I will discuss what my data shows, how easy or difficult I found this strategy to implement, and what previous research says. These three factors will be combined for an overall score and grade on how effective aromatherapy can be for improving sleep.
HOW COULD AROMATHERAPY IMPROVE SLEEP QUALITY?
Aromatherapy is an alternative medicine practice that aims to utilise the healing power of various scents. Our olfactory (smelling) sense is meant to have the highest ability to trigger emotional experiences associated with specific memories. This means that logically it is easy to understand why many people believe that certain smells could lead to greater relaxation and a better night’s sleep if used in the last few hours before bed.
For the first week, I used soy-based, large non-toxic candles for four nights and essential oils for three nights. I put these on for at least two hours before going to bed in the living room each night. I also splashed a little bit of lavender on my pillow pre-sleep to see if there were any additional benefits by doing this.
For the second week, I made sure all of the lavender had been washed off my pillows and did not light any candles or have any oils burning in my apartment.
Let’s see if aromatherapy had any impact on my sleep…
Comparison: Aromatherapy vs No Aromatherapy
Based on my sleep diary data, the findings were as follows:
- The number of awakenings:
- Aromatherapy – 1 per night
- No aromatherapy – 1.71 per night
- less is better
- Time in bed:
- Aromatherapy – 7 hours 17 minutes
- No aromatherapy – 7 hours 13 minutes
- 8 hours is ideal for me
- Time to bed:
- Aromatherapy – 11:49pm
- No aromatherapy – 12:40am
- 11:30pm is ideal for me
- Total sleep time:
- Aromatherapy – 6 hours 48 minutes
- No aromatherapy – 6 hours 27 minutes
- 7 hours 30 minutes is ideal for me
- Sleep onset latency:
- Aromatherapy – 12.14 minutes
- No aromatherapy – 12.14 minutes
- quicker is better
- Wake after sleep onset:
- Aromatherapy – 17.14 minutes
- No aromatherapy – 33.57 minutes
- less is better
- Rise time:
- Aromatherapy – 7:16 am
- No aromatherapy – 7:53 am
- 7:30am is ideal for me
- Sleep quality:
- Aromatherapy – 4.29/5
- No aromatherapy – 3.86/5
- more is better
- Sleep efficiency:
- Aromatherapy – 93.30%
- No aromatherapy – 89.44%
- higher is better
AND THE WINNER IS…
With a count of 8.5 points to 0.5 points. This is one of my most surprising findings so far. I’ve never been a big believer in aromatherapy but based on this two weeks of data, it indeed did lead to better sleep in every single measure in comparison the week after. The one exception was time taken to fall asleep, which was 12.14 minutes per night in each condition.
I do think the scent was a helpful way to trigger my brain that it was time to wind down and relax for the day, and this probably changed my behaviour in the 2 hours before bed too in some slight ways. Unfortunately, I didn’t record what I did before bed and can’t remember back to then, but it really is a compelling victory for aromatherapy over nothing!
IS AROMATHERAPY A GOOD SLEEP STRATEGY?
IS IT EFFECTIVE?
It seems to be. At least it was for me. I’m not sure if it was because it triggered sweet memories of lavender heat packs from when I was younger, or if I relaxed more on those nights, but having some smells that were soothing and signalled that it was time to wind down did help me sleep better.
I, therefore, give the effectiveness of this strategy a 20/25.
CAN IT BE APPLIED?
Yes. Just go out and buy some non-toxic candles or essential oils that remind you of nice or relaxing times. Then put them in a safe place where they aren’t likely to start a fire, and have them on once you get home from work or in the last few hours before going to bed. Just make sure you blow them out or turn them off before going to sleep.
I, therefore, give the applicability of this strategy a 20/25.
IS IT SCIENTIFIC?
Lavender has been studied the most and has been found to help with mild insomnia (Koulivand, Ghadiri & Gorgi, 2013), depression and anxiety, especially in women with postpartum depression (Conrad & Adams, 2012). Be wary of applying it or tea tree oils to your skin or your child’s skin regularly, as they can have estrogenic and antiandrogenic effects (Henley, Lipson, Korach & Bloch, 2007).
Inhaling citrus scents (the Japanese fruit yuzu) can decrease heart rate and improve heart rate variability, both signs of reduced stress. It can also improve mood, anxiety and fatigue for up to 35-minutes after you have inhaled the scent (Matsumoto, Kimura & Hayashi, 2016).
Five out of 6 studies into bergamot also found that it could reduce anxiety and stress (Navarra, Mannucci, Delbo & Calapai, 2015).
I, therefore, give the science of this strategy a 25/50.
Overall, using aromatherapy oils or candles before bed as a way to wind down and sleep better gets a score of 20/25 + 20/25 + 28/50 =
WHAT I RECOMMEND
If aromatherapy can help you to feel less stressed, less anxious and in a better mood before bed, this can’t be a bad thing. It’s not too expensive or intrusive, and relatively safe too as long as you aren’t applying it to your skin regularly (and blow out the candles if you leave the room or house).
By winding down before sleep, going to bed once you are sleepy and keeping your focus on something relaxing once you are in bed, you are giving yourself the best chance of having a good night’s sleep. Aromatherapy isn’t essential for this, but it can help if you’d like to give it a go and see if it works for you.
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