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Aromatherapy for Shift Workers

Aromatherapy: a secret weapon to help shift workers wind down or amp up. Here’s what to know.

We can all agree that there is a LOT of information out there about essential oils and aromatherapy. But what exactly is aromatherapy? And how does it help shift workers? Put simply, aromatherapy is the use of essential oils—usually extracted from plants—to treat physical and mental conditions. Essential oils come in many forms—massage oils, lotions, inhalers, and diffusers. Night-shift workers can use essential oils to rest and relax or stay awake and alert during long shifts.

The benefits of aromatherapy

Smells aren’t something that we simply detect, identify, and move on from—they actually produce powerful psychological and physiological responses. When a pleasant smell makes you feel relaxed or a foul smell makes you feel queasy, you’re experiencing the diverse effects of your sense of smell. Scents can even become part of emotional memory, recreating certain responses when you reencounter them in the future. A whiff of cinnamon might instantly make you crave your grandma’s cinnamon rolls. The smell of sunscreen might bring you back to your days at summer camp. The scent of fresh-cut grass might bring up memories of soccer games and picnics. You get the idea—scents are powerful!

So how does this help with your night-shift routine? Well, aromatherapy stimulates the nose’s smell receptors, which then transfer messages to the limbic system—the part of your brain that controls emotion and memory. Through regular use, you can essentially condition your brain to wake up or go to sleep when you smell certain scents. Further, studies show that aromatherapy can improve sleep problems such as insomnia and fatigue, and also help manage anxiety and stress.

Enhanced energy levels

Instead of reaching for a sugary soda or that second or third—or fourth, let’s be real—cup of coffee when you need a boost, you might try using essential oils. Use these scents at the start of your shift to stay alert, or any time you feel tired. They’ll give you a much-needed natural lift without causing harm or dependency. Scroll down to the bottom of this article for more about specific scents that can perk you up.

Improved concentration & productivity

Some aromatics have been found to improve focus, making them popular among night-shift workers experiencing difficulty concentrating at work. If you’re struggling with focus and productivity, try incorporating essential oils into your daily routine to help reduce physical fatigue and promote clear thinking. (Scroll down for specific recommendations!)

Better sleep quality

The lack of sunlight during late nights makes it difficult for shift workers’ bodies to know when to wake up or go to sleep. This can lead to shift work syndrome, a condition that results in trouble sleeping. Aromatherapy can help minimize this problem—certain relaxing fragrances can regulate sleeping patterns naturally and without side effects.

A scientific review found that many studies reported sleep benefits for people using essential oils. For example, in a study of people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition often marked by nightmares and significant sleeping problems, exposure to pleasant odours during sleep was linked to improved sleep quality. 

Another study found that aromatherapy massage helped improve the sleep quality of nurses who worked nights. Of course, everyone is different—but we think it’s worth trying aromatherapy to improve the quality of your sleep.

How shift workers can use essential oils

Aromatherapy can make a huge difference for many shift workers. But what is the best way to use essential oils? Below we’ll cover a few ways to add aromatherapy to your night-shift routine, as well as some guidance on essential oil safety.

Diffuse essential oils

If you want consistent scenting throughout your space without having to constantly apply products to your skin, consider a diffuser. Aroma diffusers can sit on your desk or nightstand or can be worn as a necklace or bracelet—both great options for long-lasting effects. 

At work: Try using a compact desktop oil diffuser to fill your space with energizing scents throughout your shift. As a bonus, many diffusers double as cute decor—win! If you can’t have a diffuser at your desk, a necklace or bracelet might be the best choice. 

At home: A diffuser can bring some serious spa vibes to your home, helping you wind down after a busy shift or mentally prepare to head back in. Using standard oil diffusers at home can be an amazing part of your wind-down routine to get ready for sleep—especially if you use calming scents like lavender or chamomile. Diffusers can also be a great addition to your pre-shift routine; diffusing energizing scents can perk you up and help prepare you for work.

Apply essential oils topically

An alternative to diffusion is to apply essential oils to your skin, such as on your wrists or behind your ear to experience them aromatically. But beware! Direct application of undiluted essential oils to your skin may cause skin sensitivity or allergic reactions. To be safe, add four to six drops of your essential oil to one ounce (30 mL) of a chosen carrier oil. Common carrier oils include coconut oil, olive oil, jojoba oil, and almond oil. Diluting your essential oil before applying it to your skin will lessen the potent aroma and protect your skin from irritation.

Essential oil safety

Before incorporating essential oils into your routine, it’s important to understand safety guidelines related to essential oils and their uses. Thoroughly research how you intend to use your essential oil beforehand to make sure your applications are safe and effective. 

