Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Six Aromatherapy Essential Oils for Stress Relief and Sleep

Research shows aromatherapy can help relieve stress and promote sleep.

Scents are powerful—a simple smell can immediately trigger a powerful memory of a place or person. Scents have the power to evoke emotions and memories instantly and can directly impact our bodies through our nervous system.

The olfactory nerve gives us our sense of smell. It starts from our nose and enters the skull through tiny holes to connect directly to the brain. This nerve sends signals almost instantaneously to many parts of the brain, including the limbic system and amygdala, which are in charge of emotions, mood, and memory.

These systems are also in charge of regulating our autonomic nervous system, which can either trigger a fight-or-flight response, quickening our breath, heart rate and raising our blood pressure, or can soothe us through turning on the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxing our bodies. This theory helps explain why scents can so quickly trigger physical reactions in our bodies and have lasting effects after the scent is gone. Essential oils, like lavender, have even been shown to interact the same way biochemically that many anti-anxiety medications do on neuroreceptors.

Aromatherapy is a complementary and alternative medicine practice that taps into the healing power of scents from essential oils extracted from plants in order to balance your mind, body, and spirit. Essential oils can be diluted by water and diffused into the air, or a few drops can be gently rubbed into acupressure points on the body. Studies have shown that specific essential oils used in aromatherapy can help relieve stress, relax the body, and promote better sleep.

Here are 6 essential oils that can help relieve stress and promote sleep.

1. Lavender

Lavender essential oil is one of the most studied essential oils in terms of its relaxing effects. One study found that lavender oil aromatherapy calmed the nervous system—lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature as well as changing brain waves to a more relaxed state.

Lavender can also help with mild insomnia and provide better quality of sleep. Lavender aromatherapy has also been found to help reduce anxiety and depression in women with postpartum depression.

Lavender has also been found to help reduce anxiety in many medical settings, such as dental offices, the intensive care unit, and during preparations before surgery.

The scent of lavender stimulates brain pathways, including our limbic system, which is connected to our emotional response and memories. Studies using electroencephalography (EEG), which measures brain waves, and brain imaging using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) show significant changes during lavender aromatherapy consistent with its relaxing effects.

Lavender aromatherapy is generally safe, except for those with allergies to lavender. If you are applying it regularly on your skin, it’s important to talk to your doctor. Lavender can have estrogenic effects, so regular use should be taken with caution, especially in children.

2. Lemon or Yuzu

A new study from Japanese researchers has found that yuzu citrus scent can soothe stress and anxiety and lower your heart rate in just 10 minutes, with effects lasting for almost half an hour. Yuzu is a type of East Asian yellow citrus fruit often used in Asian cuisine.

The Japanese custom of yuzu-yu or yuzu baths dates as far back as the 18th century. Whole yuzus are floated in hot baths in the winter to relieve stress. You can try diffusing yuzu or other similar citrus fruit essential oil, which can be more affordable, including lemon. Some earlier studies have found that lemon can be stimulating and increase heart rate, so the results are mixed—but try it out to see how it affects you.

3. Bergamot

Citrus bergamot is a hybrid fruit somewhere between a bitter orange and lemon or lime and is used to create bergamot essential oil. It has been traditionally used in Italian folk medicine but has many new studies to support its ability to relieve tension and anxiety. Bergamot essential oil is often used in fragrances as well as food flavoring, and has also been thought to have antibacterial properties.

Five out of six clinical studies conducted between 2009 to 2013 have found that Bergamot essential oil aromatherapy reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and stress.

Recent studies have found that bergamot can relieve stress, reduce chronic pain, and even change brain wave patterns on EEG.

4. Ylang Ylang

Ylang Ylang essential oil is a sweet floral aromatic extracted from the flower of a tropical tree in Southeast Asia. Ylang Ylang aroma has been shown to be relaxing and decrease blood pressure in many small studies. One study found that Ylang Ylang aroma calmed the nervous system, leading to lower heart rate and blood pressure and heart rhythms on electrocardiogram (EKG).

5. Clary sage

Clary sage oil is extracted from the clary sage herb, a close relative of the common garden herb sage. Clary sage essential oil has been found to help people relax during dental procedures. Clary sage oil aromatherapy has also been shown to have antidepressant-like effects.

6. Jasmine

Jasmine has a sweet aroma and can be relaxing fragrance. Jasmine essential oil is less well-studied, but does have one study that suggests that the odor of jasmine tea can be calming.

There are many more therapeutic essential oils to explore, including earthy vetiver, Valerian root, or Roman chamomile. While most essential oil aromatherapies have not yet been rigorously studied, many can still have calming effects.

Qualities of essential oils can vary widely based on brand and price and are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or any other government agency, so be sure to research the brand and check to make sure the oil is of therapeutic quality and purity.

Copyright © 2016 Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC

More from Marlynn Wei M.D., J.D.
More from Psychology Today