Natural sleep oils

Spraying sheets and pillows with calming scents can be a wonderful aid to slumber

‘There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.’ Attributed to Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, this short quote describes the importance he placed on rest, something many share today. Most people will experience sleep problems at some stage in their life. At least a third are getting a poor night’s rest every night. Even more worrying is the number of people who manage fewer than five hours a night is one in ten, according to research conducted by the Sleep Health Foundation.

There are many reasons for this. Stress at work; relationship worries; financial concerns – all tend to crowd the mind just when you want to relax, which is why it’s worth spending extra thought on making the environment you sleep in a tranquil one. Essential oils, which have grown in popularity as an aid to slumber, could be part of the solution. And combining freshly laundered bedding with aromas that have proven properties to help you unwind is worth the time and investment.

Research suggests that certain scents, derived from the essential oils of plants, are particularly effective for reducing stress and anxiety and aiding sleep. They can directly impact the body through the nervous system. The olfactory nerve is responsible for your sense of smell and starts from the nose, before entering the skull through tiny holes directly to the brain and sending signals to the limbic system and amygdala, which are linked to emotions, mood and memory. These systems are also in charge of regulating the autonomic nervous system, which can either trigger the fight-or-flight response, quickening the breath, heart rate and raising blood pressure, or turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the body.

This relates to why scents can trigger physical reactions so quickly, often leaving lasting effects after the scent has gone. The theory is that essential oils react biochemically in much the same way as anti-anxiety medications do with certain neuroreceptors.

Professor Tim Jacob of Cardiff University in the UK put this theory to the test. His study looked at whether an odour could condition someone to enter the pre-sleep phase and sleep state, inducing the physiological changes associated with rest and relaxation before and during sleep. In laboratory conditions, 23 men and 24 women were exposed to a particular fragrance every night for 28 days. The fragrance was lavender-based, blended with cedarwood, orange and ylang ylang as other major ingredients.

During this time the participants reported that their quality of sleep improved and researchers recorded a significant reduction in subjects’ respiratory rate when exposed to the aroma, which became greater as the study continued. Interestingly, Professor Jacob and his team observed that in women there was also a significant impact on blood pressure, although no such effect was evident in men.

The study concluded that a positive feedback loop occurs as the fragrance is repetitively paired with the pre-sleep state. In other words, it’s possible to condition the body to relax, ready for sleep, using certain scents.

There are a number of ways that essential oils can be used to aid sleep. A few drops can be added to a bath or a soothing, aromatic candle lit before bedtime. They can be diluted with water and diffused into the air or gently rubbed into acupressure points on the body. Pillow mist sprays are increasingly popular as they allow you to sleep in such close proximity to the scent. There are plenty of lovely sprays available to buy or you can make them yourself (see recipe below). Everyone’s different – be prepared for a little trial and error to find the scent that works best when it comes to entering the land of Nod.


Perhaps the most widely researched fragrance, lavender is well known for its soothing and sedative qualities, and is believed to slow down the nervous system and decrease heart rate and blood pressure. A good choice when you want to calm those racing thoughts.

Ylang ylang

A sweet, floral aromatic extracted from the flower of the cananga tree in Southeast Asia. Light and exotic, it can help to relieve stress and reduce anxiety.


The deep, woody aroma of cedarwood has been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure and has a proven sedative effect.


Pioneered by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, sweet-smelling jasmine is renowned for its relaxing fragrance. Research suggests it helps soothe, relieve anxiety and promote rest.


Combine half a cup of water, half a teaspoon of witch hazel and four to five drops of your favourite essential oil in a spray bottle and shake it up. Gently spray the mist over your pillows before going to bed.

This article was originally published in Breathe Issue 15, A new direction - View Magazine

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