Many people appreciate lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, or Lavandula officinalis) for its fragrance, used in soaps, shampoos, and sachets for scenting clothes. The name lavender comes from the Latin root lavare, which means "to wash." Lavender may have earned this name because it was frequently used in baths to help purify the body and spirit. However, this herb has also been used as a remedy for a range of ailments from insomnia and anxiety to depression and fatigue. Research has confirmed that lavender produces slight calming, soothing, and sedative effects when its scent is inhaled.
Lavender is native to the mountainous zones of the Mediterranean where it grows in sunny, stony habitats. Today, it flourishes throughout southern Europe, Australia, and the United States. Lavender is a heavily branched short shrub that grows to a height of roughly 60 centimeters (about 24 inches). Its broad rootstock bears woody branches with upright, rod-like, leafy, green shoots. A silvery down covers the gray-green narrow leaves, which are oblong and tapered, attached directly at the base, and curled spirally.
The oil in lavender's small, blue-violet flowers gives the herb its fragrant scent. The flowers are arranged in spirals of 6 - 10 blossoms, forming interrupted spikes above the foliage.
Essential oil is extracted from the fresh flowers of the lavender plant and used for medicinal purposes.
Medicinal Uses and Indications
A number of studies have reported that lavender essential oil may be beneficial in a variety of conditions, including insomnia, alopecia (hair loss), anxiety, stress, and postoperative pain. However, most of these studies have been small. Lavender is also being studied for antibacterial and antiviral properties. Lavender oil is often used in other forms of integrative medicine, such as massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic manipulation.
Insomnia or Agitation
In folklore, pillows were filled with lavender flowers to help restless people fall sleep. Scientific evidence suggests that aromatherapy with lavender may slow the activity of the nervous system, improve sleep quality, promote relaxation, and lift mood in people suffering from sleep disorders. Studies also suggest that massage with essential oils, particularly lavender, may result in improved sleep quality, more stable mood, better concentration, and reduced anxiety. In one recent study, people who received massage with lavender felt less anxious and more positive than those who received massage alone. Several small studies suggest that lavender aromatherapy may help reduce agitation in patients with dementia. Lavender flowers have also been approved in Germany as a tea for insomnia, restlessness, and nervous stomach irritations.
In one study of 86 people with alopecia areata (an autoimmune disease that causes hair to fall out, often in patches), those who massaged their scalps with lavender and other essential oils daily for 7 months experienced significant hair re-growth compared to those who massaged their scalps without the essential oils. However, there is no way to tell whether it was one or the combination of oils that was effective.
Aromatherapists also use lavender in inhalation therapy to treat headaches, nervous disorders, and exhaustion. Herbalists treat skin ailments, such as fungal infections (like candidiasis), wounds, eczema, and acne, with lavender oil. It is also used in a healing bath for joint and muscle pain. One study evaluating treatments for children with eczema founded it was therapeutic touch from the mother that improved symptoms; in other words, massage with and without essential oils (including lavender) both reduced the dry, scaly skin lesions. Another study found that lavender oil may improve pain control after surgery. Fifty patients undergoing breast biopsy surgery received either oxygen supplemented with lavender oil or oxygen alone. Patients in the lavender group reported better pain control than patients in the control group.
Commercial preparations are made from dried flowers and essential oils of the lavender plant. These preparations are available in the following forms:
- Aromatherapy oil
- Bath gels
- Whole, dried flowers
How to Take It
- Oral use in children is not recommended.
- May be used topically in diluted concentrations to treat skin infections and injuries, such as minor cuts and scrapes. Never use lavender on an open wound; seek immediate medical attention.
- A small study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 concluded that lavender and tea oils in some shampoos, soaps, and lotions may cause gynecomastia, breast development in a male, in boys. If you have any concerns, ask your doctor about using lavender for a child.
- May be used as aromatherapy for children. Use 2 - 4 drops in 2 - 3 cups of boiling water. Inhale vapors for headache, depression, or insomnia.
The following are recommended adult doses for lavender:
- Internal use: Tea: 1 - 2 tsp whole herb per cup of hot water. Steep for 10 - 15 minutes and drink, 1 - 3 times a day.
- Tincture (1:4): 20 - 40 drops, 3 times a day
- Inhalation: 2 - 4 drops in 2 - 3 cups of boiling water. Inhale vapors for headache, depression, or insomnia.
- Topical external application: lavender oil is one of the few oils that can be safely applied undiluted. For ease of application, add 1 - 4 drops per tablespoon of base oil (such as almond or olive oil). Lavender oil is toxic if taken orally. Only use the oil externally or by inhalation. Also, avoid contact with eyes or mucous membranes such as the lips and nostril.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, contain active components that can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of a health care provider qualified in the field of botanical medicine.
Some people may develop an allergic reaction to lavender. Nausea, vomiting, headache, and chills have also been reported in some people after inhaling or absorbing lavender through the skin.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid using lavender.
- CNS Depressants -- There are no known scientific reports of interactions between lavender and conventional medications. However, because lavender promotes relaxation, it may make the effects of central nervous depressants stronger. These drugs include narcotics such as morphine or oxycodone (OxyContin) for pain, and sedative and anti-anxiety agents such as lorazepam (Ativan), diazepam (Valium), and alprazolam (Xanax). Ask your doctor before using lavender with these and other sedatives.