It’s the most wonderful stressful time of the year: Yep, we’re talking about the holidays. From fighting the crowds in packed stores for the perfect gift to cooking for what feels like a million family members that have descended upon your home, there’s a lot on all of our to-do lists this time of year. It’s enough to make even those with the most holiday spirit lose some of their cheer—and, worse still, lose valuable sleep.
One way to combat some of the sleep-wrecking stress that creeps up during the holidays is to take advantage of the calming properties of essential oils and use aromatherapy for sleep. In fact, they’re a nice alternative to natural sleep supplements, which often come with potential side effects.
What are essential oils—and how are they made?
“Essential oils are the liquids extracted from various parts of the plant, such as the root, peel, flower, leaf, or wood,” explains Valerie Bennis, president and founder of the aromatherapy company Essence of Vali in New York City. They’re the “essence” or “sweat” of a plant, and they’re actually more liquid-y than they are oily, says Bennis.
Essential oils are most commonly extracted through a process known as steam distillation. During the distillation process, the vapor that’s released from the steamed plants cools until it turns into a liquid. The second method of essential oil extraction is expression, says Bennis. This specifically applies to citrus fruits. During the expression process, citrus essential oils are extracted from peels via cold pressing.
Essential oil quality varies widely, but there are ways to ensure you’re getting a quality product. Bennis suggests doing your research and buying from companies that have been around a long time. Health food stores and stores like Whole Foods are good places to buy essential oils from, she says.
Health benefits of essential oils
Essential oils date back to ancient times as a popular aromatherapy treatment. Many people believe essential oils have a ton of health benefits, including fighting off colds, improving your memory, and relieving headaches.
A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that inhaling essential oils can also help people with mild sleep issues. That makes sense, given that research has noted that certain essential oils have anti-anxiety benefits and depression-relieving effects.
Beyond using essential oils in your own life, giving them as a gift is also a great idea—especially if there’s someone close to you who is particularly burnt out this holiday season. Here, get a rundown on exactly what essential oils are, learn about the best essential oils for sleep, and find out how to use essential oils to get better shut-eye.
The best essential oils for sleep
Not all essential oils have the same benefits. Some are better at relieving stress and promoting sleep than others. Here are the best essential oils to help you sleep. Sniff ’em and snooze!
If there’s one essential oil you’ve heard of or tried before, it’s likely lavender. This purple plant is known for its sleep-promoting properties, and it’s readily available in lots of products. while using lavender oil for sleep is not a novel idea, you may not know the science behind why, exactly, it makes such a great sleep aid. A study published in the journal Chronobiology International found that inhaling lavender before bed increased how much deep sleep participants experienced. Additionally, a study out of a university in Thailand noted that inhaling lavender oil can decrease blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature. Participants in this study who inhaled lavender said they felt fresher and more relaxed.
It makes sense that chamomile essential oil would be a leading essential oil for sleep. After all, chamomile tea is very relaxing. A study published in the Journal of Aromatherapy looked at the effects Roman chamomile had on the mood and alertness. Participants who whiffed chamomile became calmer and drowsier.
Ylang-ylang is a popular scent found in perfumes, and it’s been proven to soothe the mind. When participants in a Korean study inhaled a blend of ylang-ylang, lavender, and bergamot once daily for four weeks, they had lower stress, anxiety, and blood pressure at the end of the study.
Citrus scents like sweet orange have not only been proven to boost your mood, but they also have very relaxing qualities too. For a study published in the journal Advanced Biomedical Research, scientists had 30 children ages 6-9 inhale sweet orange essential oil before going to the dentist (a very stressful event for many of us!) and then go to the dentist again without smelling any citrus scents. The kiddos had lower pulse rates and cortisol levels after inhaling sweet orange essential oil.
Take a deep inhale of cedarwood, one of the most popular winter scents, for a major dose of relaxation. According to a study published in the journal Autonomic Neuroscience, participants who smelled cedrol, a compound extracted from cedarwood oil, had an increase in activity in the parasympathetic nervous system and a decrease in activity in the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is also known as the “rest and digest system.” It slows your heart rate and relaxes the muscles in your GI tract. Your sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is responsible for what we call the “fight or flight response.” It increases your heart rate and adrenaline. So more parasympathetic activity and less sympathetic activity amounts to a more relaxed state. Using cedarwood essential oil for sleep can help tone down your adrenaline levels and make it easier for you to fall asleep.
