Not getting enough sleep? You're not alone; Depending on who you ask, anywhere from 10%1 to 27% of adults in the U.S. consistently have trouble falling or staying asleep. One factor that contributes to many of these restless nights is excessive stress. That's where essential oils may be able to to help.
There's compelling research to show that certain plant compounds can reduce stress and help the mind unwind, priming the body for a longer, deeper night's rest. When inhaled or applied topically, the scent of some of these oils can queue the brain's limbic system2 to produce hormones that put our bodies into a more relaxed state. (The limbic system also controls memory retrieval, which is why certain smells can be portals to the past.) There are hundreds of essential oils out there—all of which affect us differently—but these six seem to be the most promising for sleep, according to the latest research.
Scent profile: Rich, woodsy
Pairs well with: Bergamot, vetiver
In one clinical trial on 19 elderly subjects3 who suffered from dementia and sleep disorders, inhaling an essential oil blend of cedarwood and other woodsy scents like cypress and pine before bed improved sleep. The study authors concluded that the blend prompts the body to release serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes a positive mood, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which puts us in "rest and digest" mode.
Scent profile: Earthy
Pairs well with: Lavender, citrus
Clary sage has an "antidepressant-like effect" when inhaled, according to one small study on 22 menopausal women in Korea. Inhaling the essential oil reduced their levels of cortisol (which gets released when we're stressed or anxious) while increasing serotonin levels. The change in cortisol was especially pronounced for women who suffered from depression. The oil seems to help people cope with more fleeting stressors, too, according to a 2013 study conducted on patients who were about to undergo an uncomfortable exam of bladder and urinary function. When patients smelled clary sage oil before the exam, their blood pressure lowered (both SBP and DBP)—even more than it did after they smelled lavender oil, which is often considered the creme de la creme of relaxing aromatherapy.
Scent profile: Spicy, warming, bitter
Pairs well with: Myrrh, sandalwood
Thousands of years ago, this ancient tree resin was used to create cleansing incense and medicines, and these days it's prized for its potential anti-inflammatory and stress-relieving effects. While research on humans is scant, frankincense oil had a calming effect on sleep-deprived rats4 in one 2019 study.
Scent profile: Floral
Pairs well with: Roman chamomile, clary sage
No surprise here: Lavender is by far the most popular (and extensively researched) essential oil for sleep. Multiple studies have found that it can improve sleep quality and act as a mild sedative5, even for those who suffer from insomnia6.
Scent profile: Sweet, light
Pairs well with: Patchouli, lavender
Any chamomile tea lovers out there? Smelling this oil before bed can be another way to reap the herb's calming properties: Chamomile is a mild sedative7 that can be helpful for reducing feelings of anxiety8, too, potentially because of its high levels of apigenin9, a compound that has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective benefits. There are a few types of chamomile that you'll find in essential oils, but Roman chamomile is the most widely available.
Scent profile: Floral, sweet
Pairs well with: Geranium, jasmine
Ylang-ylang is extracted from a striking yellow flower that grows on tropical trees native to India. Though there's not a ton of reputable research on its relaxing effects, it's been found to decrease blood pressure10 when applied to the skin and improve sleep when compared to a placebo11 in small studies. Its oil may also be helpful if you're looking to uh—not sleep—in the bedroom, and some use it as an aphrodisiac.
How to use them.
While essential oils are pretty incredible, they're not magic: If you suffer from chronic stress, eat a poor diet, and drink alcohol and caffeine until late at night, your sleep is going to suffer no matter how much lavender is at your disposal. But if you've put in the work to manage your stress levels, set up a sleep sanctuary, and fill your body with healthy foods and ingredients that promote relaxation, like magnesium and jujube, essential oils can further set you up for success.* Here are some easy ways to start incorporating them into your nighttime routine.
Add them to your diffuser.
If you have an essential oil diffuser at home, place it in your bedroom for a quick hit of aromatherapy before bed. Simply add 10-15 drops of one (or more!) of the oils listed above to your diffuser, run the machine, and let the scent fill your room. Interestingly enough, the average person's sense of smell seems to peak around 9pm12 every night, so aim to get your essential oil fix around then. For a luxe spa-like entry, run the diffuser a few hours before bed and then leave your room, closing the door behind you. By the time you come back in for sleep, it'll smell amazing.
Use them in a DIY room spray.
No diffuser? No problem. Make your own smell-good room mist by combining equal parts water and witch hazel in a glass spray bottle, then adding 20-30 drops of essential oil depending on the size of your bottle. Spritz your room before bed, or whenever you could use some calm.
Throw them in with your laundry.
The next time you're drying your sheets, add 4-5 drops of essential oils to a wool dryer ball and throw it into machine. They'll come out smelling fresh and lightly scented.
Smell them straight from the bottle.
The easiest way to reap the benefits of essential oils is just to sniff them right out of the bottle. Before bed, hold your oil of choice a few inches away from your face (so as not to accidentally get it on your nose or mouth) and take a deep inhale through the nose. Release, and repeat 4 more times to ease your body into a more relaxed place.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.