You know the scent when it hits you—the rich, mellow, floral scent of lavender. In Southern California where I live, it grows both wild and cultivated in gardens (including my own). I’m always struck by how instantly calming that familiar lavender smell is. It’s no accident that lavender pops up all the time in soaps, shampoos, lotions and other body and self-care products. It’s wildly popular.
Not long ago, I talked about the most effective essential oils for sleep. Lavender is on that list. It’s one of the well-known, and well-studied, essential oils. Lavender’s potential benefits as a medicinal herb go beyond what many people know. There’s a lot to learn about lavender and how this flowering plant may benefit sleep and health.
What is Lavender?
Lavender is a perennial and evergreen plant. There are more than 40 types of lavender. One that is common and used for medicinal purposes is Lavendula angustifolia. Native to North Africa and the Mediterranean region, lavender now also grows throughout the United Kingdom and in parts of the United States, as well as other parts of the world.
Almost wherever lavender grows, it grows abundantly. It’s a plant that’s known to spread quickly, leading some people to think of it as a weed! The plant’s flowers, leaves and essential oil are all used as natural medicines. Lavender is taken orally as a supplement, often to treat anxiety, depression, insomnia, as well as physical pain, including headache and toothache. Lavender is used topically in lotions and creams for skin and hair treatments, as well as to treat wounds and pain. It’s often used as an aromatherapy tool for sleep problems, to improve mood and relieve stress. Lavender is brewed into teas and infusions, and used as an ingredient in recipes.
How does Lavender work?
This gently scented flowering herb has been shown to have a pretty broad range of effects in the body, as an essential oil, an oral supplement, and a topical cream or salve:
- Lavender works as an anxiolytic (an anxiety reliever) and as a sedative, to increase relaxation and calm, and help bring about sleep
- Lavender interacts with the neurotransmitter GABA to help quiet the brain and nervous system activity, reducing agitation, anger, aggression, and restlessness
- Lavender functions as a pain reliever, or analgesic
- Lavender has anti-bacterial capabilities
- Lavender can reduce inflammation
CAUTION: Lavender oil has been shown to be what’s known as an endocrine disruptor. That means it affects how hormones work in the body. Studies have found lavender oil may have weak, or mild, effects on both estrogen and testosterone.
Scientific evidence indicates that natural chemicals found in lavender oil and tea tree oil cause breast development in boys, when used topically. According to research, these chemicals interfere with the hormones estrogen and testosterone, which influence development of male and female characteristics. As well as being used on their own, these oils are also found in products such as soaps, shampoos, and lotions. While the research doesn’t indicate that the aroma of oils has a connection to boys’ breast development, parents should use appropriate caution and avoid boys’ exposure to lavender oil.
Benefits of lavender
For sleep. Lavender oil is a popular aromatherapy choice for sleep and relaxation. Several studies show using lavender oil for aromatherapy can improve sleep quality, including in people with insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Aromatherapy using lavender oil may also increase time spent in deep, slow-wave sleep.
A study of an oral lavender medication showed it improved sleep quality and lowered anxiety about as effectively as a low dose of the sedative lorazepam (the drug Ativan).
For anxiety, stress, and depression. Lavender has been well studied for its anxiolytic, or anxiety relieving, effects. Studies show both oral lavender and inhaled lavender may reduce anxiety. Some studies suggest oral lavender may work as effectively as anti-anxiety medications to improve anxiety. Scientists have found similar types of results for lavender’s effectiveness in treating depression. Both lavender taken orally and lavender used in aromatherapy may improve mild-to-moderate depression.
Lavender oil aromatherapy has been shown to reduce the physical and emotional signs of stress, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and increasing feelings of relaxation and calm.
For menopause symptoms. Women in menopause may find lavender helpful in addressing sleep difficulties and also anxiety and restlessness. Some research also indicates lavender aromatherapy may also improve hot flashes.
For blood pressure. Lavender’s quieting effects on the nervous system appear to be responsible for its ability to lower blood pressure and reduce heart rate. Research shows that aromatherapy with lavender—both on its own and blended with lemon and ylang ylang oils—may reduce blood pressure and heart rate, including in middle-aged women with insomnia.
