Can Aromatherapy Relieve Insomnia?
A small preliminary study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (2005;11:631–7), found that the aroma of lavender relieves insomnia, compared with a placebo. However, the improvement fell just short of being statistically significant, so the results cannot be considered definitive.
In the new study, five women and five men with insomnia self-administered aromatherapy via atomizer using either lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) or a sweet almond oil placebo for one week. The next week they had no treatment, and the following week they switched to the alternate treatment. Compared with the placebo, the average degree of improvement during lavender treatment was 26%. The failure of the results to reach statistical significance was most likely due to the small number of people enrolled in the study.
Insomnia is widespread, affecting over 35% of people aged 65 years and older. No drug currently available brings on normal sleep, and virtually all sleep-aid drugs have unwanted side effects, such as dependence, hangover, and difficult withdrawal. Lavender, with its easily recognizable aroma, has been a popular ingredient in soaps and fragrances since antiquity. In folk medicine traditions, lavender has long been used to promote restful sleep. Modern scientific research on lavender has been mostly confined to the examination of its chemical constituents (such as volatile oils) and their experimental effects in the laboratory.
Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils and other aromatic compounds from plants to affect a person’s mood or health. Often maligned by skeptics, aromatherapy nevertheless has a large and ardent following, with tens of thousands of practitioners in the United States and England, and a potentially sound scientific basis in the complex neurology of smell. However, the evidence thus far for the efficacy of aromatherapy in treating or preventing any health condition has been inconclusive.
Aromatherapy is difficult to study in a controlled clinical setting. Participants in clinical studies ideally should not know whether they are receiving the treatment or a placebo. When aromas are used, particularly recognizable ones such as lavender, it is not possible for participants to be “blinded” to the smell of the active therapy. An alternative strategy must be employed; in the present study, a placebo was used (sweet almond oil) that was considered by participants to be a credible treatment for insomnia.
Other problems may also have prevented this study from achieving more compelling results. For example, the atomizer used to dispense the aromas was considered by most people to be noisy. Seventy percent of people found the machine interfered with sleep, and therefore switched it off at bedtime, leaving only a residual aroma to work through the night. Although some people did improve, it appears that a larger clinical trial with certain modifications to its protocol will be needed to demonstrate a statistically significant effect of lavender on insomnia.
Jeremy Appleton, ND, CNS, is a licensed naturopathic physician, certified nutrition specialist, and published author. Dr. Appleton was the Nutrition Department Chair at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine, has served on the faculty at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, and is a former Healthnotes Senior Science Editor and a founding contributor to Healthnotes Newswire. He has worked extensively in scientific and regulatory affairs in the supplement industry and is now a consultant through his company Praxis Natural Products Consulting and Wellness Services.
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