The age-old practice can help you wind down, destress, and prepare yourself for sleep. Here's how to do it.
aromatherapy bedtime routine
Credit: Jacob Snavely

Indulgent, spa-like rituals don't have to be reserved for the spa, nor do you have to set aside a whole hour during your busy day to pamper yourself. Something as simple as a scent can go a long way in helping you to relax, refresh, and put your mind at ease. "Scent is incredibly powerful. It's one of our least recognized senses, but for every mammal on earth it's a powerful tool," says herbalist Barbara Close, founder of Naturopathica. "For humans, scent is personal. When we smell certain molecules, they bond to the limbic system, the part of the brain attached to memory and emotion." Because scent impacts our mood, aromatherapy can be a great ritual to add to your beauty regimen before bedtime. It can help you wind down, destress, and prepare yourself for sleep.

Here, Close shares how to incorporate aromatherapy into your evening routine.

First, experiment with scents.

"We all know lavender and chamomile are relaxing, so it's easy to reach for those," Close says. "They have a chemical constituent called esters, which are very relaxing to the central nervous system." That said, aromatherapy is highly individualized. Get to know the scents that help you feel at ease. "For example, grounding rose might be calming for me, but you might dislike it because it reminds you of a bad memory from childhood," she says. "We need to use essential oils that speak to us." Citrus oils are another one to experiment with for bedtime, as they can act as antidepressants, like red mandarin or grapefruit. Get started with essential oils that have a high ester content, like lavender or mandarin.

Then, try blending scents together.

"Plants have a synergistic effect," Close says, "so combining certain scents can amplify the effects. Every accomplished aromatherapist knows how to blend. It's like a composer creating chords out of notes." For those starting out, Close recommends blending together three grounding (or base) notes with three middle notes and three top notes. Base notes are oils like sandalwood, vetiver, cedar balsam, and fur, middle notes are herbaceous oils like lavender, chamomile, and sage, and top notes are florals and citruses like lemon balm, mandarin, and jasmine.

Now, incorporate your scents into your nighttime rituals.

Close takes baths with rose and vetiver. "Warm water is also relaxing to the central nervous system," she says. "Dilute five or six drops of essential oils in safflower or almond oil, put them in the bathtub, and you'll also be hydrating your skin." She also makes herbal tinctures if she has a hard time sleeping. "Hypnotics like passionflower and kava root are calming," Close says. "You can just mix them in a glass of water."

Close is also fond of self-massage. "I love an ear massage," she says. "It sounds funny, but in Chinese medicine, they believe the gallbladder meridian, which runs up the side of the body and wraps around the ears, is connected to stress. An ear massage is incredibly calming because you're stimulating the gallbladder meridian channel." To do it, apply a few drops of oil to your hands and rub your temples in a clockwise motion, then move your fingers above and around the ears to relieve tension. Massage the back of your neck, and then place your thumbs and index fingers behind the ears, with the third fingers in front, "scissoring" the ears up and down. Next, use your thumbs and index fingers to massage the ears, beginning at the lobes and continuing up to the top and back down again. Grasp the top of the ears and gently rotate each ear in circles. Rub both hands briskly together until heat builds up and cup the ears, taking several deep breaths to allow the heat to energize the area.

Massages, baths, and tinctures aside, aromatherapy can also be even easier, like putting a few drops of essential oils on a tissue and placing it inside your pillowcase, Close says. Or simply put a bit of oil into the palms of your hands, rub your hands together, and do an inhalation. "Inhale deeply into the palms of your hands for a count of four, and gently exhale for a count of four," she says. "Repeat that three times to encourage sleep and relaxation."

Comments (2)

Martha Stewart Member
January 9, 2020
THis was not a helpful article. Basically it suggested a person buy maybe 9 essential oils and experiment to find something that resonates with you. That’s very unrealistic in terms of cost, time and usefulness. Go to bath and body shop and look for a sleep product.
Martha Stewart Member
April 25, 2019
We were told about the gallbladder and the ears in my Tai Chi class.