If you’ve been struggling with poor sleep and tempted to experiment with essential oils as a way to get the elusive zzz’s you’re after, we get it.
But before you spring for a new diffuser and a starter-pack of essential oils, consider that, despite its popularity, there’s not much scientific evidence behind claims that aromatherapy works for sleep. While there’s likely no harm in trying it out as an add-on to your bedtime routine, sleep experts don’t recommend relying on aromatherapy and forgoing healthy sleep hygiene – habits scientifically proven to improve your ability to sleep better.
Here we’ll dive into the science behind aromatherapy, what the research says about its impact on relaxation and sleep, how to use aromatherapy, and, calming scents aside, some science-backed strategies for boosting relaxation and sleep. We’ll also share how the RISE sleep and energy app can guide you through these sleep hygiene habits (with or without aromatherapy) for more restful sleep and daily energy.
Aromatherapy is a centuries-old holistic healing technique that uses the essential oils extracted from aromatic plants to promote physical and emotional well-being. These essential oils can be inhaled, diffused, or applied to the skin.
Aromatherapy is thought to work through the sense of smell, which is closely linked to the brain's limbic system. This system is responsible for controlling emotions, memory, and arousal, among other functions. When you inhale essential oils, they stimulate the limbic system and trigger various physiological responses. Different oils have different properties that can impact the body and mind in various ways, producing a relaxing or invigorating effect.
Certain plants are believed to have sedative effects, thus promoting relaxation and a good night’s sleep. These include, among others:
The short answer is maybe, but there’s not sufficient evidence to be certain.
There is ample evidence that aromas can elicit different psychophysiological responses, such as changes in our emotional states and mood, via our limbic systems. This includes the possibility that certain fragrances (lavender has been particularly well-studied) may help to alleviate anxiety and promote feelings of calm.
However, the question of whether aromatherapy is universally beneficial to our sleep is another thing. On one hand, there have been many studies done that, at a glance, support the notion that certain essential oils may have a positive effect on sleep.
For example, a 2010 Taiwanese study of 34 midlife women with insomnia concluded that lavender inhalation may help alleviate the short-term sleep difficulties associated with menopause. And in another 2010 study of 64 ischemic heart disease patients, researchers found that sleep quality was “significantly improved” after patients were exposed to lavender aromatherapy.
But, on the other hand, the findings of such studies are limited in their real-world applications. Not only have these studies typically been quite small, they’ve also been focused on very specific groups of people, as shown in the above examples.
This means that, for most of us, there’s no assurance that we’ll have the same outcomes when we’re using essential oils in our home environments and in the context of our everyday lives. And limited study size and participant populations aside, there are some other issues with the research done to date:
To throw one final wrench in the aromatherapy argument, scientists also acknowledge that our sense of smell is highly individual and subjective, and can vary across gender or even time of day. While smelling fragrances like lavender or chamomile may evoke relaxation in many, for those who find the scents unappealing, it’s likely to have an opposite effect.
One older study, though very limited at just 4 people, concluded that geriatric benzodiazepine-dependent patients experienced profound relief from withdrawal-related insomnia when exposed to lavender aromatherapy.
And even outside of controlled substances like benzodiazepines, there’s increasing evidence that popular so-called sleep aids like melatonin, cannabis, or even Benadryl may actually be harmful to our sleep and wellness long term. Unlike essential oils, which appear to have far fewer (if any, when used correctly) notable side effects. We cover potential risks of aromatherapy below.
Even if the science on the effects of essential oils for sleep is inconclusive to date, we do know that being relaxed before bed is an essential ingredient to getting enough healthy sleep (more on this in a moment), so anything we can do to promote a sense of calm before bed is encouraged, including aromatherapy.
Just keep in mind that using aromatherapy to improve sleep may not work for everyone, and should always be used in tandem with good sleep hygiene practices, which the science is solid on (more on this soon, too).
Interesting aside: Research on oral lavender for promoting relaxation and sleep is much more promising than anything we have on other methods of administration to date, including aromatherapy.
One thing we like about aromatherapy is that it’s very user-friendly. While many people opt for a diffuser (which functions a lot like a small humidifier, where you add a few drops of essential oil to the water reservoir), there are other ways to enjoy essential oils that don’t require any special equipment. You can also try:
Important! If you’re using essential oils in a way that they’ll come in contact with your skin — such as in bath water, on your pulse points, or as part of a massage treatment — you must first dilute them with a neutral “carrier” oil like coconut, argan, jojoba, or olive oil. Never put undiluted essential oils directly on your skin. (You can find dilution charts — such as this one — to help you determine a safe ratio of essential oil to carrier oil.)
In that vein, here are a few other things to be aware of before you begin experimenting with essential oils:
Relaxing before bed is important because it helps prepare our minds and bodies for sleep. When you relax, the body's parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is activated, which lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, allowing you to enter a state of rest and relaxation. Conversely, when you're stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is activated, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Tapping into our PNS after a long, busy day of tight work deadlines and/or tending to toddlers can be easier said than done, but it’s an essential part of meeting our sleep need (the individual amount of sleep that each of us requires each night in order to function optimally — the number varies from person to person). Getting enough healthy sleep each night keeps our sleep debt low and helps ward against the negative consequences of lost sleep that range from a lack of energy and worse mental health to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
So, if you’ve found aromatherapy helps you relax before bed, that’s great news! But to make sure you’re really improving your sleep and doing so sustainably, we recommend adding some science-backed sleep-health tools to your toolkit as well (we dive into these next).
