The claim that essential oils can help you get a better night’s rest is centuries old
Even if you make the time, getting to sleep quickly and managing to stay asleep can seem like an inconceivable task. With one in five participants in the aforementioned 2018 study saying they had taken tablets in order to try and sleep better, it is clear that there is demand for products and a solution to help. Aromatherapists and essential oils brands think they have found it.
Over the past few years, plenty of products have appeared on the market claiming to boost quality and quantity of sleep through the use of basic aromatherapy principles that advocate the impact of essential oils and natural scents. Available in the form of pillow mists, candles, diffuser oils, oil burners and body/face oils, there are not only endless ways to buy and consume the oils, but further confusion has grown from the general lack of scientific information available to support their use. The products claim they will help you achieve a better night’s sleep and leave you feeling more refreshed in the morning after use, but how true is this? And how beneficial to your sleep actually are they?
What are essential oils?
Derived from roots, seeds, flowers, bark and other natural plant products, essential oils are concentrated compounds that are connected to a plant’s scent, a crucial part of pollination.
How do they work?
“Essential oils work holistically on our mind and body for an enhanced sense of wellbeing,” explained aromatherapist Fran Johnson. “Depending on the essential used, some will help to lift our moods and some have been seen as natural healers through their unique ability to harness some medicinal properties.”
The basic principle is actually quite simple and seems to make sense: different oils stimulate different responses in our hypothalamus gland, which then triggers the production of a different hormone. According to Neom, an essential oil brand, the hormones then produce different responses within the body as chemical messengers are sent to specific cells, leading to better sleep, less stress, more energy or a mood boost, depending on which oil is inhaled. Scent can also be linked to our memories, stimulating positive responses in our bodies and helping to relax us in the evenings.
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According to Tisserand aromatherapist Jo Kellett, “Smell triggers memories and alters our emotional health. If applied to the skin, essential oils can also have a physical effect on our muscles, our digestive system and our nerves as they enter our blood stream.” This is an opinion Arabella Preston from Votary also stands firmly behind, saying that “our sense of smell is strongly linked to memory and so the right associations can have emotional benefits”.
This Works, the company behind the Deep Sleep Pillow Spray, put its products under heavy testing in 2017, using an independent functional MRI brain scan to analyse how its sleep products impacted our brains. The fragrances activated specific areas of the brain linked to smell, with their blend of lavender, vetiver and camomile specifically targeting the area that is linked to pleasure and calmness. Through stimulating these senses in our brains, essential oil blends can help us to relax and fall asleep much faster, it concluded.
Why is sleep important?
In 2017, neuroscientist Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: The New Science Of Sleep And Dreams rocketed into the bestselling book charts, showing how captivated the British public is by sleep and really how badly we all need a few solutions. For those of us who sleep for fewer than seven hours a night, Walker says that “low-level exhaustion becomes their accepted norm, or baseline. Individuals fail to recognise their perennial state of sleep deficiency has come to compromise their mental aptitude and physical vitality, including the slow accumulation of ill health.”
Only 16 per cent of Britons believe that they have sufficient sleep each night and 23 per cent of people only get five to six hours of sleep each night. When asked what they believed the reason for their lack of sleep was, 25 per cent said stress, suggesting they were having trouble relaxing enough each evening. According to Mind, mental health also plays a huge factor in limiting and disrupting the quality of our sleep, whether it be through an endless stream of anxious thoughts or nightmares and terrors from conditions such as PTSD.
This means we are missing out on crucial benefits. According to Ana Noia, a senior clinical physiologist at Bupa, getting enough sleep can not only “improve attention and concentration, help maintain a healthy weight, keep your heart healthy, keep your immune system strong, help your emotional wellbeing, boost your mood, reduce stress and help give you enough energy to maintain good relationships.”
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What do the doctors say?
“Currently in the UK essential oils are not prescribed by NHS doctors. These preparations are considered as part of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), which falls outside of mainstream healthcare,” explained Dr Chris George. “However, this is not to say that there is not a role for essential oils to go alongside everyday medicine.”