This delicate flower is a lot more potent than you may have thought. Research out of Wheeling Jesuit University found that sniffing jasmine leads to better sleep, less anxiety, and improved mental performance. Professor Bryan Raudenbush came to that conclusion after monitoring the sleep quality of 20 people over three nights. The research participants either inhaled jasmine or lavender scent that had been pumped into the air or no odor. When the participants sniffed jasmine, they had improved sleep quality and less movement while sleeping. When they woke up, they reported less anxiety and better cognitive function. (Jasmine is one of the top seven bedroom plants that improve sleep—see what else made the list.)
Neroli isn’t quite as popular as some of the other essential oils on this list, but it’s still one of the best essential oils that help you sleep so it’s worth your time. A study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine specifically looked at the effects inhaling neroli oil had on menopausal symptoms, stress, and estrogen in post-menopausal women. Sixty-three healthy post-menopausal women inhaled either neroli oil or almond oil (the control) for five minutes twice daily for five days. Those in the neroli oil-inhaling group had lower blood pressure, cortisol levels, and estrogen than the control group.
Santalol, a compound in sandalwood oil, is known to have sedative effects. A Japanese study put sandalwood oil to the test on sleep-deprived rats. After inhaling sandalwood oil, the rats experienced a decrease in total waking time and an increase in deep sleep. Based on these results, the researchers theorized that sandalwood could be used in humans with sleep difficulties. Meanwhile, a study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that inhaling sandalwood oil curbed the anxiety levels of patients in palliative care.
Vanilla doesn’t just smell delicious—it turns out that it’s got some pretty neat anti-anxiety benefits. For a study published in the Journal of Magnetic Resonance Imaging, 57 patients either inhaled heliotropin (a vanilla-like scent) with humidified air or humidified air without any added scent during an MRI procedure to diagnose cancer. Those who breathed in the heliotropin had less anxiety during the procedure than those who breathed in non-scented air.
How to use essential oils for sleep
Bennis notes that blending multiple essential oils together can be more effective at relaxing you and promoting good sleep than using a single essential oil on its own. “Most people are familiar with lavender, she says, but when you mix it with other essential oils that are relaxing, it’s more powerful,” she says.
Aromatherapists call these blends “synergies.” Bennis’s favorite synergy of essential oils for nighttime is lavender, marjoram, cedarwood, and ylang-ylang—this is the sleep blend she’s been selling for more than 18 years.
Essential oils should always be mixed with a carrier oil (like jojoba) or distilled water—they’re super-concentrated, so you’ll only need to add a couple drops to your chosen base. If you’re interested in pairing a few essential oils together, your safest bet is to buy aromatherapy blends because getting scent combinations just right on your own can be tricky. “You want an aromatherapy formula that smells good,” says Bennis, and one too many drops of ylang-ylang will not make for a pleasant scent.
Where to apply essential oils for sleep
Here are the most popular ways to use essential oils for better sleep.
- Mist them on your pillow. Spritz your pillow with an aromatherapy spray before you go to bed. Try this DIY recipe from Wellness Mama, which combines ylang-ylang, lavender, and bergamot. Bennis says that if you’re DIYing aromatherapy blends, it’s best to store them in dark glass bottles. Sprays will separate—since oil and water don’t mix—so you’ll have to shake the bottle before use.
- Dab them on your wrists. Essential oils should always be diluted before you apply them to your skin because they’re very strong. Add a couple of drops of your chosen essential oil to a carrier oil, then dab a small amount onto your pulse points and inhale.
- Add them to a bath. Taking a nighttime bath promotes better sleep—so up your bath game by squeezing a couple of drops of your favorite essential oil into your tub.
- Put them in a diffuser. Placing a diffuser in your bedroom is a great way to fill your space with a relaxing scent, says Bennis. You can find inexpensive diffusers on Amazon, like this one from URPOWER, which costs $15.99.