It’s been a long time since I had a nightmare. I used to have recurring ones when I was a kid – I was always being chased underwater and I would always wake up right before I was caught. As a kid, I would turn on all the lights and splash cold water on my face to help myself calm down.
It turns out those were good strategies to calm my adrenals and activate my parasympathetic nervous system, both of which play an active role in nightmares and night terrors.
I now know that essential oils can also be used to balance the different organ system and brain imbalances that can contribute to poor sleep and nightmares. It is my hope that this blog will help you calm stress both during your waking and resting hours so you might return to restful sleep.
What are Nightmares?
Nightmares are a type of dream that cause you to feel anxiety, fear or terror that are so intense that it literally wakes you up and makes it difficult to fall back asleep. Nightmares tend to occur during the rapid eye movement, REM, cycle of sleep. As you may know, your sleep cycles can be divided into four stages: the first stage is sleep onset, the second stage is light sleep and the third and fourth stage is when you are in deep sleep, which is also called REM sleep. REM sleep occurs every 90 minutes during the night, and is associated with high brain activity, rapid eye movements, and inhibited voluntary motor activity.
Typically, dreaming occurs in all stages, most often as we emerge from REM sleep. You tend to dream on the sleep-wake cusp and images imagined while dreaming, including the vivid, often terrifying images produced during nightmares, are often remembered.
Nightmares tend to occur during the period of sleep when REM intervals lengthen; these usually occur halfway through slumber. Periods of REM sleep become progressively longer as the night progresses, which is why you may find you experience nightmares most often in the early morning hours. Eighty percent of people awake during REM sleep. As you prepare to awaken, memories begin to integrate and consolidate.
It can be challenging to distinguish nightmares from bad dreams. The following criteria are usually present in nightmares:
- Nightmares cause you to wake up from sleep
- The nightmare can activate your “fight or flight” response, trigger feelings of fear and anxiety and physiological responses like perspiration or racing heart rate.
- It is difficult to think clearly upon awakening.
- It is hard to get back to sleep.
- Nightmares are vivid and upsetting.
- They often involve a threat to your safety or survival. Common themes include being chased, falling, or feeling lost or trapped.
- Nightmares can cause you to feel various emotions, including anger, sadness, guilt, fear and anxiety. You may continue to experience these emotions even after you wake up.
What Causes Nightmares?
Nightmares, like dreams, are thought to draw from recent life experience that your brain is processing, correlating with similar past events and filing for future reference. When your brain is in a heightened state of alert, anticipatory stress in the form of thoughts, dreams and nightmares are more likely to occur.
The following physiological factors can contribute to nightmares:
- Adrenal Hyper-Activity
- Hypothalamus Dysfunction
- Amygdala Hijack
- Liver Overwhelm
- Insufficient Melatonin Levels
Your adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol in response to danger or stress to provide you with energy to survive. Cortisol has an excitatory effect on the body. It signals the brain to be more active and acts as an accelerator for blood sugar levels, heart rate and respiratory levels. This acceleratory mechanism is necessary for surviving acutely stressful situations, but your body is not meant to release high levels of cortisol all the time.
If your adrenals are releasing excess cortisol in your system, your body can assume danger is present, even during sleep and trigger nightmares. Cortisol levels should drop at night to allow for restful sleep. When cortisol levels are elevated in the evening, it suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin, contributing to night-time anxiety and nightmares. Research backs this up, correlating frequent nightmares with cortisol levels.
Nocturnal hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar levels at night, can also trigger the adrenal glands to release excess cortisol during sleep hours and contribute to nightmares.
Your hypothalamus also plays a role in regulating cortisol levels through a complex hormonal cascade known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Cortisol is one of the key hormones that communicate between these organs.
The general hormonal cascade flows like this:
- The hypothalamus releases corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH)
- This signals the anterior pituitary to secrete ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone).
- ACTH stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol to raise the sugar in your bloodstream to increase energy for stress response.
These interactions continue until your hormones reach the levels that your body needs, and then a series of chemical reactions known as the negative feedback loop begins to switch them off. In other words, when the hypothalamus receives the signal that cortisol levels in the body are sufficient, it inhibits CRH release, signaling the adrenals to stop releasing cortisol. So long as the hypothalamus is able to correctly send and receive signals, cortisol levels in the body should return to balance.