For pain. Lavender is a natural pain reliever (analgesic) and also a natural antibiotic. Studies show using lavender aromatherapy, in massage, and topically can be effective in improving several different forms of pain, including:
- Headache and migraine
- Pain during labor
- Osteoarthritis pain
- Ear pain associated with ear infection
- Post-surgical pain
Lavender oil is also used to treat pain and swelling of canker sores.
Talk with your doctor about the right way to use lavender to treat a particular pain issue.
For cognitive health. There’s scientific evidence from studies in animals that indicates both lavender aromatherapy and oral lavender may offer protection to cognitive health and function, including memory. Scientists are studying the potential benefits of lavender aromatherapy to improve symptoms Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Among essential oils, lavender is relatively well studied as a therapy for sleep, anxiety, and other potential therapeutic uses. Still, we need to see more research into lavender’s effects and possible benefits in order to better understand how well lavender may work to improve sleep and mood, as well as its other benefits to health and treatment of illness and disease.
Lavender: what to know
Always consult your doctor before you begin taking a supplement or make any changes to your existing medication and supplement routine. This is not medical advice, but it is information you can use as a conversation-starter with your physician at your next appointment.
As an oral supplement: 80-160 mg
As aromatherapy: Uses and delivery vary, but many studies have used lavender aromatherapy for 30 minutes or more in a well-ventilated room.
Essential oils in undiluted form are highly concentrated and intense, and can irritate your skin. DO NOT APPLY undiluted essential oil to your skin. If you’re planning to use essential oils topically on your body, be sure you’re buying an already diluted oil—a mixture of the fragrant essential oil of your choice and a carrier oil (often a vegetable oil).
Possible side effects of Lavender
Lavender is generally safe for healthy adults when added to food, and when taken as an oral supplement, applied to the skin, or used in aromatherapy.
Side effects of oral lavender include:
- Increased appetite
Side effects of topical lavender include:
- Skin irritation
The following people should take special precaution when considering using lavender:
Parents are advised not to use lavender oil with young children, particularly young boys (see CAUTION statement above.)
Women who are pregnant and breast feeding. Women who are pregnant or breast feeding are advised not to use lavender, because there isn’t sufficient information establishing the safety of lavender for these women.
People having surgery. Lavender has a slowing effect on the central nervous system. If lavender is used along with anesthetic or other surgery-related medications, the combination may cause the nervous system to slow down too much. It’s recommended not to use lavender for two weeks before a scheduled surgery.
People with hormone-sensitive cancers. Lavender has been shown to affect the body’s hormones, specifically estrogen and testosterone. It’s not clear what affects lavender might have in people with hormone-sensitive cancers, and they are advised not to use lavender orally or topically.
These are commonly used medications and supplements that have scientifically-identified interactions with glycine. People who take these or any other medications and supplements should consult with a physician before beginning to use glycine as a supplement.
Interactions with medications
Anti-hypertensive drugs. Lavender may lower blood pressure. Using lavender in combination with drugs that treat high blood pressure may lower blood pressure too much.
Chloral hydrate. This medication causes sleepiness. Lavender may increase the effects of chloral hydrate, and result in excessive sleepiness.
Pentobarbital. This medication causes sleepiness. Lavender may increase the effects of pentobarbital and result in excessive sleepiness.
Sedative medications. Because lavender may cause sleepiness, excessive sleepiness may result when lavender is used with sedative medications including barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and central nervous system depressants such as zolpidem, lorazepam, phenobarbital, and clonazepam.
Interactions with other supplements
Herbs and supplements that promote sleepiness and drowsiness. Because of lavender’s sedative effects, using it in combination with other herbs or supplements that promote sleep may lead to excessive sleepiness. Some of these herbs and supplements include:
- California poppy
- Jamaican dogwood
- St. John’s wort
- Yerba mansa
Herbs and supplements that work to lower blood pressure. Lavender may lower blood pressure. Using it in combination with other herbs and supplements that treat high blood pressure may lead to an excessive drop in blood pressure. Some of these herbs and supplements include:
- Casein peptides
- Cat’s claw
- Coenzyme Q-10
- Fish oil
- Stinging nettle
It’s no coincidence we find the scent and essence of lavender in such a wide range of products. It’s a powerfully relaxing smell. As you can see, it’s potential therapeutic powers go well beyond relaxation, to helping ease pain, lift mood, and boost sleep. After all this lavender talk, I’m off to pick some from the garden!
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor