Four Smells That Will Change The Way You Sleep

Author: | Posted in Science, Sleep Aids 8 Comments

smell-sleep-headerSniff sniff… is that the smell of sleep? If all you smell when you’re in bed is a fresh pillowcase, then these sleep smells may surprise you. Backed by scientific data, these odors won’t just help you sleep – they’ll help perk you up in the morning too.


lavenderA nose-full of this purple-flowered plant may help you fall asleep faster, sleep better, and wake more refreshed.

One of the more popular and traditional aroma therapies, lavender brings a fair amount of clinical evidence showing its effect on sleep.

Lavender scents tend to improve the overall sleep quality for a variety of ages and genders. However, the smell is typically most effective on women, younger people, and those with mild insomnia (rather than severe).

For women, lavender is also more likely to lead to increased stage 2 sleep, and decreased REM sleep. For men, the effect is reversed.

One study looked at geriatric patients taking benzodiazepine, a powerful sedative. When the patients were taken off the drug they predictably ran into sleep trouble. But when lavender oil aromatherapy was provided, the patients returned to the same sleep levels they had with the drug.

Another study found that the morning after a lavender-aided sleep, individuals reported feeling more energetic and wakeful. In yet another study, when combined with basil, juniper, and marjoram, lavender also reduced sleep disturbance in older patients. Still more studies show that taking lavender oil orally also helped improve sleep among patients with anxiety disorders.

The soothing smell of lavender has attracted big business too – while writing this article, an advertisement appeared on TV promoting Febreeze’s new lavender sleep aid.

Valerian Root

Valerian root has long been popular for the treatment of anxiety and sleeplessness. In ancient Rome, the physician/philosopher Galen would prescribe valerian for insomnia. Today, the herb continues to be popular as an oral supplement.

But what about the smell of valerian? Does it do anything for sleep?

Luckily, a group of researchers from Japan have got us covered: their study exposed rats to the smell of valerian. What they found was that valerian-sniffing rats fell asleep faster, and slept better.

Unfortunately, our knowledge of how the smell of valerian might help humans is limited. Although there are many studies about the effect (or lack of effect) of eating it, we don’t yet know of any human studies on the smell of valerian.


Oh no – you ran out of lavender and had a poor night’s sleep last night! And then to top it all off, you ran out of coffee this morning. Why not grab some peppermint for a quick pick-me-up?

Signs show that the refreshing herb is good for more than Mint Juleps – the smell of it can actually make you less tired.

One study put participants in a dark room for about ten minutes and then measured their sleepiness. Those that were exposed to peppermint oil during their little time-out showed less sleepiness than those that were in the dark with no smells.

Peppermint is one of the easiest plants to grow in your garden, and is almost bulletproof. Plant a little by your front door, and grab a handful as you head to work in the morning. Or, pick up some peppermint oil for a more clinical approach.


lemonGet a lemon and take a big bite, that’ll wake you up.

If you want a slightly less lip-puckering stimulant, then the smell of lemon oil could do the trick.

Again we return to our Japanese researchers and their nasally-stimulated rats. As we learned, the rats exposed to valerian fell asleep faster and slept better. The researchers observed the opposite effect with lemon: the rats that were exposed to lemon smell took longer to fall asleep.

There aren’t any known tests on humans and the smell of lemon, but we’re hopeful that they will show similar stimulating effects as peppermint.

Smells During Sleep

OK, I know what you’re thinking: the smell alarm clock. It would emit lavender at night, and peppermint in the morning.

It’s a fun idea, but unfortunately an odor alarm clock won’t work for humans. When we sleep, our ability to perceive smells decreases, as does the ability for those odors to effect us.

In one study, peppermint was piped in to sleepers, in another, the smell of rotten eggs. In both groups, the smells failed to rouse the sleepers.

Perhaps this is why the Wake N’ Bacon alarm clock never materialized. First announced in 2008, the clock promised to rouse sleepers with the smell of fresh bacon. As tempting as it sounds, the smell of bacon (or peppermint) will not be sufficient to wake most people that are already asleep.

Although most of us have fond memories of being woken by the smells of bacon or coffee, it is most likely that our waking was either coincidental, or caused by a sound, rather than a smell.

These four smells may not replace your alarm clock, but they may help you drift off in the night, and perk up in the morning.

photo credit: Dennis Wong, Maia C, PetitPlat – Stephanie Kilgast via photopin

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