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Aromatherapy for Sleep

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Updated April 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

If you're dealing with insomnia or other sleep problems, aromatherapy may offer some relief. Preliminary research shows that certain essential oils may help promote relaxation and, in turn, encourage sounder sleep. While scientists have yet to determine how or why aromatherapy might help alleviate sleep problems, it's thought that inhaling essential oil molecules (or absorbing essential oils through the skin) may influence brain chemicals involved in controlling sleep.

The Science Behind Aromatherapy and Sleep

To date, there is very limited scientific support for aromatherapy's effects on sleep. However, early research shows that lavender essential oil may be of some benefit when it comes to easing sleep problems. For instance, a 2006 study of 42 women with insomnia found that four weeks of treatment with lavender aromatherapy helped relieve insomnia (in addition to reducing symptoms of depression). A 2005 study of 31 healthy sleepers, meanwhile, showed that lavender aromatherapy promoted deeper sleep (most likely due to lavender's mild sedative effects). And in a 2008 study of infants, researchers found that adding lavender-enriched oil to the bath helped increase participants' sleep time.

Chamomile and ylang-ylang essential oils also appear to improve sleep, according to a 2005 review of medicinal plants for insomnia.

Should You Use Aromatherapy for Sleep Problems?

Although aromatherapy is generally considered safe, some individuals may experience irritation when applying essential oils to the skin. Since essential oils are extremely potent, you should always take caution when using aromatherapy. To start, make sure to blend your essential oil with a carrier oil (such as jojoba or sweet almond oil) before applying it to the skin. Furthermore, essential oils should never be taken internally without the supervision of a health professional.

Learn more about using essential oils safely, and talk to your doctor if you're considering the use of aromatherapy in treatment of a sleep disorder.

How to Use Aromatherapy for Sleep Problems

There are many ways to use essential oils to ease your sleep problems. One approach is to massage your neck, shoulders, and any other areas with a relaxing essential oil blend. You could also shake three or four drops of a sleep-promoting essential oil onto your pillow just before you're going to sleep, or unwind with an essential-oil-enhanced bath before bedtime.

Sources:

Field T, Field T, Cullen C, Largie S, Diego M, Schanberg S, Kuhn C. "Lavender bath oil reduces stress and crying and enhances sleep in very young infants." Early Hum Dev. 2008 Jun;84(6):399-401.

Goel N, Kim H, Lao RP. "An olfactory stimulus modifies nighttime sleep in young men and women." Chronobiol Int. 2005;22(5):889-904.

Lee IS, Lee GJ. "Effects of lavender aromatherapy on insomnia and depression in women college students." Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 2006 Feb;36(1):136-43.

Lewith GT, Godfrey AD, Prescott P. "A single-blinded, randomized pilot study evaluating the aroma of Lavandula augustifolia as a treatment for mild insomnia." J Altern Complement Med. 2005 Aug;11(4):631-7.

Linck VM, da Silva AL, Figueiró M, Piato AL, Herrmann AP, Dupont Birck F, Caramão EB, Nunes DS, Moreno PR, Elisabetsky E. Inhaled linalool-induced sedation in mice. Phytomedicine. 2009 Apr;16(4):303-7.

Wheatley D. "Medicinal plants for insomnia: a review of their pharmacology, efficacy and tolerability." J Psychopharmacol. 2005 Jul;19(4):414-21.

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