The associations we make between our nose and brain are incredibly powerful. The scent of baking cinnamon rolls, for example, takes me back to childhood years spent in my grandmother’s kitchen. A whiff of apple blossom transports me immediately to springtime on my parents’ farm in Indiana. The steaming cup of coffee to my left smells like motivation.
It’s truly incredible how a scent alone can impact the way we think and feel, and it is this premise that’s given rise to the practice of aromatherapy. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy defines the term as “the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit.”
There are therapeutic scents for everything: eucalyptus for decongestion, ginger for digestive health, peppermint for nausea…the list goes on and on. Of course, being aficionados of everything sleep-related, we’re most interested in the scents that are historically utilized for insomnia.
Below are some common suggestions for essential oils and extracts that promote sleep and relaxation. Let us know your personal favorites in the comments!
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#1: Roman Chamomile
Roman chamomile is a flowering perennial plant that grows in Europe, North America and Argentina, and it’s one of the most popular aromatherapy scents for a reason! In addition to its insomnia-fighting properties, Roman chamomile is also effective at treating depression and anxiety by promoting a sense of total calmness. Other uses for Roman chamomile include treatments for inflamed skin, sores, boils and cysts.
Its essential oil is produced from the flowers and buds of the plant, and it has a very bright, crisp and sweet scent. Common extract colors include light gold to gray, as well as very pale blue.
Roman chamomile is safe for children and even infants when used in aromatherapy (though the oil may need to be diluted), however pregnant women should avoid it because it can cause premature contractions in some users, though very rarely.
Lavender is another popular scent for battling insomnia. A member of the mint family, lavender can be found growing naturally from southern Europe, across Africa all the way to southwest Asia and India.
While it’s mostly known for its uses in treating sleeplessness, stress and anxiety, lavender essential oil also has a host of other uses, including as a soothing agent for cuts, bruises, irritated skin, acne, asthma, headaches and any other ailments. Many people also use it as a flavor enhancer in cooking!
Unlike with chamomile, lavender essential oil is produced using both the leaves as well as the flowers of the plant. It has a thin consistency with a clear yellowish tinge, and the aroma can be described as floral, fresh and slightly fruity.
Some users may be initially surprised by the subtlety of the oil’s strength because they’re used to artificial lavender scents in commercial products, so if you’re initially disappointed, give it some time—you may be surprised at how effective it is! Lavender oil can either be diffused through a room like other oils, or a few drops can be applied to your pillow before bed to gain its soothing effects.
#3: Ylang Ylang
Ylang ylang (pronounced “EE-lang EE-lang) is a tree native to the Philippines. Its name is commonly translated from Tagalog, the most common language on the islands, as “flower of flowers” or “fragrance of all fragrances.”
Ylang ylang has a long history of traditional use for insomnia because of its relaxing, calming effects. In addition, the plant also has antidepressant and anxiolytic properties, and has even been traditionally used to treat anger and jealousy, and as an aphrodisiac! Modern applications for ylang ylang include as an ingredient in perfumes and colognes, in addition to its use in aromatherapy.
In its essential oil form, ylang ylang is clear with a light yellow tinge with a medium consistency. The oil is produced from the trees flowers, and it has a medium to strong aroma that can be described as “fresh yet delicate.” Try using ylang ylang as a bath or massage oil to reap its full benefits!
Bergamot essential oil is derived from the bergamot orange, which is native to southern Italy. The fruit is about the size of an orange and similar in color to a lemon, to which the flavor of its juice is comparable but slightly less tart.
Bergamot essential oil is cold-pressed from the rind of the fruit, and it’s used as a common ingredient in many perfumes. The oil has a thin consistency and a medium aroma strength, which can be described as citrusy and floral. Its color ranges from green to golden—it looks very similar to olive oil.
In addition to its uses for insomnia, this essential oil is commonly used in treating acne, anxiety, cold sores, depression, appetite loss and many other maladies! However, like many citrus oils, bergamot essential oils are phototoxic, meaning that they can cause rashes and irritability when used on skin and then exposed to UV radiation or sunlight. Therefore, caution should be exercised if applying it directly to your body!
Marjoram is a perennial herb related to oregano that is native to the Mediterranean region. Its Latin name, origanum majorana, comes from the Greek words “oros” and “ganos,” which translates roughly to “joy of the mountains.” In ancient times, marjoram was associated with love and happiness, and also the passage into death.
Marjoram essential oil is produced from the leaves of the herb, as well as the flowers and buds. It has a medium strength aroma that can be described as herbal, sweet, woody and “medicinal.” In addition to being a strong relaxant that’s great for treating insomnia and stress, marjoram essential oil is also useful in treating muscle aches and cramps, hypertension, sprains, bronchitis and a long list of other conditions.
Like with chamomile, women should avoid marjoram during pregnancy because of rare cases of it inducing uterine contractions.
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There are so many natural aromatherapy options for insomnia, and this list is nowhere close to exhaustive! If you are having trouble with insomnia but are hesitant to go on a prescription sleep aid (as you should be!), essential oils are a great alternative.
So, invest in a good diffuser and start your journey into the world of aromatherapy!
Until next time: sleep well, live well and be well!