In theory, sleep is simple. All you have to do is lie down, close your eyes and enjoy sweet dreams as your body runs on autopilot.
But in practice, of course, things are a little more complicated. In a 2016 survey by Consumer Reports, 27 percent of respondents reported having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep most nights, while 68 percent struggled with sleep at least once a week (1). This goes a long way in explaining the $41 billion Americans spent on sleep aids in 2015—a number that’s expected to be around $52 billion by 2020.
While everybody is different and some pharmaceuticals work wonders for those with insomnia, many sleeping pills have harsh side effects, including dizziness, gastrointestinal issues, drowsiness, memory problems and a particularly troubling phenomenon known as “sleep driving” (2).
Prefer a more natural way to catch some zzzs? Essential oils—potent, concentrated oils extracted from the leaves, flowers and stems of plants—have been used for thousands of years to treat conditions ranging from epilepsy to migraines to sleeplessness. When used safely and in combination with other sound sleep practices, they can be an invaluable addition to your bedtime routine.
Why Is Sleep Important to Your Health?
Sleep is a crucial, non-negotiable component of your health and well-being, both physical and mental. As you sleep, your brain devotes its energy to preparing for the day ahead and forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information. Meanwhile, your body is busy repairing and healing itself—and, in the case of children and teens, growing.
Potential side effects of not getting enough sleep range from the pesky—think crankiness, forgetfulness and trouble concentrating—to the dangerous and potentially deadly. Chronic sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk in heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke, as well as car accidents (3).
So, how much sleep do you need? According to research by the National Sleep Foundation—a national nonprofit promoting healthy sleep and safety—adults ages 18-64 should be logging 7-9 hours nightly (4). (Recommendations are slightly less for seniors and more for children.)
Common Causes of Insomnia
Chronic insomnia can be caused by a number of factors. It may be the primary condition or a symptom of an underlying problem. Common causes include:
Symptoms of insomnia include difficulty falling asleep, waking up throughout the night, waking up too early, daytime sleepiness, difficulty focusing, irritability, depression and anxiety (5).
5 Best Essential Oils for Sleep
As a certified clinical aromatherapist, Robin B. Kessler frequently recommends essential oils for sleep and relaxation. “Essential oils are very effective in treating insomnia and sleep disorders, as long as they are used correctly and safely,” says Kessler, who serves as the New Jersey regional director of the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy.
Before introducing essential oils into your routine, Kessler recommends consulting a professional, as some oils can inhibit blood clotting, interfere with medications and cause severe allergic reactions. In her own practice, Kessler frequently uses the below oils to treat sleeplessness.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Prized for its healing properties since the Middle Ages, lavender has a long history of therapeutic uses. More recently, lavender oil—with its sweet, floral, slightly woodsy scent—has been shown to help with sleep disorders. A 2015 study concluded that, when combined with healthy sleep habits, lavender improved sleep quality in college students (6); another 2015 study showed that lavender was successful in treating both insomnia and anxiety in ICU patients (7).
Because lavender oil can also be a stimulant, Kessler uses it cautiously.
Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis)
Derived from the outer peel of the orange fruit, sweet orange oil can be both energizing and relaxing. Numerous studies have found that the fresh, citrusy scent is effective in lowering the pulses and anxiety levels of patients undergoing dental procedures (8), and aromatherapists frequently use it for stress-related sleep disorders.
Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides)
Derived from the roots of vetiver grass, vetiver essential oil has a strong, earthy, grounding scent. Although a lesser-known oil in the West, it’s extremely popular in its native India, and has recently attracted attention for its calming properties. A small study suggested that vetiver was helpful for children with ADHD (9), while another showed the oil to be as effective as commercial anti-anxiety medications (10).
Cedarwood Atlas (Cedrus atlantica)
Warm and woodsy, cedarwood oil is extracted from the wood of cedar trees. When inhaled, studies have shown that cedar has significant sedative effects (11), and it has been effective in improving the sleep quality of people with dementia (12).
Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
A popular tea choice, chamomile has been used for therapeutic purposes since ancient times. And while a cuppa is certainly calming, chamomile essential oil is even more effective. A 2006 study showed that inhaling chamomile induced feelings of drowsiness and calmness while reducing stress hormone levels (13). Have trouble falling asleep? Another study found that chamomile may significantly reduce the time it takes to drift off (14).
How to Use Essential Oils for Sleep
There are a number of ways to incorporate essential oils and calming scents into your sleep routine. Using a diffuser is a popular method, and there are plenty of models on the market. “Diffusing is an excellent way,” says Kessler. “If you’re using it at bedtime, I suggest closing the windows and doors, running the diffuser for an hour, then shutting it off and going to sleep—it will still be in the room and air as you drift off.” Each diffuser is different, so be sure to read the manufacturer’s dosing instructions.
You can also make a spray by mixing your oil with a high-proof alcohol (oil and water don’t mix!) and a few drops of liquid Castile soap. Kessler recommends spritzing it on your linens and pillow a half hour before turning in for the night.
Because essential oils are highly concentrated, they should be diluted before being applied directly to the skin. Kessler recommends making a dilution using a “carrier oil”—essentially a complementary, milder oil—such as coconut or jojoba, then applying to your wrists. If you have especially sensitive skin, consider a hydrosol. Also known as “flower waters,” hydrosols are by-products of the essential oil distillation process and are more gentle in nature, says Kessler.
Essential Oil Recipe for Sleep
Ready to try essential oils for sleep? Be sure to carefully research a safe oil recipe, or consult a certified aromatherapist. This recipe from Kessler is designed to be used with an essential oil inhaler.
Put the wick into the inhaler and add each oil. Close the inhaler and shake to mix the oils. Inhale in each nostril deeply before going to bed.