While my marriage was not on the rocks, I had often been sleeping in a different room because I couldn’t easily fall asleep with the sound of my husband’s breathing. And he wasn’t even snoring! Ear plugs aggravate me, so while they block sound, they defeat the purpose.
This sesame seed tale began last year, when I was reading Body Thrive, a book about daily habits from Ayurveda. I came across a tip about dipping cotton balls in sesame (seed) oil and sticking in your ears as a way to deal with sensitivity to sound at night. I didn’t get around to trying this, however, until I encountered a woman earlier this year who had had the same problem and found that this worked for her. So I finally tried it, and marveled at what real sleep felt like! Now I could consistently sleep in the same room as my husband, all because of the wonders of this tiny seed.
Gathering evidence of sesame's soporific effect
I mentioned my breakthrough to my sister (apparently all the women in my family have sleep issues). She tried it, and sure enough, she had the same feeling of awe at what real sleep feels like. Neither of us expected this result for her - she had tried all kinds of guided meditations and supplements and nothing consistently worked, but this did. My sister didn't need to do the cotton ball thing because her issue was not sensitivity to sound - she just rubbed some in her ears, ear lobes, and neck initially. Then, because it worked and felt so nourishing, she added the soles of her feet to this regimen. I, too, have started applying the oil beyond my ears.
Hearing about the impacts on her daughters, my mom proceeded to try it. She had been resorting to sleeping pills when things were really bad and had tried some other natural remedies, but they had stopped working. The oil worked so well that she packed some on a trip overseas. Typical of my mother, she promptly began distributing sesame oil samples to her numerous friends also suffering from sleep issues.
Of course, it’s not just for women – sleep problems afflict virtually every demographic group, with people suffering from either inadequate or poor quality sleep. Yet within my own network of friends and family, it does seem that women are more likely to experience difficulty in falling asleep. Beyond the obvious effects on cognitive function and energy, chronic sleep problems can set us up for a variety of more serious health problems down the road, like metabolic disorders (1) and autoimmune diseases (2).
What's so special about sesame oil?
So what is it about sesame oil specifically that helps with sleep? Before I get into that, I’ll mention that one day I hadn’t gone through this ritual before I got to bed, but there was a bottle of a very nice rose and lavender infused almond oil on my bedside table, so I used that instead. It didn’t work, as lovely as it was. Sesame oil has a heaviness to it that seems to draw us out of our heads and into our bodies - it is grounding. In Ayurveda, the energy of air and space is called vata, and is it governs most process involving movement - nerve impulses, heartbeat, speech, etc. Creativity, itself associated with the flow of ideas and thoughts, for example, stems from this energy.
Modern lifestyles of overstimulation and multitasking tend to increase vata energy, which counters the experience of heaviness that we would normally experience in the evening as part of our physiological cycles. The tryptophan and magnesium in sesame calm and bring a quality of heaviness, helping to decelerate the stream of thoughts, ideas, or worries that can prevent sleep. In a nutshell, Ayurveda is about balance - if a particular quality or energy is too high, you can bring in its opposite to restore balance, which is what sesame does.
In terms of sleep issues, sesame oil is not a panacea. It’s not like you can be watching tv (or any screen) or reading something stimulating right up until your bedtime, and just apply some oil on and drop off! Nor will it necessarily work if there are more serious emotional or physiological reasons for sleep problems. Bearing in mind these caveats, if you already have a winding down routine and still can’t drift off reasonably quickly on a relatively ordinary evening, it’s worth a try. Just make sure to use untoasted, cured sesame seed oil rather than the toasted kind. Cured oil is oil that has been heated up and then cooled down - it makes it somewhat thinner and more easily absorbed. Whether you use cured or uncured, it's better to warm up the oil before applying - you can decant a small amount into a glass bottle or jar and put this in a mug of freshly boiled water. And be sure to saturate the cotton well, so that you don't end up hearing your own pulse when you stick in your ears!
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that sesame oil-based self massage is one of the daily practices recommended in Ayurveda. So it's not just for sleep problems - it's a practice to preserve health and wellbeing that stretches back long before the travails of modern living. You don't have to suffer from a sleep issue to benefit!
1. Depner, C. M., Stothard, E. R., & Wright, K. P. (2014). Metabolic consequences of sleep and circadian disorders. Current Diabetes Reports, 14(7), 507. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11892-014-0507-z
2. Yi-Han Hsiao, Yung-Tai Chen, Ching-Min Tseng, Li-An Wu, Wei-Chen Lin, Vincent Yi-Fong Su, Diahn-Warng Perng, Shi-Chuan Chang, Yuh-Min Chen, Tzeng-Ji Chen, Yu-Chin Lee, Kun-Ta Chou; Sleep Disorders and Increased Risk of Autoimmune Diseases in Individuals without Sleep Apnea, Sleep, Volume 38, Issue 4, 1 April 2015, Pages 581–586, https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.4574