Sleep and neuroscience specialist Professor Badre explains that “there is not yet enough evidence proving that aromatherapy can replace medical drugs in patients with severe insomnia”. This aside, he says, “It can be very beneficial for subjects with transient or chronic mild – or even moderate – sleep disturbance, mainly [for] difficulty falling asleep but also for early awakenings.”
While tests and further studies are needed to give us a conclusive answer as to how beneficial they may be, science does have some answers for us on how we should use essential oils. Using a blend rather than just one scent may have had a greater impact on the brain in studies, Dr Badre says. Having a more complex blend of aromas (lavender with neroli and camomile, for example) “may entail the recruitment of more emotional and cognitive structures, leading to a more pleasant evaluation, better affecting states of calmness, relaxation and mood, hence impacting sleep”. He concludes that “multi-fragrances may have a more important impact than simple scents”.
Essential oils also may be beneficial for reducing anxiety, Dr Chris George explains. “Some small studies support the use of lavender essential oils for reduction in stress and anxiety. One study in particular used lavender oil preparation Silexan in the treatment of generalised anxiety disorder and compared this to benzodiazepine medication [a commonly prescribed drug for anxiety]. What they found is that the lavender preparation had comparable positive effects on sleep as traditional medication. However, the huge advantage is that the lavender oil did not produce many of the unwanted side effects associated with the medications.”
Interestingly, it’s useful to note that essential oils may also reduce in effectiveness over time, if used consistently. “Aromas should not be used permanently every night, there may be a risk of tolerance. It can be, in fact, more beneficial to use them in periods of stress, anxiety, transient insomnia, jet lag and when expecting a bad night’s sleep,” Dr Badre says. He also explains that aromas can have different impacts for different people and not everyone will respond in the same way to each stimuli.
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Which oils can help?
Tisserand aromatherapist Jo Kellett recommends starting with lavender oil, geranium and frankincense. Lavender oil is one of the most commonly oils to help with sleep disorders. Additionally, Johnson, the head aromatherapist for Neal’s Yard Remedies, recommends frankincense, as she says it helps to slow the breath and calm the mind, as well as neroli, which can “powerfully ease stress and anxiety”. Camomile “can ease the tension of the day” and vetiver “calms the mind and restless thoughts”.
What should you look for?
Essential oils come in many different forms, such as pure oils, diffuser oils, sprays, bath soaps, moisturisers, skincare products and candles. Kellett says that all forms will have an effect but that “you should consider what you want to achieve, which will help you choose what base product the oil should be in. For example, if you have a sore back, inhaling oils may not be as effective as taking a bath with the blend or using a massage oil. If you’re looking to encourage a good night’s sleep, a bath is great.”
Other ways to enjoy the benefits of the oils: put a few drops in a hot bath before bed or buy a diffuser. Plenty of diffusers allow you to set them on timers to shut off after an hour or two so they won’t be running all night, while others have lighting effects, which can help build an ambient mood. (See which diffusers GQ recommends here.)
According to Dr Badre, “A simple constituent – lavender, for example – will not have the same impact as a complex fragrance combining many ingredients.” For this reason, some of the best products we have found, and tried, are essential oils blends, for which multiple oils that have similar effects are combined to create the desired effect.
It is also important to only use small amounts. “Essential oils are very potent. You don’t need to use them in large amounts and never undiluted on the skin. They should always be diluted in a carrier base so they’re safe,” says Fran Johnson of Neal’s Yard Remedies. “Lavender is used to help sleep, and a few drops act as a sedative, but too many drops will have the opposite effect and be stimulating.”
Kellett warns that there is a lot of misinformation around essential oils and it is crucial to ensure you use a reputable supplier. “The Aromatherapy Trade Council was set up to offer consumers and professionals alike a standard of essential oils that had met certain criteria, ensuring that the quality was good, they came from a trustworthy source and the packaging was clear and informative.” She also says that it is best to buy organically, looking out for the Soil Association certificate, “Ethically Harvested” or “Wild Crafted”. This means the plants are either consciously cultivated to the natural environment to ensure the species is not depleted or they are gathered from their wild habitat. Many essential oils are also accredited by the UK Vegan Society.