If the hypothalamus is damaged or cannot adequately send and receive messages, communication is compromised and excess cortisol can flood your system contributing to nightmares. Research backs this up, correlating a malfunction in the hypothalamus, which helps to regulate sleep, with nightmares.
Your amygdala is the fear center in your brain. Over-activation of particular portions of the amygdala may correlate with nightmares, especially during REM sleep when certain parts of the brain become dormant while others, like the amygdala, become highly active and produce fear-responses during sleep that you experience as a nightmare.
“Neuroimaging studies of the dreaming brain have demonstrated that the amygdala is intensely activated during REM,” as noted in Medical Daily.
Patrick McNamara, author of Nightmares: the Science and Solution of Those Frightening Visions during Sleep, further notes that “Independent, non-sleep-related studies of the amygdala have established it as a processing center for fear, aggression and other negative emotions. It would not be surprising if over-activation of the amygdala during REM can create intense fear-responses in the individual.”
While you are awake your amygdala’s initial automatic, emotional reaction is balanced by your prefrontal cortex, your brain’s decision center, which assesses the situation before driving you to act. It collaborates with your amygdala fear center to help interpret and balance your response to potential dangers.
For example, if you are hiking in the woods and think you see a snake on the ground, your amygdala might trigger an immediate response, causing you to physically jump back. It then alerts your prefrontal cortex to assess the situation. If your prefrontal cortex determines that the snake is actually a stick, your amygdala calms down as does your fear response.
As long as the connection between your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala remains strong, your fear response can remain in check. Chronic stress can shift this balance—speeding the flow of electrical signals to your amygdala “fear” center and weakening the connection to your inhibitory prefrontal cortex. This poor connection, known as amygdala hijack, shuts down your ability to calm stress and sets the stage for anxiety, depression, and other limbic system imbalances.
Similarly, if your frontal cortex is damaged or under-stimulated, planning the slightest task is very difficult, if not impossible, and anxiety is common. Functional brain imaging clearly illustrates how engaging your prefrontal cortex helps regulate and calm amygdala reactivity and control of emotion-related behavior. When not kept in check by the prefrontal cortex, exaggerated amygdala reactivity can present as depression, anxiety, impulsive aggression, and personality disorders. These symptoms are common among individuals recovering from a frontal lobe injury.
Frequent stimulation of your prefrontal cortex supports a healthy connection to your amygdala, which helps to calm your response to fear stimulus and also to unravel and heal conditioned fear responses, like anxiety and post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Your liver is responsible for deactivating old hormones. Once the hormones circulating in your system have accomplished their task, they are broken down and deactivated by the liver. This helps prevent hormone imbalances, like estrogen dominance. This can also impact the hormones that influence your sleep patterns, like cortisol and melatonin.
High levels of cortisol in the blood (from high stress or anxiety) increases your liver’s workload which can overwhelm your liver, allowing excess cortisol to linger in your system and impact sleep quality and nightmares.
What’s more, poor liver function is correlated with anger. Any stagnation, congestion or compromise in the healthy function of your liver allows toxic chemicals to build up and accumulate in your body. Frustration, rage, and anger tend to build up when toxins buildup which can present as nightmares in the dream state.
Trauma and Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often occur when perceived danger overstimulates the sympathetic “fight, flight, or freeze” branch of the autonomic nervous system. When that trauma is not processed, your nervous system can get stuck in that sympathetic “Survival Mode” state and replay the experience of the initial trauma, even in safe surroundings like when you are safely asleep at night.
Nightmares are more prevalent among individuals who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder and other major anxiety disorders A University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study, published in 2009 in “Sleep Medicine Clinics,” found that 80 percent of people experiencing PTSD have frequent nightmares.
A 1998 study that analyzed data from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study found that regular nightmares were reported by 52 percent of combat veterans but only by 3 percent of civilian participants. Not only are nightmares more common in those with PTSD, they are more frequent, sometimes occurring several times a week.
Insufficient Melatonin Levels
Melatonin is the chemical that activates your sleep cycles and the quality of our sleep. Research shows that people who experience sleep deprivation or insomnia (resulting from low melatonin levels) often experience nightmares.
