromatherapy. Most human studies that have been conducted on the effects of aromatherapy with lavender essential oil for sleep-related disorders have found positive effects on sleep.
For example, in a study in 67 midlife women with insomnia, the aromatherapy group received lavender inhalation, 20 min each time, twice per week, for 12 weeks, using an ultrasonic ionizer/diffuser. The control group received sleep hygiene education. The overall score of quality of sleep significantly improved in the lavender aromatherapy group while the control group did not experience any improvement.
In another study in 158 women who had recently given birth, the aromatherapy group inhaled lavender oil which was dropped on cotton balls and placed in a container 20 cm from the participants’ noses. The participants inhaled ten deep breaths and then the container was placed beside their pillow until morning. This procedure was done 4 times a week for 8 weeks. For the control group, the same intervention was done with the placebo. Again, the lavender aromatherapy significantly improved the overall sleep quality scores but the control group experienced no significant changes\.[18-20]
Other Researched Essential Oils for Sleep
Lavender essential oil is certainly not the only oil used in aromatherapy to improve sleep. A number of other aromatic plants also have been found to contain constituents with sedative and hypnotic effects that can help you get a good night’s sleep. Essential oils that have been studied and discovered to have sedative effects and/or to help with sleep disturbances include:
- Rose (Rosa damascene/Damask rose) 
- Jasmine [22,23]
- Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) 
- Lemon (Citrus limon )
- Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) [26,27]
- West African black pepper (Piper guineense) 
- Patchoulii (Microtoena patchouli) 
- Szechuan Lovage Root (Chuan Xiong) 
- Blend of basil, juniper, lavender, and sweet marjoram 
- Blend of lavender and valerian 
In addition to the researched essential oils for sleep listed above, many others are anecdotally reported to have sedative effects, including chamomile, sweet marjoram, and orange blossom.
Give essential oils for sleep a try
Unlike prescription sleep medication, which is addictive, impairs functioning, has many adverse effects, and is only approved for short-term use, essential oils for sleep are without side effects or addictive potential, and do not negatively affect coordination or motor function.
If you experience trouble sleeping, you owe it to yourself to give aromatherapy with essential oils a try. As demonstrated in studies, you do not need to purchase any type of diffuser if you don’t want to. Simply put a few drops of a sleep-inducing essential oil such as lavender or jasmine on a cotton ball or piece of gauze, put it near your nose and inhale deeply, then set it near your pillow and drift off to sleep.
Originally published in 2015, this post has been updated.