Aromatherapy/Essential Oils for Insomnia

According to estimates, as many as 32 million people in the United States suffer from insomnia. Insomnia is defined as having trouble falling asleep, having difficulty maintaining sleep, or both. Generally, people experiencing insomnia do not feel refreshed even after extended periods of sleep (7-8 hours).

A number of prescription drugs are available for treating insomnia, including: zaleplon (Sonata®), zolpidem (Ambien®), lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax), triazolam (Halcion), and temazepam (Restoril). But the side effects of these sleep medications are sometimes worse than the condition of insomnia itself. Many people believe that aromatherapy can be used to treat insomnia. Some medical studies have found that essential oils can help relieve the symptoms of insomnia at least as well as prescription drugs.

How Is Aromatherapy Used to Treat Insomnia?

Practitioners have used a number of essential oils for treating insomnia for at least 6,000 years. Researchers now understand why some essential oils help in dealing with insomnia. They have found that certain essential oils are central nervous system depressants. That is, they tend to decrease the transmission of nerve impulses through the spine, the brain, and associated organs. In such a case, a person feels calmer, more relaxed, and less nervous, making it easier to fall and remain asleep.

Some of the essential oils used for insomnia are:

  • Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea)
  • Geranium (more correctly, pelagronium; Pelagronium graveolens)
  • German chamomile (Matricaria recutica)
  • Lavender (Lavandula augustifolia)
  • Marjoram (Origanum majorana)
  • Neroli (Citrus aurantium bigaradia)
  • Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
  • Sandalwood (Santalum album)

How Are Essential Oils Taken in Treating Insomnia?

Essential oils are commonly applied for the treatment of insomnia in one of three ways: by inhalation, by rubbing on the skin, or by adding to bath water. The simplest approach is to add a few drops of the essential oil to a clean cloth, such as a handkerchief, and then inhale the fumes released by the essential oil. You can also make a mixture of an essential oil and neutral vegetable carrier oil (such as sunflower oil) in the ratio of about 10 drops of essential oil to 25 milliliters of carrier oil, and then apply the mixture directly to the skin. For younger children the proportion of essential oil to carrier oil should be reduced. A few drops of an essential oil can also be added directly to a warm bath, permitting you to inhale the oil’s aroma while enjoying the relaxing properties of the warm water.

What Is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils to improve one’s health and emotional well-being. The term was invented in 1928 by French chemist Rene Maurice Gattefosse. Gattefosse discovered the benefits of essential oils when he burned his hand while working with perfumes. He plunged his hand into a nearby vat containing oil of lavender and found that his hand healed very quickly and without scarring. He gave the name aromatherapie to the procedure because he believed that the fumes released by various plants (their aromas) could have beneficial health benefits (therapies). Experts have now identified well over 100 plants whose aromas are thought to be effective in the treatment of a variety of physical and emotional conditions.

The father of modern aromatherapy is often said to be an Englishman, Robert Tisserand. He published the first book in English on the subject in 1977, entitled The Art of Aromatherapy. He later founded and still operates the Tisserand Institute for Aromatherapy in London.

What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are organic compounds that are obtained from the flowers, leaves, stems, and other parts of plants and that are responsible for the distinctive odor of those plants. Essential oils are used widely in the manufacture of perfumes and flavorings and in the process of aromatherapy.  Essential oils are obtained from plants by a process known as steam distillation, in which steam from boiling water passes through plant material. The steam causes the volatile essential oils in the plant to vaporize, after which they are condensed and collected. Some popular essential oils are anise oil (odor of licorice), bergamot oil (odor of citrus fruits), eucalyptus oil (clean, fresh, soap-like odor), lavender oil, and pine oil.

Evidence for the Effects of Aromatherapy on Insomnia

Scientific studies on the effects of aromatherapy on insomnia are somewhat limited, at least in part because aromatherapists do not necessarily subscribe to the basic assumptions and knowledge base of modern science. A few studies on the subject, however, have been published. Many of these have focused on the use of essential oils (usually lavender oil) to relieve sleep problems among patients with dementia. Four studies of this kind conducted in the 1990s found the oil to be at least somewhat effective in reducing insomnia experienced by such patients.

Are there Risks in Using Essential Oils?

When used as directed, essential oils are almost completely safe for the vast majority of people; however, some cautions are necessary. First, a small fraction of the general population may be allergic to one or more essential oils. When exposed to such an oil, an allergic individual may develop skin rashes, inflammation of the eyes or mouth, and other reactions. Second, some essential oils have been implicated in a medical condition known as gynecomastia, characterized by abnormal breast development in young boys. In general, essential oils should not be used directly on the skin, but should be diluted with a neutral vegetable oil. Finally, many essential oils are flammable and may produce carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds upon combustion.

Additional Resources

Schiller, Carol, and David Schiller. The Aromatherapy Encyclopedia: A Concise Guide to over 385 Plant Oils. Laguna Beach, CA: Basic Health Publications, 2008.

Wavelengths Natural Health: Aromatherapy for Insomnia.

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