Melatonin has an antagonist relationship to the stress hormone cortisol and the two hormones in conjunction help regulate our circadian rhythms. This means that when cortisol is high, melatonin is low. Chronic and prolonged stress triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol and throws off the body’s natural cortisol/melatonin rhythm. Cortisol should be high in the mornings when you wake up and gradually taper off throughout the day so you feel tired at bedtime and can fall asleep. High levels of cortisol at night, drive down melatonin and make it difficult to fall asleep. Increasing melatonin levels can calm cortisol levels.
Research suggests that melatonin is directly involved in processes that control whether you have dreams or nightmares during REM sleep. One study found that when you’re in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, melatonin releases a substance called vasotocin, which helps your brain erase memories while you’re dreaming. It’s during this time of your sleep cycle when you have the kinds of vivid dreams or nightmares that you remember most.
What’s more, supplementing with melatonin may help people who experience night terrors and distressing hallucinations at night. Researchers found that taking 5 milligrams (mg) of melatonin worked immediately to calm nightmares.
Melatonin is released by your pineal gland, a small pine cone shaped endocrine gland located in the exact center of the brain, level with your eyes. This proximity to your eyes allows your pineal gland to release melatonin in response to light.
The pineal gland has been compromised, impacting your ability to produce melatonin, detoxify and heal. To help return the body to balance, it is important to detoxify and heal the pineal gland.
10 Essential oils for Nightmares
Essential oils may assist in preventing nightmares as certain oils calm and soothe your nervous system, balance the adrenal glands, hypothalamus, liver, amygdala and pineal gland to help reduce feelings of anxiety.
Essential oils may also help relax the mind and promote relaxation and sleep. The following oils may help you drift into restful sleep and prevent or at least reduce the likelihood of nightmares.
Your adrenal glands secrete cortisol to enable you to rapidly respond to stress. The health and resilience of the adrenals (along with the hypothalamus and hippocampus) help to determine our tolerance to stress, both during the day and the night. To help keep your adrenals balanced and not over releasing cortisol that contribute to nightmares, apply 1- 2 drops of the Adrenal™ on the adrenal glands (lower mid-back, one fist above the 12th rib on each side) upon waking, before bed and throughout the day as needed.
Your hypothalamus is a pearl size region of the brain located just above the brain stem serves as control center for neural and hormonal messages received from/sent to body, including signals to trigger the release of cortisol. The ability of the hypothalamus to receive clear messages from the body is critical as all outgoing endocrine and neural signals are based on the clarity of these incoming signals, including the ability to put the brakes on cortisol release.
Formulated with Mandarin, Patchouli, Frankincense, Bay Rum, and Pine, Hypothalamus™ helps return your hypothalamus to its original blueprint to ensure that it sends and receives healthy signals for stress hormones, like cortisol. Frankincense in particular contains compounds known as sesquiterpenes that are known to cross the blood-brain barrier and increase oxygen around receptor sites in the emotional centers of your brain, like your hypothalamus and amygdala, helping to calm and anxiety. Sesqueterpines are C15 carbon chains that do not contain oxygen molecules, but seem to pull oxygen in. This is one reason that when essential oils that are high in sesqueterpines are topically applied to the brain or inhaled through the nose, oxygen levels seem to increase.
To optimize the ability of the hypothalamus to send and receive signals, apply 1 drop of Hypothalamus™ on forehead slightly above the third eye up to 6 times daily.
Essential oils can help the pineal gland return to its innate intelligence and release more melatonin naturally. Activating the pineal gland with essential oils can help prevent and eliminate nightmares. By healing the pineal gland, you are helping the pineal gland increase melatonin production. When proper levels of melatonin begin circulating in your system, it boosts your ability to sleep soundly and eliminate nightmares.
Your nose is a direct gateway to the brain and the pineal gland. To stimulate the olfactory passage to detoxify and activate pineal gland, you can either inhale Circadian Rhythm oil or place a drop in specific spots around the head – on the very top of the head, the very back of the head, on the skin above the ears. The pineal gland is located in the exact center of the brain, so topically applying oils directly around the brain allows transdermal access.
Circadian Rhythm™ blend can be applied around the base of the skull (apex of head, above ears and back of head) to help trigger the natural release of melatonin.
