Here in California, where my family and I live, we’re treated to a bountiful, year-round explosion of plant life. The bright citrus trees, the blooming roses, the clusters of flowering lavender plants all make for amazing sights—and scents. But you don’t have to live in Southern California to enjoy these fragrant smells, or to get the benefits that they can deliver to sleep and mood.
Often, scents get overlooked as a tool for better sleep. Inexpensive and easy to introduce to a daily and nightly routine, there are an array of essential oils that can help you relax, mentally and physically, and make it easier for you to fall asleep and sleep more soundly.
If you’ve ever browsed the selection of essential oils at your farmers’ market or natural foods store, you might have come away a little overwhelmed. With so many options, what are the best scents to choose for relaxation and sleep.
Today, I thought I’d share with you the essential oils I recommend to my patients to help improve their sleep, relieve stress, lift mood, and boost performance. I’ll also talk a little about what science tells us about the benefits these aromatic oils can have for sleep and health.
How scents affect the body and mind
You’ve probably had the experience of encountering a smell that instantly evokes a strong memory or feeling. Maybe a waft of perfume reminds you of your grandmother, or the scent of motor oil takes you back to hanging out with your dad in the garage while he worked on his car.
Our sense of smell is directly wired to the brain’s centers of memory and emotion. Cells inside the nose detect smells in our environment, and send information to the brain, via the olfactory nerve. (We also have a cluster of cells the top of the throat that detect scents from the food we consume, and pass that information along the same olfactory channel to the brain.) The information about smell does immediately to the limbic system of the brain, which includes regions like the amygdala that control emotional reactions and memory.
This makes smell unique among our senses. Information we take in from our other senses travels first to another region of the brain, the thalamus, which acts as a relay station, passing along sensory data to the other parts of the brain that produce our sensory perceptions. Only smell moves directly to the brain’s emotion and memory center. That’s why those memories you associate with the scent of garden roses, or banana bread baking in the oven, come on so quickly and so strongly.
The ancient practice of aromatherapy, still useful today
The use of essential oils for medicinal purposes has an ancient history, going back to early Egyptian, Chinese, and Roman societies. Ever hear of the Hippocratic Oath? That’s the ethical pledge taken by physicians for centuries (now, often taken by students upon graduation from medical school). It’s named for Greek physician, Hippocrates, who studied the effects of essential oils and was a proponent of their healing, health-promoting properties.
Aromatherapy is a modern term for this ancient practice. And for years, scientists have been conducting studies into the sleep-promoting, stress-relieving, pain-reducing and mood-regulating benefits of essential oils.
The scientific benefits of essential oils for sleep, mood, and health
I’m a big proponent of using natural, mind-body therapies to create better sleep, both by helping sleep directly and by relieving stress, anxiety, low mood, and physical discomfort. The practice of aromatherapy can do all these things. Essential oils have been used for centuries to promote relaxation and mental and physical wellness. Today, these same oils are increasingly being studied by scientists in search of a more rigorous, specific understanding of their benefits to sleep and health.
For sleep: A body of research shows that essential oils can provide relief for disrupted sleep and improve sleep quality in adults. A 2017 study compared the effects of aromatherapy and acupressure massage on sleep quality and overall quality of life in women. Researchers found that a blend of sleep-promoting essential oils worked more effectively to improve both sleep quality and quality of life than acupressure. The blended oil was also more effective at improving sleep than a single essential oil, lavender.
For stress and anxiety: Stress and anxiousness are frequent obstacles to sound, restful sleep. People who experience stress and anxiety symptoms often have trouble falling asleep and sleep restlessly throughout the night, leaving them tired and fatigued the next day. There’s a body of research indicating that aromatherapy using essential oils can help to relieve stress and anxiety symptoms, which may help improve sleep indirectly.
For depression: Depression and sleep problems often go hand in hand. A number of studies have examined the effects of aromatherapy using essential oils in people with depression and depressive symptoms, both with and without anxiety. Aromatherapy can help improve depressive symptoms, according to the results of several studies. A study found aromatherapy improved both depression and anxiety in a group of post-partum women. And a 2016 analysis found aromatherapy effective in reducing stress and depression—as well as symptoms of menopause—in middle-aged women.
7 essential oils for better sleep
So, what are some essential oils that are effective for sleep?
LAVENDER. This is the most popular essential oil for sleep and relaxation among my patients, and my first, general go-to recommendation for people looking to try aromatherapy for sleep. Lavender is a soothing scent that’s long been associated with relaxation and sleep, and used as a natural remedy for anxiety. Lavender is probably the most rigorously studied essential oil. A robust body of research shows lavender has anxiety reducing—or anxiolytic—effects, as well as beneficial effects on depression. Lavender can also help with pain relief, several studies show. One recent study showed aromatherapy using lavender oil reduced the need for pain medications in a group of 6 to 12-year-old children recovering from having their tonsils removed. Lavender also has sedative effects, meaning it can work directly to help you fall asleep. A number of studies point to lavender’s effectiveness for sleep: improving sleep quality, increasing sleep amounts, and elevating daytime alertness, including in people with insomnia.
VANILLA. The sweet scent of vanilla is appealing to many people, and it has a long history of use for relaxation and stress relief. Vanilla can have sedative effects on the body. It can reduce hyperactivity and restlessness, quiet the nervous system, and lower blood pressure. It also appears to help relieve anxiety and depression, with a combining both relaxation and an uplift in mood. If the smell of cookies baking relaxes and soothes you, vanilla might be a scent to try for sleep—without the calories!
ROSE and GERANIUM. These two essential oils have similar floral scents, and both have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, on their own and in combination with other essential oils. Some sleep experts recommend valerian as an essential oil for sleep aromatherapy. Valerian taken as a supplement can be highly beneficial for sleep. I wrote about valerian’s benefits for sleep and stress, here. But the smell of valerian is highly stinky! I recommend trying geranium or rose instead.
JASMINE. A sweetly floral scent, jasmine appears to have serious sleep-promoting capabilities. Research shows jasmine improves sleep quality and cuts down on restless sleeping, as well as increasing daytime alertness. A 2002 study showed that jasmine delivered all of these sleep benefits, as well as lowering anxiety, even more effectively than lavender.
SANDALWOOD. With a rich, woody, earthy scent, sandalwood has an ancient history of use for relaxation and anxiety relief. Scientific research indicates sandalwood can be effective in easing anxiety symptoms. Research has also shown sandalwood can have sedative effects, reducing wakefulness and increasing amounts of non-REM sleep.
It’s important to note: sandalwood has also been shown to increase wakefulness and alertness, even when it is also triggering physical relaxation. Everyone reacts to scents differently. Sandalwood may deliver sleep benefits for some people, while for others, it may promote wakeful, attentive relaxation. If that’s the case for you, sandalwood isn’t right for nighttime, but you can use it during the day to feel relaxed and alert.
CITRUS. Similar to sandalwood, this is a group of scents that can be stimulating or sleep-promoting, depending on your individual reaction and the type of citrus oil used. Bergamot, a type of orange, has been shown to relieve anxiety and improve sleep quality. Lemon oil has demonstrated anxiety and depression-relieving effects in research. Citrus may help some people fall asleep more easily, while others may find these fresh, bright scents are relaxing, but not sleep-promoting. If citrus scents are stimulating to you, don’t use them before bed—but do consider using them during the day, to help you feel both refreshed and relaxed.
How to use essential oils for sleep and relaxation
Many of my patients are interested in using essential oils for better sleep, but they’re not sure how. Here are some simple guidelines to get you started:
Add oil to your bath. This is a great way to get the relaxation and sleep benefits of aromatherapy while also taking advantage of the sleep-promoting effects of a warm soak. Put several drops of your favorite oil into your bathwater, and schedule your soaking time for 90 minutes to an hour before your bedtime.
Use a diffuser. Diffusers will disperse oils into the air in your room. Typically, you add water and oil, in amounts set by the manufacturer. Follow their instructions.
Make your own mist. You can combine essential oil and water in a spray bottle or atomizer and spray around your room, or give a light mist to your bed linens. I recommend spraying the underside of your pillow to avoid any skin irritation. For every ½ cup of water, use 4-5 drops of essential oil, or less if the scent is too strong.
Apply to the body directly. Some people find it soothing to apply essential oils to pressure points, like the wrists or behind the ears, or use oils to give themselves a light self-massage. (Massage for–or from–your bed partners work great, too!) Essential oils in undiluted form are highly concentrated and intense, and can irritate your skin. DO NOT APPLY undiluted essential oil to your skin. If you’re planning to use essential oils topically on your body, be sure you’re buying an already diluted oil—a mixture of the fragrant essential oil of your choice and a carrier oil (often a vegetable oil).
As you’re using essential oils, pay attention to how you feel. Scent is a highly individual experience. Each of us react to smells differently. The right scents for your relaxation and sleep are the ones that make you feel relaxed and sleepy! You may need to experiment with different oils before you find the right one for your nightly routine. If a scent makes you feel alert and awake, it is NOT the right one for sleep. But you can use it in the morning to help get you rolling into your day.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™