Here are some resources to get you started:

  • The American Botanical Council website allows you to search for the essential oil or plant of your choice and find relevant research material.
  • AromaWeb has extensive safety-related information about specific essential oils and how to use them properly.
  • This article from National Capital Poison Center (US) includes safety-related warnings for essential oils as well as general guidance.
  • Ontario Poison Centre shares advice about how to use essential oils safely and what to do in case of poisoning.

Which essential oils are best for shift workers?

There are close to 100 essential oils available, all of which have different uses and effects. Some of the most common oils include eucalyptus, lavender, and lemon, among many others.

The best essential oils for shift workers are those that promote relaxation and help reduce stress. Below we’ll discuss five of the most common essential oils and their uses. Keep in mind that the methods we cover for using essential oils are not exclusive to the oils we listed—feel free to mix and match our tips with whatever essential oils work best for you!

Oils for sleep

Lavender, chamomile, ylang-ylang, rosemary, and bergamot are all great choices to promote relaxation and sleep. These essential oils have calming properties that can regulate sleeping patterns naturally without any harmful side effects, helping you unwind after a long night of work.

Lavender

Lavender essential oil is derived from the lavender plant and has a sweet, floral aroma. It is known for its calming and relaxing properties—ideal for shift workers looking to unwind after a long night. Lavender essential oils may help reduce stress, anxiety, and insomnia, all common issues among shift workers. It also has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties that can help soothe sore muscles and joints.

For optimal results, add bath bombs or salts that are infused with lavender essential oil to your bathwater before bed, or apply some oil (mixed with a carrier oil) to your temples and chest before going to sleep.

One study of college students who slept with a lavender inhalation patch on their chests found they had a better and more refreshing sleep. You can create a similar effect by dotting some lavender oil on your pillow or combining it with other oils in a pre-bed massage.

Bergamot

Bergamot aromatherapy may lower blood pressure, which can have ripple effects of improving mental well-being. These calming properties might be why bergamot is thought to also improve sleep. However, many sleep studies involving bergamot use essential oil mixtures rather than bergamot oil alone, making it difficult to determine its precise effects on sleep. 

One such study found that a mixture of bergamot and sandalwood essential oils improved sleep quality in 64% of study participants. Another study of people in cardiac rehabilitation found that sleep quality significantly increased after exposure to an aromatherapy mixture of bergamot, lavender, and ylang-ylang. 

Oils to perk you up

If you’re looking to boost your focus and productivity, certain scents such as peppermint, rosewood, lemon, and rosemary can help energize you before or during your shift. These scents are known to improve energy levels by having a stimulating effect on both the mind and body.

Eucalyptus

The fresh, invigorating, cooling scent of eucalyptus is great for those in search of a mental boost. One study found that a combination of eucalyptus and peppermint oils applied to the forehead and temples increased cognitive performance. This makes it the perfect option to use as a little mental refresher before heading to work. 

A pre-shift trick:  

For those nights when a little extra motivation is needed to head to work at 7 or 11 p.m., a eucalyptus-infused shower might just be the ticket to put the pep back in your step. 

Take a bowl, fill it halfway with water, and add about 10 drops of eucalyptus essential oil. Then place the bowl in the shower, out of the direct flow of the water. As the steam from the shower builds, the eucalyptus scent will fill the air, creating a refreshing and energizing effect.

Peppermint

Love that fresh feeling after you’ve brushed your teeth with minty toothpaste? Keep it going by incorporating mint essential oil into your wake-up routine. If you’re looking for an energy boost without caffeine, peppermint may be your go-to because it offers uplifting attributes without causing the jitters. Wearing a diffuser bracelet or necklace with peppermint is also a great way to keep the minty freshness going all shift long. Peppermint can even help alleviate headaches (including migraines!) from long hours on the job. Simply rub some on your temples (in a carrier oil, of course!) or dab it onto cotton balls and inhale the mentholated scent!

Citrus

Is there anything more invigorating than the sweet scent of a peeled orange or freshly squeezed lemon juice? Citrusy scents work wonders if you experience low energy during long shifts. For example, lemon helps stimulate alertness while reducing feelings of exhaustion. A 2023 study even found that exposure to citrus scent resulted in elevated mood and increased physical activity in young adults. Lemon is also an effective antiseptic, meaning it does double duty in clearing your head and your workspace! 

 

Staying on top of your game while working the night shift is all about having solid routines in place. Adding aromatherapy to your day or nighttime routine can have a range of benefits and help you have an easier time coping with your shifty schedule

Last updated: 2024-03-09

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Sierra Jensen

I'm a freelance writer who's passionate about matcha lattes and meaningful content. You'll find my work in regional magazines, healthcare websites, and lifestyle blogs.

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