People often supplement with the melatonin hormone, which can help in the short term. The challenge here is that the body, specifically the pineal gland, is supposed to make its own melatonin and external supplementation of the hormone sends the signal to the body that it is sufficient in melatonin production and actually reduces the body’s own production of the hormone. In other words, it throws off the body’s own internal thermostat for self-regulation. Topical or transdermal delivery of essential oils is more effective for activating the pineal gland to deliver melatonin.
To heal trauma, you must shift the nervous system toward the healing and regenerative arasympathetic state, and out of Survival Mode. Activating the parasympathetic state, by applying Parasympathetic™ blend behind your earlobe on the mastoid bone, prevents you from having chronic Fight/Flight/Freeze responses and turns on healing. Parasympathetic™ helps to calm the body’s stress response and trigger the rest and digest parasympathetic state. For intensely stressful situations, apply at the base of the skull and over the heart.
Anger that we don’t process and release can get stored in your liver, according to Chinese medicine. I believe anger can be the most intense and the most damaging of all the repressed emotions, because of its intensity. The more we try to suppress it, the more it rears its ugly head in ways that can undermine our health, our growth and our personal relationships. Liver Support™ helps support the release of anger, including frequent irritation, impatience, resentment or frustration, being critical of yourself or others, control issues, an inability to express your feelings, feelings of not feeling heard, not feeling loved, not being recognized or appreciated.
Just place the bottle of Liver Support™ under your nose and breathe deeply, fully inhaling the oil for 3 – 7 breaths. It helps you breathe into and work through the emotion. You can also apply it around the ankles as this is often an area where we hold resistance to moving forward in life and block the ability to receive joy and pleasure. Start at the back of the ankle and apply under the ankle bone around to the front and back under the other ankle bone, all while allowing yourself to release challenging emotions. For more tips on detoxify emotions, read this article.
Physically cleaning and supporting your liver frees up bandwidth for your liver to release toxic emotions, like anger. Essential oils can be powerful agents to assist the body in ridding itself of toxins. Specific blends can be used to enhance, accelerate and support your body and your organs, like your liver and other detoxification pathways. Supporting your detoxification pathways helps lessen the burden your liver and eliminates liver overload.
Liver™ helps support optimal health and vitality of the liver. Formulated with oils that help stimulate, strengthen, and tone the liver, including German Chamomile, which is known to have a positive effect on sleep, reduce stress and calm anxiety that can contribute to nightmares. Apply Liver™ directly over the liver (right side beneath the breast) 2-3 times daily. You can also combine the Liver™ blend with castor oil – just add 3 drops of Liver™ to 1 tsp of castor oil and rub it over the liver before bed. Castor oil is notoriously messy, so you can either: (1) cover it with a piece of flannel and plastic wrap and apply heat from a hot water bottle (avoid the electricity of heating pads) for 20-30 minutes, (2) wear a ratty t-shirt and let your body eat work it’s magic (3) climb into an Epsom salt bath with the castor oil and Liver™ oil and benefit from layering 3 healing strategies at the same time. Learn more about detoxifying your liver here.
Lavender is known for its sedative, anxiety relieving and calming properties that help your body relax into restful sleep. Similarly, its key constituent Linalool, helps activate your calming neurotransmitter GABA, which helps calm your mind and body.
Lavender can help the body and the mind relax which can help support restful sleep. Learn more about Lavender essential oil for sleep here.
Rose essential oil has a wonderful calming effect on the body and mind and can reduce the feelings of anxiety that often lead to disturbed sleep and nightmares.
Orange essential oil can help relieve stress and anxiety and promote the calm needed to get a good night of sleep. It is also known to eliminate nightmares.
As mentioned above, Frankincense contains compounds known as sesquiterpenes that are known to cross the blood-brain barrier and increase oxygen around receptor sites in the emotional centers of your brain, like your hypothalamus and amygdala, helping to calm and anxiety and nightmares. It can be inhaled or topically applied to the brainstem (base of the brain on the top of the neck) before sleep and throughout the day to help calm amygdala function.
Ready to get started? Click the links below to order today:
- Adrenal™ available here
- Circadian Rhythm™ available here
- Frankincense available here
- Hypothalamus™ available here
- Lavender available here
- Liver™ available here
- Liver Support™ available here
- Orange available here
- Parasympathetic™ available here
- Rose available here