Essential oils are the essence of scent or flavor extracted from a particular plant. Inhaling or mixing essential oils with a carrier oil and applying the mixture topically may provide certain health benefits. Some essential oils may promote a feeling of calm or relaxation, and this may help a person achieve a better night’s sleep.
This article describes what essential oils are and how to use them for sleep. We list seven essential oils that may help with sleep, some pros and cons of using essential oils, and some alternatives for achieving more restful sleep. We also answer some frequently asked questions about essential oils for relaxation and sleep.
Essential oils are oils that people extract from plants. They are called “essential” as they contain the essence of scent or flavor extracted from the plant.
Essential oils are highly concentrated, making them particularly strong or flavorful. As such, people commonly use them in aromatherapy.
A 2019 systematic review claims that essential oils may help with the following:
Many essential oils have relaxing or sedative properties that may help a person sleep.
There is limited research into how essential oils work. However, experts believe that when a person inhales essential oils, the molecules attach to the olfactory bulb in the nose. From here, the molecules transmit signals to parts of the brain involved in emotional and behavioral responses. These areas then release neurotransmitters that induce an emotional or behavioral effect.
Three different neurotransmitters and their associated effects include:
- Serotonin: Promotes a feeling of calm. It is also involved in the production of melatonin, which promotes sleep.
- Endorphins: Promote a feeling of euphoria and also have a sedative effect.
- Noradrenaline: Acts as a stimulant.
People usually inhale essential oils through a diffuser. Alternatively, a person can combine the oil with a carrier oil and apply the mixture topically.
The types of essential oils discussed below may be useful for promoting sleep.
Lavender is one of the most common essential oils in the U.S. due to its versatile health benefits.
A 2019 review states that lavender has sedative and calming effects that may improve both sleep quality and duration. Other potential health benefits include:
- reducing anxiety and stress
- improving brain function
- reducing headaches
- alleviating pain and healing wounds
A 2021 study found that inhaling lavender oil significantly improved sleep quality in individuals with major depression.
Chamomile is useful for promoting calm and aiding relaxation. It may also be useful for the following:
- alleviating anxiety
- alleviating headaches
- promoting digestive health
- wound healing
A small-scale 2021 study found that chamomile essential oil significantly improved sleep quality among 20 university students who experienced poor sleep quality. However, further large-scale research is necessary to confirm the effect.
Experts believe that bergamot may help reduce blood pressure and heart rate, resulting in a calming effect.
A 2019 study found that an essential oil blend of bergamot, lavender, and ylang-ylang improved sleep quality in people with heart problems. However, there was no significant difference in sleep duration between the group that received the essential oil treatment and the group that received a placebo.
Peppermint may have anti-inflammatory properties. People typically use the oil to help alleviate pain. Peppermint oil may also be useful for reducing anxiety and stress.
A 2020 study compared the effect of peppermint essential oil, lavender essential oil, and aromatic distilled water control on sleep quality in 105 people with cardiac issues.
The study found that both essential oils improved reported sleep quality compared to the control. However, there was no significant difference in sleep quality between the peppermint and lavender essential oil conditions. This suggests that both essential oils are equally effective at improving sleep quality.
Cedarwood oil has a natural, woody aroma. Manufacturers of essential oils frequently state that cedarwood oil has multiple uses, including:
- alleviating pain
- reducing stress and anxiety
- improving concentration
- promoting sleep
Research into the use of cedarwood oil for sleep is limited. However, a 2017 study into sleep quality in older adults with dementia used cedarwood oil as part of a blend also containing cypress and pine essential oils. The study concluded that the essential oil blend significantly improved sleep duration and reduced sleep disturbances in the participants.
Sandalwood is another essential oil with a woody aroma. Manufacturers frequently state that sandalwood essential oil is useful for the following:
- improving mood
- improving focus
- reducing stress and anxiety
- promoting a feeling of calm
There is limited research investigating the use of sandalwood essential oil as a sleep aid. A 2016 study distributed aromasticks to people living with cancer to help manage sleep problems in this population. The aromasticks contained the following essential oils:
Results show that 64% of participants reported some improvement in the quality of their sleep while using the aromasticks.
Manufacturers typically promote marjoram essential oil as effective for:
- alleviating stress and depression
- alleviating pain
- promoting digestive health
A 2017 study investigated the effect of aromatherapy massage on sleep quality in nurses on rotating night shifts. The aromatherapy massage oil consisted of sweet marjoram essential oil blended with sweet almond oil as a carrier oil.
Researchers divided the nurses into two groups: a treatment group that received the aromatherapy massage and a control group that rested in the room where the massages had taken place.
Results showed that the treatment group experienced a significant decrease in sleep disturbance and daytime dysfunction compared to the control group. The study concluded that massages with the essential oil blend were effective in improving sleep quality.
Before using essential oils for sleep, a person may wish to consider the pros and cons.
- Studies suggest a link between aromatherapy and good sleep.
- They may have other health benefits besides improving sleep.
- They are widely available.
- They can be expensive.
- They may not work for everyone.
- There are lots of essential oil options, so people may need to try a few before finding one that works for them.
- Allergic reactions are possible, especially if a person applies the essential oil topically.
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate essential oils.
The National Sleep Foundation offers the following recommendations for helping to achieve a good night’s sleep:
- sleeping and waking up at the same time each day
- following a consistent bedtime routine, which may involve:
- reading a book
- listening to music
- taking a warm bath
- ensuring that the sleep environment is cool, dark, and quiet
- ensuring that mattresses and pillows are comfortable and supportive
- avoiding eating within 2–3 hours of going to bed
- limiting stimulants, such as caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine
- exercising frequently
Below are some frequently asked questions about using essential oils for sleep.
How do you use essential oils for sleep?
A person can add two or three drops of essential oil to a diffuser, which allows the person to inhale the scent.
Alternatively, people can use diluted essential oils topically. For every drop of essential oil, a person should add a teaspoon of carrier oil, such as sweet almond, grape seed, or olive oil. A person can then apply the diluted oil to their skin.
Do essential oils for sleep work?
Research suggests that certain essential oils may help to promote relaxation and sleep. However, essential oils may not work for everyone, and a person may have to try a variety of essential oils to discover one that works best for them.
What is the most calming essential oil?
Many people consider lavender to be the most calming essential oil.
Essential oils are the essence of scent or flavor extracted from certain plants. Inhaling or applying essential oils topically in a carrier oil may promote certain health benefits, such as promoting sleep.
Experts believe that essential oils work by attaching to olfactory receptors in the nose. The receptors then transmit signals to the brain, which stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters. This process can trigger a change in emotion or behavior.
Many essential oils may help to promote relaxation and sleep. Examples include lavender, chamomile, and peppermint. Essential oils may not work for everyone, and a person may need to try several before finding one that works best for them. There is a wide range of essential oils available for purchase online.