Aromatherapy and Sleep

We all have that crazy aunt – the one who brings us lavender soap and aromatherapy for our birthday every day. She swears that they will help you relax and maybe help you get to sleep. You’ve thrown these away; you never really liked the smell of lavender anyway. But could your aunt actually be onto something? Might aromatherapy actually be beneficial for your health? Maybe even beneficial for your sleep? 

A group of scientists at Wesleyan University set out to answer this question. They tested whether aromatherapy scents, in just small doses, could alter sleep. The researchers did this in a very well designed study that required each participant to spend the night in the sleep lab 3 nights in a row. The first of the three nights was not an experimental night, it simply was used for acclimation. Because people sometimes sleep poorly in unfamiliar environments, a night of exposure to the lab helps to get rid of some of that anxiety before the actual experimental nights.

On nights 2 and 3, participants were either exposed to a vial of lavender aromatherapy or a vial of water for about a half hour before sleeping. They were instructed to hold the vial at chest level and inhale deeply. The participants were not told anything specific about the liquid inside so that they had no expectations about the motives of the study. Participants went to sleep soon after this exposure, and sleep quality and staging was compared between the two nights to see whether aromatherapy had an effect.

Amazingly, there were differences in sleep between the lavender and water exposure nights. On the night when the participants inhaled lavender, they slept much deeper. Specifically, they had more of our deepest sleep stage, Slow Wave Sleep. What’s more, when participants were tested for “vigor” the next morning, using a measure called the POMS scale, it was found that those in the lavender condition (those who had the deeper sleep) had increased vigor the next morning.

These findings are very interesting, as they confirm something that many people have been saying for years – aromatherapy helps you sleep! This study found that lavender oils, breathed in for a half hour before bed, increase the amount of time spent in the deep stage of sleep, and, in effect, increase vigor in the morning. For those of you with sleep apnea, even though you may feel silly, it could be worth your time and money to try some aromatherapy before sleep! If anything, it will probably not worsen your sleep, so it could be worth the try!

Goel, N., Kim, H., & Lao, R. P. (2005). An olfactory stimulus modifies nighttime sleep in young men and women. Chronobiology international, 22(5), 889-904.

Janna Mantua


Janna is a PhD Student / Graduate Research Assistant at University of Massachusetts Amherst with a background in clinical sleep research and psychology. Janna Mantua is a PhD student in the Behavioral Neuroscience department at the University of Massachusetts. Her research focuses on sleep and aging, with specific projects on cognitive health, inflammation, memory formation, and neuroimaging. Prior to her PhD work, Janna was involved in research on sleep apnea and cognitive decline at the NYU Sleep Disorders Center.

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