This blog post was inspired by a question asked recently in an aromatherapy group, and it’s a question that’s becoming increasingly frequent. Thousands of people are diagnosed yearly with sleep apnea, a condition which results in interrupted sleep. The most common cause of this condition is related to excess tissue at the back of the palate (in the throat) which “sags” during sleep, mechanically reducing and sometimes even cutting off the flow of air [1].

This interruption of normal air flow causes loud snoring, sometimes accompanied by choking or gasping noises. Lack of oxygen to tissues not only results in poor sleep and daytime fatigue, but over time can cause problems as serious as high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, and complications recovering from anesthesia during surgical procedures, among others [2].

Physicians have recognized that sleep apnea is a condition which greatly affects a person’s quality of life; doctors will commonly order a “sleep study” to help diagnose the problem. If diagnosed, a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) breathing machine is ordered for the person to wear during sleep. CPAP works by forcing air, under gentle pressure, past the obstructive tissue to help keep airways open during sleep [3].

So, what does this have to do with essential oils? Many people like to diffuse essential oils in the bedroom to help them relax or de-stress before sleep. However, wearing an occlusive CPAP mask or nasal prongs reduces the ability to breathe in the oils. At some point, an idea was proposed to add essential oils to the CPAP reservoir water tank (a water mist helps keep airway tissues moistened from the dry air that is ‘pumped’ by the CPAP machine). The claim was that one could still get the benefits of breathing in essential oils in addition to wearing the CPAP. Win-win, right? Well, not exactly. And here’s why…….

First, adding essential oils to the water reservoir can potentially ruin the integrity of the reservoir, tubing, and mask as these are composed of plastic parts. Essential oils are known to degrade certain types of plastic [4]. More important, a very real physical concern is present. A CPAP machine works by forcing air past the soft tissues of the nose/mouth and throat to assist in holding airways open during sleep. If you put essential oils into a CPAP reservoir, then you’re not gently inhaling oils dispersed into the atmosphere but inhaling them in concentrated form under pressure. Therefore, the chance of irritating the mucosa of the airways is correspondingly much higher than with regular diffusion.

It’s even possible to imagine chemical aspiration pneumonia resulting from inhalation of volatilized vapors. If this sounds unlikely, does anyone remember the gasoline shortage of the 70’s, when people would siphon gasoline by mouth out of a car’s gas tank? Even if one doesn’t actually ingest gasoline, a chemical pneumonia can still result from aspirating volatile hydrocarbon gasoline vapors [5].  Since essential oils are “mixtures of volatile, organic compounds” [6], it’s not unreasonable to assume that long-term application of essential oils under direct pressure into the airways could potentially cause harm.

So…. if a CPAP machine is necessary to help assure safe and good quality sleep, does that mean giving up essential oils for relaxation and assisting in a refreshing sleep? Of course not! Some great options include an aromatherapy bath before bedtime, diffusing in the living area for 20-30 minutes before retiring, or sniffing an aromatherapy inhaler several times before applying the CPAP mask.

Have a restful (and safe) sleep!

 

 

 

 1.  “Sleep Apnea”. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleep-apnea/basics/complications/con-20020286. Accessed on mayoclinic.org, 1/24/17.

 2.  Downey, Ralph III. “Obstructive Sleep Apnea”.  http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/295807-overview. June 3, 2016, accessed on medscape.com, 1/24/17.

 3.  National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.  “What is Sleep Apnea?” https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sleepapnea  Accessed on nih.gov, 1/24/17.

 4.  AromaWeb. “Storing Essential Oils”.  www.aromaweb.com/articles/storing/asp.  Accessed on aromaweb.com, 1/24/17.

 5.  Medline Plus. Hydrocarbon pneumonia. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001083.htm. Accessed on medlineplus.gov, 1/24/17.

 6.  Tisserand, R and Young, R.  Essential Oil Safety, Second edition, 2014, Elsevier Publishers, p.5.