Health Benefits of Lavender Essential Oil
by Sue Hughes, MSEd, HHP, CNC
One of the most popular scents used for aromatherapy is, without a doubt, lavender. If you haven’t smelled this purple gem of a flower, it’s time you gave it a whiff! Not only is the scent of the flower quite calming, but the essential oil contained within the lavender plant actually possesses quite a few scientifically confirmed healing properties. Before we take a closer look at the health benefits of lavender essential oil, let’s talk a bit about the history of this oil.
History and Origin of Lavender
Lavender essential oil has been used for healing as well as in soaps, crafts, perfumes, and flavorings since medieval times. Centuries ago it was very popular for its insecticidal properties. “Lavender bags” were placed in linen drawers to ward off moths and other insects. Ancient Romans took advantage of the antiseptic properties of lavender by using it to clean wounds. And because it smells so good, lavender has been valued as perfume throughout history.
There are many varieties of the lavender plant, however, the most commonly used species today is Lavendula angustifolia, native to the western Mediterranean, primarily the Pyrenees and other mountains in northern Spain. Though not native to England, it is commonly referred to as “English Lavender”. This is the species that is the subject of this article.
Health Benefits of Lavender Essential Oil
The many medicinal properties of lavender come from the compounds contained within the oil, including linalyl acetate, linalool, lavandulol, 1,8-cineole, lavandulyl acetate, and camphor.
Lavender oil has been used for healing purposes for quite some time. There have been quite a few clinical studies performed on this oil, predominantly testing the effects via oral administration, diffusion, and massage application.
First and foremost, studies have shown a very positive effect of lavender on nervous system imbalance. Issues like anxiety, insomnia, and restlessness can often be lessened simply by using this oil via aromatherapy. The therapeutic compounds within the oil are able to rapidly make their way to the limbic system (the center of emotions), the amygdala and hippocampus areas of the brain after inhalation. That said, topical application of lavender oil via massage also produced impressive results in studies. Specifically, the compounds linalool and linalyl acetate reached peak levels in the blood only 19 minutes following application via massage! These two compounds are the ones thought to blunt the central nervous system, resulting in feelings of calm and relaxation.
Lavender for Anxiety
I simply can’t write enough about the well-studied benefits of lavender essential oil for those experiencing anxiety. One study found that diffusing lavender oil (diluted to 1% concentration) improved general anxiety in 36 patients admitted to an intensive care unit. This effect was comparable to 0.5 mg/daily of the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam. Another interesting study involving rats showed that continuous exposure to lavender essential oil over a period of 7 days inhibited anxious and depressive behavior. A third study investigated the effect of four consecutive weeks of aromatherapy using lavender oil (diluted to 2% concentration) on anxiety and depression in high-risk postpartum women. The results showed significant improvement based on Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale and Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale scores.
The above is a mere sampling of the research that has been completed on the effect of lavender and its constituents on anxiety and nervous system activity. If you are interested in reading more about lavender’s positive effects on mood and nerves, I highly recommend that you refer to a research review paper titled Lavender and the Nervous System, available in full on PubMed.
Lavender and Alzheimer's Disease
The properties of lavender lend themselves well to Alzheimer’s support. For instance, lavender exhibits cholinergic effects, meaning that it inhibits the release of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays a large role in the activation of our muscles. Lavender also affects the way our brain processes information and how our nervous system behaves. Exposure to lavender effectively improves the part of our memory responsible for spatial orientation and awareness. In fact, one study showed that administration of lavender to rats with Alzheimer’s disease reversed spatial learning loss. Lavender is also an antioxidant and is neuroprotective (it protects our nerve cells.) These findings could prove very promising to the ongoing quest to find more effective options for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Lavender and Menstrual Cramps (Dysmenorrhea)
A fascinating study on 80 female nursing and midwifery students at a university in Iran found that those receiving a massage using lavender oil during the first days of menstruation experienced a significant decrease in pain associated with severe menstrual cramping compared to those receiving a massage using a placebo oil. This may be due to the fact that lavender exerts relaxant effects on smooth muscle tissue such as what is in the uterus and the intestine.
