The Best Essential Oils for Sleep

Tired of prescription sleep aids? Essential oils are effective alternatives to help you get the sleep you need. Read about the best ones here.

By Andrea Pisani Babich

Essential oils have been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments including anxiety and the poor sleep that results from it. With the recent rise in sleep challenges and an increased interest in natural therapies, people have been turning more and more to the ancient wisdom behind therapeutic essential oils. Many studies have rediscovered what our ancestors knew long ago: many essential oils can actually help you sleep either by inducing sleep or relieving the mental or physical disturbances that keep you awake.

The Science Behind Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy refers to this ancient practice of using aromatic essential oils for a host of therapeutic purposes including as a sleep aid. The most common forms of aromatherapy are through inhalation or direct application of the essential oils to the skin. Most essential oils for sleep have pleasing scents, but their therapeutic powers extend far beyond just their smelling good.

Your sense of smell is directly linked to the limbic system in your brain. That’s your brain center for memory and emotions as well as blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, stress, and hormone balance. And since no other sense perception is linked this way, your sense of smell has the unique power to easily evoke feelings and memories. That’s why the smell of crayons and glue can immediately send you back to your kindergarten classroom and why home sellers routinely include freshly baked cookies or essential oil diffusers in their staging. That’s also why essential oils can be effective alternatives to prescription and OTC sleep aids.

How to Use Essential Oils for Sleep

There are several methods for unleashing the power of essential oils for promoting healthy sleep.

Topical Application

This method for using essential oils requires some experimentation as well as some precautions. But once you have done your research, it is really quite simple. The easiest way to get the sleep benefits of essential oil is to simply apply it directly to your skin. But most essential oils must be diluted with a carrier oil to avoid skin irritation.

Good choices for carrier oils are:

  • Jojoba
  • Fractionated coconut oil
  • Sweet almond oil
  • Castor oil

Even diluted, some oils may cause skin irritation in some people, so be sure to test on a small area before applying liberally.

Aroma oil diffuser on table at home

Effective application points include

  • The crown of your head
  • Behind your ears
  • Your temples
  • The pulse point on your wrist
  • Your neck
  • The soles of your feet or bottom of the big toe

For a romantic treat, use diluted essential oil for your partner’s massage. This particular sleep aid may promote an additional boost from some canoodling under the covers which have its own sleep benefits.

Inhalation through a diffuser

Adding essential oil to a diffuser allows everyone in the room to benefit from the sedative effects of essential oils that promote sleep. Simply fill the diffuser with water and add five to seven drops of oil. Can’t pack your diffuser for your vacation? No problem. Simply spray a bit onto a tissue and place it on your pillow or wave it around a bit. Remember, essential oils are highly concentrated, so a little oil goes a long way.

Spray on your linens

You can buy linen sprays already blended or you can easily make your own with your favorite scents. Simply blend four or five drops of oil with a ½ cup of water and a couple of tablespoons of vodka or witch hazel (to help blend the oil and water) in a small glass spray bottle. Always shake before spraying on pillowcases, sheets, and comforters.

Add to your bath

Taking a bath about 90 minutes before bedtime can help soak away the stressors of the day and ease you into sleep. The drop in your body temperature when you get out of the bath signals to your brain that it’s time to power down and go to sleep. Adding an essential oil or oil blend to your bathwater has the additional benefit of aromatherapy that will make falling asleep as easy as climbing into bed.

The Best Essential Oils for Sleep

Not surprisingly, many of the same ingredients used in the best bedtime teas contain essential oils that reduce stress, relieve anxiety, and help relax you to sleep through the wonder of aromatherapy. The essential oils are extracted from these aromatic plants by either cold pressing or steaming to preserve their scents, flavors, and all of the therapeutic properties therein.

