“I put a drop of lavender essential oil on my pillow before I go to sleep.” – Melissa Joan Hart
I’ve always loved the scent of lavender. Although I can’t pinpoint when this began, I recall fields of wild lavender near my home when I was growing up and I took the shortcuts to get to school and the drugstore for candy and treats. The fact that we maintained a small garden adjacent the field probably had something to do with my attraction to the lavender. After all, it smelled wonderful and there were always hummingbirds flitting about, contributing to the peacefulness.
As it turns out, research proves that the scent of lavender has some surprising health benefits, as I’ve recently discovered. It’s relaxing, helps combat anxiety, and provides other pro-health benefits.
Lavender – It’s Been Around Since Ancient Egypt
The history of lavender is quite intriguing, not the least of which is the fact that the ancient Egyptians used lavender to mummify bodies prior to burial or interment in pyramids and other edifices. I’ve even read accounts that when the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen (King Tut) was discovered in 1922, there were alabaster jars for lavender oils present, although grave robbers had long before made off with the oils. Yet, the scent of lavender was reportedly still in the air. Could be only myth, but the fact remains that lavender has been prized by many cultures for uses in perfumes, ointments, Eastern medicines and incense.
Lavender Is Relaxing
Research published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience reveals the science behind a key health benefit of lavender: its ability to help you relax. Researchers at Kagoshima University in Kagoshima, Japan looked at linalool, a terpene alcohol in lavender extract, specifically to unlock its anxiety-reducing properties. Rates of anxiety disorders in Japan (estimated at 5.3 percent of Japanese adults) and the United States (18.2 percent of adults) point to a compelling reason for further study into effective therapies and tools to treat such disorders.
While researchers note that aromatic compounds derived from plant extracts have been used to treat anxiety in traditional medicine, and lavender, as an example, has been used in anxiety treatment, plus the fact that compounds such as linalool extracted from lavender have anxiety-reducing effects, no studies yet looked at the effects of the smell of lavender to reduce anxiety.
What the researchers found in their studies with adult male mice is that the calming ability of lavender occurs through smelling vaporized lavender compound from linalool, not absorbing it in the lungs. Linalool creates calming effects by activating GABAA receptors via olfactory neurons in the nose, unlike benzodiazepines that are currently used in treating anxiety. The researchers said linalool odor may have clinical applications in treating anxiety in the human population. They further suggested that linalool odor-induced anxiolytic effects may be effective for preoperative patients to reduce stress and help better transition them to general anesthesia. Another potential benefit for linalool odor utilization may be with infants and those who have difficulty with other forms of anxiolytic administration (such as oral route, or suppositories).
Lavender May Combat Fungal Infections
As reported by Science Daily, a study published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology found that the essential oil of lavender provides a potent antifungal effect for common strains of fungus responsible for skin and nail infections. Researchers noted the dearth of current antifungal drugs to treat infections of the skin, hair and nails as well as the fact that undesirable side effects also may occur with use. As such, the search for effective treatment with novel fungicides has gained importance. The benefits of lavender essential oil include that it’s cheaper, efficient and has minimal side effects to traditional antifungal drugs.
Lavender May Be Effective in Treating Insomnia
Several studies examined the effects of aromatherapy with lavender in combatting insomnia, a sleep disorder affecting millions of people worldwide. A study published in the American Journal of Critical Care found that hospitalized patients inhaling 100 percent lavender oil (available bedside nightly) had improved vital signs and better sleep quality than control group (not receiving lavender oil aromatherapy). Researchers concluded that using lavender oil may be an effective sleep intervention in the intermediate care unit.
Earlier research published in the Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research highlighted the beneficial effects of lavender oil aromatherapy with respect to sleep quality in ischemic heart disease patients. The clinical trial included three nights of 9-hours lavender oil aromatherapy for the experimental group, compared with no therapy for control groups. Researchers concluded that lavender oil aromatherapy can improve sleep quality and health in patients hospitalized with ischemic heart disease.
Another study whose results were published in Evidenced-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that lavender oil aromatherapy reduced stress and improved sleep quality of patients in the hospital intensive care unit after only two days of using the treatment. Aromatherapy is safe, noninvasive treatment that directly affects the brain, does not accumulate in the body (it is discharged through the respiratory system, liver and kidneys), and can be self-administered regardless of location or time.
Lavender May Have Potential Use to Decrease Agitation in Dementia Patients
Research in the Journal of Drug Assessment noted that using twice-daily lavender aromatherapy treatment with elderly dementia patients in a private adult day-care for patients diagnosed with dementia resulted in a reduction in their frequency of agitation. This was particularly true with dementia patients in the 70 to 85 age range. Researchers noted that while the experimental study using lavender aromatherapy did not show significant reductions in other dementia-related behaviors (anger, anxiety, restlessness and wandering), that may have been due to the small study size.
The Cochrane Database for Systematic Reviews, meanwhile, noted equivocal results from seven trials included in the review of aromatherapy for dementia, although several methodological difficulties were present in the studies. The reviewers called for more well-designed, large-scale randomized controlled trials regarding the effectiveness of aromatherapy for dementia patients, as well as suggesting that other issues may also need to be addressed, such comparability of different aromatherapies and whether there may be different outcomes for different types of dementia.
Worth a Try?
Personally, I enjoy a lavender-scented bath, lavender soap, body lotion and, yes, essential lavender oil in a diffuser. I can attest to its calming properties. I even keep a bouquet of dried lavender in a vase on my desk. Yes, it does remind me of traversing the fields of lavender when I was a kid. Perhaps that’s some of the attraction, although I now lean more toward the scientific basis for lavender’s health benefits.