Lavender Oil Might Help You Sleep, but Be Careful Which Essential Oils You Buy

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Aromatherapy enthusiasts claim essential oils can do everything from calm anxiety to slow hair loss. But Googling the topic may leave you unsure of the difference between genuine potential and gimmicky advertising. One legitimate area of promise is lavender oil used as a sleep aid. You’ll find plenty of oils and sprays marketed for exactly this purpose, but not all are created equal. Here’s what you need to know.

What science says about essential oils

Navigating the murky waters of essential oils can get tricky. Using potent-smelling oils as therapeutic treatments is an ancient—but currently unlicensed—practice. There are encouraging studies backing some essential oils, but by and large the scientific research isn’t robust.

The specific compositions of essential oils aren’t regulated by the FDA. In short, commercially available essential oils are not proven to have the same effects as drugs, and the FDA does not monitor them as such. The FDA watches only to make sure essential oil companies don’t market their oils like medications, through labels and other advertisements.

Many people use essential oils by breathing them in through the nose via diffusion, spraying or soaking an item to smell, or simply whiffing a bottle of oil. Others apply them topically onto the skin (though before doing so, you typically should dilute them in a carrier oil, like coconut or jojoba). Ingesting essential oils is not recommended.

In theory, when inhaled, the strong scent molecules of essential oils travel from the nerves in your nose to the brain, impacting human emotions and physiological functions based on an oil’s composition. Different oils have been observed to have different effects, such as influencing the release of serotonin or dopamine. That said, the research on most oils marketed for sleep is not all that thorough.

For sleep, experts vote lavender

Studies supporting lavender oil as a sleeping aid are solid, even though they’re few in number, according to Dr. Charlene Gamaldo, medical director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep and Wellness. With her patients, Gamaldo is open to discussing lavender treatments via teas, oils, lotion, and sprays, as a non-prescription strategy.

“Lavender compound specifically has been one of the most studied,” Gamaldo said. But she said she’d hesitate to use oils beyond lavender because of limited scientific backing. Chamomile, frankincense, and clary sage are among the several other oils often marketed as sleeping aides.

“The market for sleep products, along with the essential oil market, has become like the wild west,” said Dr. Allison Siebern, adjunct clinical associate professor at Stanford Medicine’s Division of Sleep Medicine. Still, Siebern thinks lavender oil has good potential for sleep support. She said, however, that essential oils can’t serve as formal treatment for psychiatric or medical conditions, like sleep apnea or insomnia. Siebern said she views essential oils as “a holistic tool to support wellness,” but she recommends consulting with a health-care provider before using them.

What to look for

If you do want to try lavender oil, Siebern said it’s wise to “look to see if the company checks the potency and purity of their products with gas chromatography or mass spectrometry analysis and if they provide this to the consumer.” Gas chromatography is a process used to separate a chemical mixture, and mass spectrometry allows each component to be separately analyzed. Coupled, these processes are called GC-MS, and they’re used for a variety of chemical analyses. You should be able to find GC-MS information on an essential oil company’s website, and it can be a helpful—though not definitive—tool for assessing an oil’s quality.

Gamaldo mentioned that you can look for oils whose labels cite the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), an organization issuing basic essential oils standards that companies can use as a guide (without enforcing said standardization). But unless you purchase access to the ISO’s list of specific characteristics for a given oil and compare its stats to those of the oil you’re purchasing, you just have to take a company’s word for the authenticity of its oils, if it mentions ISO.

Jade Shutes, a former president of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, has some additional guidelines you can apply to your searching. Here are a few of the most helpful:

  • If a company touts its oils as “therapeutic grade,” this doesn’t mean its oils are actually of high quality. The therapeutic-grade label has no regulatory definition and is simply a marketing ploy.
  • Essential oils should be extracted from a specified, Latin-named plant species. You should be told the country each ingredient is from, the process used to grow it, and even the part of the plant utilized.
  • Ideally, the company you’re buying from should be transparent about details like the method of extraction and the chemotype (chemical makeup) of each oil.

How to shop in the real world

In practice, it takes diligence to find oils that meet these standards. Aura Cacia, a co-op–owned brand sold at Whole Foods, posts GC-MS test results on its website, but we can’t verify the safety of the results because we don’t have access to the ISO data.

Mountain Rose Herbs, based in Oregon, details its testing process on its website. And you can request GC-MS information for certain oils via email, to assess this yourself. (A company representative told us over the phone that Mountain Rose Herbs currently doesn’t have testing results for every oil but is working toward that goal. And it will send you the test results it does have.)

Both Aura Cacia and Mountain Rose Herbs practice Latin naming and transparency about the country each ingredient comes from—on their websites, you can click on a specific essential oil to find this information. Though select elements of these brands show promise based on experts’ advice, we can’t confirm the claims they make.

Many companies don’t share testing results at all. For example, although Saje’s website claims the company makes its oils with 100% natural ingredients, it doesn’t provide GC-MS results for specific oils (though a company representative mentioned in an email that Saje tests its oils using gas chromatography). Saje’s buying pages for specific oils also don’t mention origin of ingredients. Buying oils from companies that aren’t transparent about this information requires a bigger leap of faith.

If you do experiment with lavender oil as a sleep aid, keep in mind that essential oils affect everyone differently. They can cause allergic reactions, among other negative side effects. Be careful diffusing oils into the air until you know that you or any housemates won’t react adversely. And it’s best practice to keep your oils away from pets and infants.

Essential oils aren’t a magic cure for restless nights, but lavender oil could be worth a careful try if you vet the company you’re buying from and administer it in moderation. It’s “always important to observe your body’s response following exposure and listen to your body,” Gamaldo said. “If it doesn’t respond kindly, then stop using it.”

This article was edited by Christine Ryan and Christine Cyr-Clisset.

Sources

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5. Michele Freeman, Chelsea Ayers, et al., Aromatherapy and Essential Oils: A Map of the Evidence (PDF), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, September 2019

6. Sachiko Koyama and Thomas Heinbockel, The Effects of Essential Oils and Terpenes in Relation to Their Routes of Intake and Application, International Journal of Molecular Sciences, February 25, 2020

7. Regulations and Licensing Information, National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy

8. National Cancer Institute, Aromatherapy With Essential Oils (PDQ®): Integrative, alternative, and complementary therapies, University of Michigan Health System, November 7, 2019

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11. Moon Joo Cheong, Sungchul Kim, et al., A systematic literature review and meta-analysis of the clinical effects of aroma inhalation therapy on sleep problems, Medicine (Baltimore), March 5, 2021

12. Migiwa Komiya, Takashi Takeuchi, and Etsumori Harada, Lemon oil vapor causes an anti-stress effect via modulating the 5-HT and DA activities in mice (PDF), Elsevier, June 15, 2006

13. Angela S. Lillehei and Linda L. Halcon, A Systematic Review of the Effect of Inhaled Essential Oils on Sleep, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, June 10, 2014

14. Charlene Gamaldo, MD, medical director, Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep and Wellness, email interview, January 18, 2022

15. Allison Siebern, PhD, adjunct clinical associate professor, Stanford Medicine’s Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, email interview, January 23, 2022

16. Jade Shutes, The Quality of Essential Oils (PDF), National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy

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