Aromatherapy is one form of complimentary and alternative medicine - or CAM. It involves the use of fragrant, essential oils from plants. Most often the essential oils are inhaled or applied to the skin; they may be added to bathwater or to a lotion.
How does aromatherapy work? The National Cancer Institute reports that there are different theories. One theory involves smell receptors in the nose; these receptors may respond to the scent by sending chemical messages to the brain.
A 2006 review reported that essential oils may enter the bloodstream; it suggested that aromatherapy may act like a drug.
Is sleep-related aromatherapy effective? Conclusive scientific evidence is lacking. But in recent years more studies have been conducted as interest in CAM has grown. Most of these studies have focused on the herb lavender.
A 2008 study suggested that the aroma of lavender may promote sleep in very young infants. In Korea a 2006 study involved female college students; it found that lavender had a positive effect on insomnia and depression.
A 2005 study reported that lavender may be a “mild sedative;” it may promote deep sleep in young men and women. Another study in 2005 found that lavender improved sleep quality in people with insomnia; women and younger volunteers showed the most improvement.
But a 2006 study found no sleep benefits when children with autism were given a massage with lavender oil.
Are there any side effects or risks? The National Cancer Institute warns that lavender may have some “hormone-like effects;” as a result it is unclear if lavender is safe for women with a high risk for breast cancer.
The NCCAM reports that lavender can cause skin irritation; it also may be poisonous if taken by mouth.
Other proven treatments for insomnia are available. Both cognitive behavioral therapy and medications are effective. A board-certified sleep specialist can determine which treatment is best for you. Contact an AASM-accredited sleep disorders center if you have an ongoing problem with insomnia.
Image by David Turner