A wind-down routine is a practice of engaging in calming activities before bed – one of the core elements of sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is a set of behaviors scientifically proven to help us get enough healthy, naturalistic sleep night after night (find our comprehensive Guide to Sleep Hygiene here). Aromatherapy may enhance relaxation before bed, but studies show it’s likely more effective when used in conjunction with sleep hygiene practices.
For instance, in the aromatherapy study on menopausal women mentioned earlier, sleep hygiene was part of the research protocol, and researchers acknowledged that it was integral to their findings. Similarly, in a study on the effects of lavender odor on the sleep of college students, sleep hygiene considerations were included in one test group, and researchers concluded from this that sleep hygiene plus lavender was the winning combination.
Good sleep hygiene also helps us align with our circadian rhythm (our internal biological clock that dictates our sleep-wake times and our daily natural energy fluctuations). When we’re living in sync with our circadian rhythm, we sleep more soundly, wake up more readily, have more energy during the day, and are able to relax more naturally in the evening (not to mention reduce our risk of a whole host of health issues).
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to see their circadian rhythm on the Energy screen.
Here’s how you can improve your sleep hygiene for better relaxation, energy, and sleep:
Establishing a relaxation-promoting wind-down routine is one of the best things you can do for your sleep and energy. What constitutes a good wind-down routine varies from person to person, but the goal is to engage in activities that calm our bodies and minds 1-2 hours before bed. This helps us activate the PNS for restful sleep. Whether or not you choose to bring essential oils into the mix, here are some scientifically-proven strategies for winding down before bed:
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to listen to all four relaxation techniques.
Creating a sleep-conducive environment helps to relax the mind and body and is an essential aspect of sleep hygiene. The optimal sleeping environment should be cool, dark, and quiet. Set your thermostat between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, use blackout curtains, and wear earplugs and an eye mask.
Your bedroom should also be somewhere where you enjoy being, and where you can disengage from the stresses of daily life. Keep your space clean and clutter-free, and avoid doing schoolwork or replying to work emails in bed if possible. Make sure your pillows and mattress are genuinely comfortable to you, and we recommend opting for non-restrictive bedding and sleeping attire, ideally made from natural, breathable fibers.
Can your sleeping direction impact your sleep? We investigate that here.
Getting bright light first thing in the morning resets your circadian rhythm for the day, helping you feel relaxed and sleepy come bedtime. Aim to get at least 10 minutes of natural light as soon as possible after waking up if it’s sunny, or 15 to 20 minutes if it's overcast or you’re getting light through a window.
On the other hand, you want to avoid light close to bedtime, as it suppresses production of the body’s sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. One to two hours before bed, dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses to keep melatonin production in high gear.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, large meals, and intense exercise too late in the day, as all four can make it difficult to relax in the evening, push back your bedtime, and wake you up during the night. But don’t worry–you don’t have to give them up altogether. RISE can help you figure out daily cut-off times for each.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications.
More research is needed before we can say for sure whether aromatherapy works for improving sleep.
Because it is, for the most part, safe, if you like it and find it works for you, there’s little risk in using it as part of your bedtime routine.
But don’t focus solely on aromatherapy for relaxation and better sleep. Good sleep hygiene is the proven path for relaxed and restful nights and positive, productive days. Let the RISE app help you lock in your best routine. The RISE app can help you stay on top of 20+ sleep hygiene habits each day and tell you the ideal time to do each one based on your circadian rhythm to make them more effective. 80% of RISE users feel the benefits within five days, so you could be sleeping better within the week, with or without essential oils.
While there’s some evidence that certain scents may help us sleep better by alleviating stress and anxiety, more research is needed on aromatherapy’s effect on sleep before we can say for certain. Instead, turn to proven sleep hygiene habits like keeping your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet, and avoiding sleep disruptors like caffeine and alcohol before bed.
When we inhale certain scents, the particles enter our lungs, where they’re absorbed into our bloodstream. At the same time, the particles travel along our olfactory highway to our brain, where they act on our limbic system, which is the brain's emotional processing center. This can lead to a sense of calm and relaxation, which may facilitate sleep.
While there’s little data to support the efficacy of essential oils for sleep, some people find that certain scents help them relax and fall asleep more easily. Just make sure you’re using scents that are meant to be calming like lavender, chamomile, or ylang ylang, and diluting them with a carrier oil if applying them topically. Also, make sure to choose high-quality, pure essential oils to avoid potential side effects.
Choose a calming scent like lavender or chamomile and either apply it topically after diluting with a carrier oil, add it to bath water, diffuse it, or make a room spray by adding a few drops to water in a spray bottle. However, it’s important to note that aromatherapy is just one aspect of a comprehensive sleep hygiene routine that also includes factors such as a comfortable sleep environment, regular exercise, and consistent sleep schedule.
Some of the most popular essential oils for sleep and relaxation are lavender, bergamot, ylang ylang, chamomile, and frankincense. However, it’s important to choose scents that work best for you, as individual responses to scents can vary. Experiment with different scents and methods of use to find what works best for you.
RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential
RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential