Lavender aromatherapy helps college students sleep

17 February, 2016

Natural Health News — College students face many different stresses that can cause anxiety and interfere with sleep. But new evidence suggests that lavender essential oil may be a way to restore balance and aid sleep.

Sleep problems, if not addressed, are associated with numerous health concerns such as anxiety, depression and over the longer term, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, inflammation, obesity, impaired glucose tolerance and diabetes.

Essential oils, such as lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) which have sedative or hypnotic properties, are traditionally used to alleviate anxiety and aid restful sleep. Previous studies have shown that aromatherapy with natural essential oils can help aid sleep.

What you need to know

» Lavender essential oil is known to have hypnotic properties that can aid anxiety and promote sleep.

» A recent small trial in college students compared a group which practiced good sleep hygiene with one which used a combination of lavender aromatherapy and sleep hygiene practices.

» Results showed that the combination was significantly more effective than sleep hygiene alone and effects persisted after the trial ended. The researchers speculate that lavender helps reset the sleep cycle.

Learning how to sleep well

For this small randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine , 79 students (aged 18-39, mostly women) with self-reported sleep issues, such as difficulty falling asleep, frequent awakenings during the night, or daytime sleepiness, were recruited from the University of Minnesota campus.

All of the participants received sleep ‘hygiene’ advice, such as:

  • maintain a regular sleep schedule
  • avoid fluid intake before bed and food, caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine late in the day
  • create a good sleeping environment (e.g. wear ear plugs and a sleep mask, and avoid screens and texting)
  • create a relaxing bedtime routine
  • keep up with school work
  • exercise regularly

The participants were then divided into two groups; one  simply got on with their sleep hygiene routine over a 5 night period while the other practiced good sleep hygiene but were also given an aromatherapy patch infused with lavender oil to wear their mid-upper chest for 5 nights. The patch had a skin-barrier backing to prevent skin absorption of the essential oil and a time-release function to ensure the lavender aroma was released steadily over 6-8 hours.

A winning combination

The researchers monitored sleep quality with a Fitbit® tracker (which measures movement during sleep) and sleep diary, and on the 5th day of the trial, and two weeks later, participants were also quizzed on sleep quality and adherence to the sleep hygiene suggestions.

Both groups showed an improvement in sleep hygiene, but analysis showed that those in the lavender/sleep hygiene group had a clinically significant improvement in sleep quality, while there was no clinically significant change in sleep quality in the sleep hygiene-only group.

The lavender group had less daytime fatigue after 5 days and up to two weeks later and was more likely to wake refreshed at day 5. There were four reports of skin irritation, each lasting one night, which the researchers attributed to the patch adhesive.

Rebalancing the sleep/wake cycle

There were some problems with the trial. The Fitbit did not work consistently, and on some participants the patch fell off at night. The researchers, say however that because the aroma was still present, this did not affect the trial outcome.

Overall, the authors conclude that, in college students with self-reported sleep issues, lavender essential oil inhalation improved sleep quality, and that this beneficial effect extended beyond the end of the trial.

“The persistent effect of lavender on sleep quality at two-week follow-up suggests a re-balancing or long-acting effect on the sleep cycle, although the exact mechanism of action is unknown.”

They further state that this trial “supports the use of lavender and sleep hygiene as safe, accessible, and effective interventions for self-reported sleep issues in college students. Further research to study their effect on other populations and additional studies exploring the duration of intervention effects are needed.”