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The use of essential oils has become increasingly popular for everything from sleep ailments to indigestion, headaches to swollen joints, respiratory problems to muscle pain. Below, we dive into the science behind which essential oils are best for sleep based on the latest clinical trials and studies.
Also known as volatile oils, essential oils are extracted from specific parts of a plant, whether it be the flowers, bark, roots, stem, leaves, or fruit. They’re composed of a combination of saturated and unsaturated hydrocarbons, alcohol, ethers, aldehydes, esters, ketones, and terpenes, which together produce signature scents. (1)
Common plants producing essential oils include: (1)
- Lemon, lime, sweet orange, mandarin, tangerine, bergamot (from the fruit peel)
- Cinnamon (from the bark)
- Lemongrass, citronella, patchouli, sweet marjoram, eucalyptus (from the leaves)
- Lavender, rosemary, geranium, jojoba (from the whole plant)
- Ginger (from the roots)
- Jasmine, orange blossom, ylang ylang, rose, neroli (from the flowers)
For the most part, essential oils are administered in small quantities via inhalation as users gently breathe them in through the nose (called aromatherapy). Alternatively, a few drops of essential oil can be applied topically by massaging the skin surface—although with this method, the concentrated oils are typically first diluted in a carrier oil such as coconut oil or jojoba oil. Essential oils should not be ingested internally.
When administered as aromatherapy via an oil diffuser, the scent modules travel from the olfactory nerves (responsible for our sense of smell) directly to the brain’s emotional center, called the amygdala.
With topical administration, essential oils carry skin permeability properties, meaning they have the ability to penetrate the human skin surface and remodulate themselves at the affected area.
Because the composition of essential oils isn’t regulated by the FDA, it’s important for consumers to know what to look for. Recently, Proper’s Head Sleep Science Advisor, Allison Siebern, PhD, advised The New York Times’ Wirecutter (2) on precisely this. Her #1 tip is to verify if the company checks the potency and purity of their products. Common methods for doing this include gas chromatography (a process used to separate a chemical mixture) or mass spectrometry analysis (a process where each component is individually analyzed). Together, these processes go by the name: GC-MS, which you should be able to find on the company’s website.
Experts also suggest looking for oils with an ISO stamp, which stands for International Organization for Standardization.
1. Lavender essential oil
Lavender is by far the most common essential oil used for sleep, with the most science to back it up.
- In a 2015 study (3) that compared the effectiveness of lavender and sleep hygiene intervention compared to sleep hygiene alone, researchers found that the aromatherapy group demonstrated better sleep quality immediately following the intervention and at the two week follow-up. This group also woke up more refreshed than the control group.
- In a 2012 study (4) that evaluated the effectiveness of lavender aroma on quality of sleep in healthy students, results showed that nighttime exposure to the essential oil relieved sleepiness upon awakening.
Researchers have also noted the lack of adverse side effects (5) reported with the administration of lavender essential oil, which indicates that it’s safe for most to use.
2. Clary sage essential oil
Clary sage is an herb native to southern regions of Europe. In a study (6) conducted on menopausal women in their 50s, the inhalation of clary sage oil was found to decrease levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) while increasing serotonin (the mood stabilizing hormone).
When cortisol is released (after an increase in stress and sympathetic nervous system activation), it can interfere with sleep onset (the ability to fall asleep) and sleep maintenance (the ability to stay asleep). That’s why many turn to the natural remedy of clary sage essential oil or an essential oil blend that contains clary sage for its soothing effects and stress relief.
3. Roman chamomile essential oil
While chamomile may have you immediately thinking of tea, it also comes in the form of essential oil aromatherapy, which has been studied for its calming properties. (7) Research indicates (8) that its mild sedative effects may be due to a flavonoid called apigenin, which binds to receptors in the brain that modulate GABA (a neurotransmitter that may support a reduction in stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness).
Bergamot essential oil is also commonly used, but the science behind it is less concrete. While select studies (9) have shown that this undiluted citrus oil facilitates sleep improvement, that’s only after being administered as an aromastick blend containing both bergamot and sandalwood or frankincense, mandarin, and lavender essential oil. Also, there are studies that show conflicting results, (10) with no significant differences in sleep quality for the intervention group taking bergamot essential oil.
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