Here are some tips for choosing only high-grade essential oils:

  • Look for only 100% pure essential oils and avoid anything labeled “perfume” or “fragrance” oil.
  • Avoid buying oils that are priced the same. This suggests they are of low quality or synthetic.
  • Choose oils that list the Latin name and the common name of the plant from which they are extracted.
  • Find oils that are sold in dark amber or blue glass bottles. Clear glass allows unfiltered light to spoil the oil.
  • Avoid essential oils in plastic bottles since oils can dissolve the plastic and contaminate your oil.
  • Buy small quantities to avoid spoilage. You should use essential oils within a year of purchase.
Lavender

Lavender essential oil has been used for its medicinal purposes since the Middle Ages. It is well-recognized as a treatment for depression, anxiety, and insomnia. It is thought to interact with the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) to calm an active brain, allowing people to sleep. When applied topically in a solution with a carrier oil like coconut oil, its key components, linalyl acetate and linalool, are quickly absorbed and enter the bloodstream in about 20 minutes after application. Also effective when inhaled using a diffuser or spray, lavender has been shown to be as effective as prescription tranquilizers like Xanax and Valium for promoting sleep with none of the potential side effects. And it smells great, too!

Valerian

The use of valerian to treat restlessness, anxiety and nervousness dates back at least 1000 years. It is often blended with hops (yep, the same ones you find in beer) because of their calming effect. Both Valerian and hops appear to increase the brain’s GABA levels. GABA is an important chemical for promoting sound sleep and regulating the amount of time we spend in NREM sleep and REM sleep, the two most mentally and physically important sleep stages.

A word of caution: Valerian’s effectiveness in promoting sleep is matched by its rather astringent, somewhat fetid odor. Consider blending valerian with other more fragrant essential oils like clary sage, lavender, or sweet marjoram. Find recipes here.

Clary Sage

This flowering herb native to the Mediterranean Basin has a clean, refreshing scent that has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and blood pressure, all of which can keep you awake at night. In one small study with menopausal women, clary sage was shown to relieve depression by lowering levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Less stress means more sleep.

Roman Chamomile

Chamomile tea is a familiar remedy for anxiety and restlessness and is widely regarded as a mild tranquilizer and sleep inducer. The soothing effects of chamomile can also be accessed through inhaling the aroma of chamomile essential oil. The sedative effects of chamomile may be due to its containing the flavonoid apigenin which binds to receptors in the brain that result in calming and relaxation. Chamomile provides the addition sleep benefit of reducing nightmares that can disrupt your good night’s sleep.

Bergamot

Bergamot essential oil comes from the rind of the bitter, inedible bergamot orange. While most citrus oils have an invigorating effect, bergamot essential oil signals to your brain that it’s time to wind down by slowing your heart rate and lowering your blood pressure even while delivering a fresh, citrusy scent. Reducing anxiety, relieving stress, and lifting depression help to clinch its calming effect and send you to a peaceful sleep

Ylang-Ylang

This essential oil comes from the flower petals of the tropical ylang-ylang tree and has a pleasingly sweet, floral scent. It’s so pleasing, you might recognize it as one of the main ingredients of the coveted Chanel No. 5 perfume. But included in that enchanting scent are therapeutic benefits that lift your mood, calm a racing heart, reduce high blood pressure, all of which will allow you to relax and get a good night’s sleep.

Peppermint and more…

Peppermint essential oil promotes sleep by alleviating the sleep disruptions caused by sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a cessation in regular breathing caused by snoring. Often, snoring occurs because of inflammation of the nasal passages and soft palate tissue in the back of the throat. As an anti-inflammatory oil, peppermint oil can open airways and allow freer breathing to prevent snoring, sleep apnea, and the fatigue and mental impairment that result from them.

Other essential oils that can alleviate constricted airways include

  • Olive oil
  • Lemon
  • Eucalyptus
  • Thyme

You can become desensitized to your favorite essential oils and blends, so be sure to switch them up periodically for the best results.


Please note that many essential oils are not appropriate for certain ages, life stages, or physical conditions. This includes women who are pregnant, people having surgery, and people taking certain medications. Here is a list of safety precautions for many essential oils. Always consult with your physician before adding essential oils to your bedtime routine.


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