Essential Oils for Sleep

We all know how great we feel after a truly restful night’s sleep. What you may not know is just how much harm is done to your body when you are sleep deprived. Lack of quality sleep can make you irritable, confused, tired, unfocused, and depressed [1]

Patel et al. reviewed some of the benefits of sleep and the consequences of sleep deprivation, particularly in a hospital setting [2]. Of course, they put everything in the context of a hospital setting, but the potential damage caused by missing sleep is the same for any person; it is only the severity that varies. Some of the documented effects of sleep loss include slowed wound healing, increased energy expenditure (normal activities require more energy), decreased immune function, and hormone imbalance (which may increase the risk of breast cancer, among other impacts). Additionally, as little as 36 hours of sleep deprivation (as opposed to chronic deprivation) can result in memory loss, inattention, delusions, hallucinations, slurred speech, loss of coordination, and blurred vision. In other words, sleep loss brings on delirium. Of course, that is not a surprise. One suggestion these authors make for promoting sleep is using essential oils. [2]

Why use essential oils as sleep aids?

There are many sleep aid medications available, both prescription and over-the-counter. Pharmaceutical options are well advertised, and many people think of these medications first when they encounter sleep problems. This can be unfortunate, because these are lab-produced synthetic products and the sleep they bring is often accompanied by unpleasant side effects. Those of you who have taken the most widely available over-the-counter sleep medications are probably familiar with the heavy headed feeling of grogginess you get the next the next morning. Unfortunately, that may be one of the more benign of the possible side effects, many of which may not have been identified yet. However, going to sleep with a diffuser containing lavender and Roman chamomile oils in your room is unlikely to cause side effects [3]. You will wake up feeling refreshed, not just because the amount of sleep increased, but the quality of your sleep increased. Natural products such as essential oils prompt the body’s systems to produce healthy changes such as increased immunity, enhanced digestion, and hormonal balance, in addition to improving sleep [4].

How do essential oils aid sleep?

Generally speaking, when inhaled, essential oils move directly through the olfactory bulb to the limbic system, where aroma processing occurs[5]. Applied topically, essential oils absorb through the skin, cross the blood-brain barrier, and enter the bloodstream in 10-30 minutes [4,5]. Each sleep enhancing essential oil works differently, depending on its chemical constituents and how they react with body structures such as neuroreceptors. Lavender essential oil illustrates this nicely. There are several different species widely used and each affects the body a little differently due to differing proportions of esters and alcohols, as well as ketones and monoterpenes [6] One example of how an essential oil helps with sleep is the research done by, scientists at the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago [7]. These researchers found that lavender helps induce sleep by increasing the brain’s alpha wave production. Actually, lavender is one of the most studied essential oils. A study of the effects of hot water foot baths with and without added lavender essential oil showed that both types of foot bath increased blood circulation, but only the foot bath containing lavender essential oil brought about balance in autonomic nerve activity over time, translating into relaxation [8]. Dunn et al. found that essential oil of lavender improved mood and reduced anxiety more than massage or rest for ICU patients, although this effect was neither long-lasting nor cumulative [9].

Of course, there are examples for essential oils other than lavender. One of these is lemongrass essential oil, which was shown to have sedative and antiseizure qualities in mice [10]. Researchers also have found that citral, myrcene, and limonene, constituents of lemon verbena (Lippia alba) essential oils, have sedative and motor relaxant properties [11].

What essential oils are useful sleep aids?

Patel et al., whose review of sleep deprivation effects and treatments in hospital settings was discussed earlier, recommend thyme (Thymus vulgaris), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), lavender, and jasmin (Jasminum spp.) [2]. Other researchers and practitioners may recommend one or more of the essential oils that are listed below, which are frequently recommended for sleep troubles [4,6].

  • True lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), spike lavender (L. spica), and lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia)[1]
  • German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
  • Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)
  • Valerian root (Valerian fauriei)
  • Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)
  • Rose (Rosa centifolia or R. Damascena)
  • Geranium (Pelagonium graveolens)
  • Ylang ylang (Cananga odorata)
  • Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)
  • Sandalwood (Santalum spp.)
  • Blends of these and other essential oils

How should I use essential oils to aid sleep?

There are many ways to effectively use essential oils to induce or prolong sleep. Many essential oils need to be combined with a carrier oil prior to use. Using the essential oil and carrier oil combination for a massage can be a heavenly way to relax for sleep. Essential oils used in lotions, compresses, or baths are also great sleep aids. Many recipes for making your own are available on the internet. Essential oil diffusers and warmers are becoming more popular, but a similar effect can be created by putting a few drops on a cotton ball and placing the cotton ball near your bed.

The following is probably the easiest way to use an essential oil to aid sleep:

  1. Place a few drops in the palm of your hand (use carrier oil if recommended by manufacturer or other information source),
  2. Rubbing your hands together.
  3. Cup your hands over your mouth and nose, and take a few deep breaths.
  4. Rub hands on your arms, legs, the back of your neck, or anywhere that strikes your fancy. Alternatively, wipe the excess oil off your hands onto your pillowcase.

This method provides a double whammy of inhalation and skin penetration, increasing the efficacy of the oil.

Other considerations

Insomnia is a symptom, not a disease or disorder unto itself [1]. It is important, and useful, to look for the root cause. Often, that can be treated with essential oils as well. For example, a typical cause of sleeplessness is anxiety. This is what brings on those circling thoughts that keep us awake at night. In this case, the essential oils discussed in this article could be used in conjunction with oils that are effective treatments for anxiety. You can learn more about these oils in our other article on essential oils and anxiety.

1.    Adelmann M. Insomnia is a Symptom. In: The Herbal Academy [Internet]. 11 Mar 2013 [cited 6 Nov 2017]. Available:

2.    Patel M, Chipman J, Carlin BW, Shade D. Sleep in the intensive care unit setting. Crit Care Nurs Q. 2008;31: 309–18; quiz 319–20.

3.    Anonymous. Studies from University of Minnesota Yield New Data on Complementary and alternative medicine (a systematic review of the effect of inhaled essential oils on sleep). Clinical Trials Week. 2014; 308.

4.    Jenkins S. Essential Oils for Sleep: The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Cure Insomnia and Get Deeper Sleep With Essential Oils. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 2016.

5.    Halm MA. Essential oils for management of symptoms in critically ill patients. Am J Crit Care. 2008;17: 160–163.

6.    Falsetto S. Lavender Essential Oil: Chemistry and Therapeutic Properties. In: Decoded Science [Internet]. 5 Dec 2012 [cited 8 Nov 2017]. Available:

7.    Strausfogel S. sleeping beauty- discover why sleep is essential for shining hair and a clear, winkle-free complexion.pdf. Better Nutriton. Active Interest Media; Jan 201072: 24.

8.    Saeki Y. The effect of foot-bath with or without the essential oil of lavender on the autonomic nervous system: A randomized trial. Complement Ther Med. 2000;8: 2–7.

9.    Dunn C, Sleep J, Collett D. Sensing an improvement: an experimental study to evaluate the use of aromatherapy, massage and periods of rest in an intensive care unit. J Adv Nurs. 1995;21: 34–40.

10. Blanco MM, Costa CARA, Freire AO, Santos JG Jr, Costa M. Neurobehavioral effect of essential oil of Cymbopogon citratus in mice. Phytomedicine. 2009;16: 265–270.

11. do Vale TG, Furtado EC, Santos JG Jr, Viana GSB. Central effects of citral, myrcene and limonene, constituents of essential oil chemotypes from Lippia alba (Mill.) n.e. Brown. Phytomedicine. 2002;9: 709–714.



1]Be sure you are getting the correct species of lavender essential oil. All three lavender species listed are helpful for sleep, but another species, Lavandula stoechas, is generally avoided because the high ketone content of its essential oil makes it hazardous. True lavender is a gentle, “mellow” essential oil, while spike lavender is stronger. Lavandin is a hybrid of these two, and mimics them both to an extent [6]. Marjoram and chamomile are two other essential oils that have multiple species that may all be labeled under the same common name, so when possible, look for the scientific name.

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