Complementary Corner: Essential Oils

The Use of Essential Oils for Sleep By Norma G. Cuellar, PhD, RN, FAAN This is an excerpt from the fall 2016 edition of NightWalke...

The Use of Essential Oils for Sleep

By Norma G. Cuellar, PhD, RN, FAAN

This is an excerpt from the fall 2016 edition of NightWalkers, the Foundation's quarterly magazine. To get your subscription to NightWalkers and to enjoy other benefits, become a member of the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation today!

Individuals suspecting they may have RLS should consult a qualified healthcare provider. Literature posted by the RLS Foundation, including this blog post, is offered for informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for the advice of a healthcare provider. Prior to making any changes to your treatment plan, please discuss treatment options with your healthcare provider.

Aromatherapy is considered an intervention by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and has increased in popularity over the last years.

Use of essential oils is a form of aromatherapy. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy has adapted the definition of “essential oil” from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ISO, in its Vocabulary of Natural Materials, defines an essential oil as “a product made by distillation with either water or steam or by mechanical processing of citrus rinds or by dry distillation of natural materials. Following the distillation, the essential oil is physically separated from the water phase.” There are other terms synonymously used for essential oils including volatile oils, ethereal oils, aetherolea, and oil of the plant. Since the oil comes from the plant’s fragrance, it is considered “essential.”

In the history of medicine, oils have been used to treat health conditions for thousands of years. A variety of essential oils exist – for example, eucalyptus, juniper, agathosma, menthol, capsaicin, anise and campho. There is no federally approved use of these interventions for a specific illness.

Reported Benefits

Each essential oil has a unique mechanism of action and can be used for different health concerns. Essential oils have been reported to relieve pain, improve mood and promote relaxation. Many research studies have been published on aromatherapy, but the health benefits remain inconclusive. In these research studies, specific compounds that are found in the essential oils have been examined – for example, methyl salicylate, which is found in oil of wintergreen.

The following have been used to promote relaxation and sleep:

  • lavender
  • bergamot
  • vetiver
  • sandalwood
  • Roman chamomile
  • marjoram
  • Ylang Ylang
  • cedarwood

Used as aromatherapy, essential oils are diffused in the air, heated over a candle flame, or burned as incense to smell. Essential oils can also be used topically and are massaged on the skin. This is another route of delivery of the essential oil and constitutes a different degree of interaction with the body than aromatherapy.

Potential Side Effects

Side effects of essential oils vary. If applied to the skin, contact dermatitis or allergic reactions may occur. Essential oils should never be taken orally because they have high concentrations of active compound and may cause negative side effects like gastrointestinal disturbance. If taken internally, an allergic reaction may occur.

Long-term use of essential oils can affect the liver. Menthol and some others produce a feeling of cold followed by a sense of burning. This is caused by its effect on heat-sensing nerve endings. The use of certain essential oils may result in sensitivity to the sun. Essential oil therapies are essentially low risk, but everyone should be aware of possible side effects.

Aromatherapy and RLS

It is uncertain whether aromatherapy is helpful for treating insomnia, because rigorous research has not been done on this topic. As well, any research on RLS and aromatherapy is limited. Aromatherapy is touted to be beneficial for relaxation, so in that perspective, it might help with symptoms of RLS, but this is not known.

As usual, the use of alternative interventions does not always have the research to identify evidence, but if you are using essential oils and they are working for you with safe health outcomes, then you should continue what is best for you.

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