These 6 Essential Oils Could Help You Sleep Better

Essential oil flat lay with orchid blossom
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Not getting enough sleep? You're not alone; Depending on who you ask, anywhere from 10% 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 system 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.

1. Cedarwood

Scent profile: Rich, woodsy

Pairs well with: Bergamot, vetiver

In one clinical trial on 19 elderly subjects 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.

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2. Clary sage

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.

3. Frankincense

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 rats in one 2019 study.

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4. Lavender

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 sedative, even for those who suffer from insomnia.

5. Roman chamomile

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 sedative that can be helpful for reducing feelings of anxiety, too, potentially because of its high levels of apigenin, 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.

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6. Ylang-ylang.

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 pressure when applied to the skin and improve sleep when compared to a placebo 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.

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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.

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1. 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 9pm 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.

2. 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.

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3. 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.

4. 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.

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