Sleep pillows are a sweet way to help when a restless mind or body, recurrent anxiety dreams, or even outright nightmares are keeping you awake. The use of sleep pillows is not new. “Dilly pillows” stuffed with dill, lavender, and other relaxing aromatic herbs were traditionally used to help babies relax and fall asleep. Sleep pillows also make great gifts, something to keep in mind as the holidays approach. Most of the following can be used either as an herb or an essential oil.
Best Herbs for a Sleep Pillow
Hops (Humulus lupulus)
Hops can be strongly sedating and is a popular ingredient for sleep pillows. The hops should be green, not yellow or tan. Otherwise, use the essential oil. Hops have a strong, pungent scent, so blending it with sweeter-smelling herbs or oils is helpful. Hops should not be used if depression is an issue.
Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis)
The name “chamomile” is derived from Greek for “earth apple.” Roman Chamomile has a scent that, to my nose, is reminiscent of green apple Jolly Ranchers. (German Chamomile works fine as well. Roman just smells better.) The oil is expensive; dried flowers work just fine (either Roman or German). Chamomile is good for irritable babies, children and adults. It is both sedating and uplifting. Unlike hops, chamomile is a good choice if melancholy is an issue.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lavender is not overtly sedating like Chamomile and Hops. Instead, lavender gently relaxes a restless body and mind. The floral scent is lovely for folks with the blues, a common cause of insomnia. Lavender has also traditionally been used to sweeten dreams (more on dreams in a moment).
Rose (Rosa spp)
Like lavender, rose’s lovely scent is both uplifting and relaxing. Rose is heart-opening and is an ally for folks stuck in grief, bitterness, or anger; all of which like to come out in the middle of the night. For recent heartbreak that’s keeping you up, consider Cypress instead (keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming Cypress article). Rose oil is expensive. Dried flowers may be a good option as long as the scent is still strong.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon Balm’s citrusy, green and sweet scent is fantastic for seasonal funk. My teacher Pam calls the extract “liquid sunshine.” When fear or anxiety are keeping you up, lemon balm comes to the rescue. The essential oil is very expensive and is often adulterated. Properly dried herb will smell lovely and be much cheaper. And it’s super easy to grow.
Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Yup…the same herb used to flavor pickles. Believe it or not, it dill seed actually smells great blended with other aromatic herbs and has relaxing effects on the mind and body.
Make your sleep pillow a dream pillow
Mugwort (Artemesia douglasiana or A. vulgaris)
It’s a good time of year to get in touch with the subconscious. Mugwort, botanically named for the moon goddess Artemesia, is a good tool for this. Mugwort is also good for those of us up at night worrying about transitions; it helps us better flow through them. Mugwort intensifies dreams. I’ve been using it lately and have gotten quite a dreamtime workout! Interestingly, one of my dreams involved planting a “moon garden” of night blooming and moon-associated plants. Stick with the plant for your pillow; the isolated essential oil is too strong due to its thujone content.
Clary sage can stimulate vivid dreams and drag up stuff from our subconscious that we need to deal with. Clary-induced dreams can be pretty sensual. It’s especially good for folks feeling sad or depressed. Don’t use clary sage together with alcohol or sleep meds. Either combination may cause nightmares. This happened recently to a friend for whom I made a clary sage-containing perfume and gave it to her at a dinner and wine party…
Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum, H. angustifolium)
Helichrysum is also known as “immortelle,” and the flowers last a long time in arrangements. Helichrysum encourages dreaming, access to the subconscious, and intuition. It’s also a good one to use if you’re having a creative block…you can sleep on it and perhaps wake up with some good ideas!
Labdamun (Cistus ladaniferus, C. incanus)
This can be used as the crude resin or the essential oil. It’s a grounding base note in perfumery, but also encourages visionary dreams. Use when you’re confused in life and would like help clarifying your truth.
Juniper (Juniperus spp)
Juniper leaves, berries, or essential oil can help with nightmares while encouraging inner vision and helping with insomnia. It’s thought to increase awareness while dreaming, so it’s a good one for folks experimenting with lucid dreaming. The scent of the crushed berries in particular is both sharp and fruity and blends well with many other aromas.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Thyme can help prevent nightmares and is also useful for folks a little too stuck to their dream states. Just a bit of the herb is enough so your sleep pillow doesn’t smell like a meal.
Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis)
Use bay laurel to reduce unwanted stuff coming through in your dreams.. Keep in mind, though, that dreams often make us face things that need processing. A small amount of bay laurel in your pillow may be helpful for headaches if these keep you up at night.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
Peppermint stimulates dreaming and increases alertness in the dream state…another good one for lucid dreaming or simply getting as much information as you can out of your dreams. Don’t use peppermint for infants or small children, and avoid the essential oil for folks with seizure disorders or those on stimulant medications like Adderall or Ritalin.
Putting together your pillow
Put your dry herbs in a small bowl and if using any essential oils, add one drop of each. You don’t want to overwhelm the scent of the dry herbs.
Now for the pillow itself…It’s as simple as picking up a small piece of material that you find appealing. At a thrift store I once found some dark blue satiny cloth with golden stars and moons…perfect! Less than a square foot is plenty. Simply fold the cloth in half, inside out, and sew two of the sides. Turn it right-side-out, stuff it with your herbs and seal it either by sewing or by tying with a thin strip of your cloth, a pretty ribbon, or a piece of string. An even easier option is to use pre-made drawstring pouches. The simplest method for those who are just going for pure function is to use a sock. (A clean sock.) To use, stick your herb pillow inside your pillowcase and don’t forget to remove it before washing your pillowcase.
Some good resources:
Worwood, VA (1999) The fragrant heavens. Bantam Books.
Keville, K (2016) The Aromatherapy Garden: Growing Fragrant Plants for Happiness and Well-Being. Timber Press.