Lavender for Blood Pressure Support
Lavender’s relaxant effect on smooth muscle causes blood vessels to dilate, which, in turn, lowers blood pressure.
Antimicrobial Properties of Lavender
Lavender oil is active against many species of bacteria and fungi, potentially making it useful in treating bacterial infections that are resistant to antibiotics. One study showed this oil to have in vitro activity against both MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and VRE (vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecalis) at a concentration of less than 1% . One report actually demonstrated that certain species of fungi were suppressed only by vapor (inhaled) contact with lavender oil, but not via topical contact.
Lavender as a Natural Pesticide
Lavender essential oil or its foliage and flowers in powdered form has shown potential use as a pesticide. Its application deters mites, grain weevils, aphids, and clothes moth.
How to Use Lavender Essential Oil
Inhaling the fragrance of lavender essential oil through diffusion (aromatherapy) is very popular, however, it also can be taken orally or applied to the skin via massage or bathing. Since lavender is not considered a “hot” oil, it doesn’t tend to irritate the skin and therefore can be applied undiluted. However, as always, test on a small area of the skin initially, just in case irritation does occur.
Lavender Safety and Contraindications
Avoid using old lavender essential oil topically. It turns out that this, as well as the citrus and pine oils, can oxidize with exposure to air, producing chemical by-products that can irritate the skin. So when you apply oxidized oils to your skin, the chances that you’ll experience contact dermatitis/rash go way up. The longer the oil has been sitting around, the more likely it is to have oxidized. There are a few ways to prevent this, the first being to avoid applying oils topically that are over 6 months old or that have not been stored in air-tight containers. Also, it seems like carrier oils such as coconut oil create a protective barrier on the skin that prevents sensitivity. And finally, to delay oxidation, store your oils in the refrigerator when you’re not using them.
Lavender essential oil doesn’t appear to interact with any other herbs or medications. That said, because it promotes relaxation, lavender oil may increase the effects of drugs that depress central nervous system activity such as narcotics for pain, sedatives, and anti-anxiety medications. If you are taking one of those drugs, it’s a good idea to let your doctor know if you begin using lavender oil.
And finally, you may come across information online suggesting that lavender essential oil has estrogenic or hormone-disruptive properties. These ideas have been proven false by this 2013 study.
The Bottom Line
Clearly, lavender essential oil can be a powerful health-boosting tool in many ways. Whether you simply enjoy its scent or you are interested in using it specifically to support the improvement of a health concern like insomnia or anxiety, you can be certain that it won’t just block symptoms, but will actually help balance the body. You can’t beat that!
Koulivand, Peir Hossein, Maryam Khaleghi Ghadiri, and Ali Gorji. “Lavender and the Nervous System.” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM 2013 (2013): 681304. PMC. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.
Bakhtshirin, Froozan et al. “The Effect of Aromatherapy Massage with Lavender Oil on Severity of Primary Dysmenorrhea in Arsanjan Students.” Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research 20.1 (2015): 156–160. Print.
Hagvall, Lina, et al. “Lavender oil lacks natural protection against autoxidation, forming strong contact allergens on air exposure.” Contact Dermatitis 59.3 (2008): 143-150.
Lis‐Balchin, M., and S. Hart. “Studies on the mode of action of the essential oil of LavenderLavandula angustifolia P. Miller).” Phytotherapy Research 13.6 (1999): 540-542.
Cavanagh, H. M. A., and J. M. Wilkinson. “Biological activities of lavender essential oil.” Phytotherapy Research 16.4 (2002): 301-308.
Sköld, Maria, Lina Hagvall, and Ann‐Therese Karlberg. “Autoxidation of linalyl acetate, the main component of lavender oil, creates potent contact allergens.” Contact Dermatitis 58.1 (2008): 9-14.
Lodhia, M. H., K. R. Bhatt, and V. S. Thaker. “Antibacterial Activity of Essential Oils from Palmarosa, Evening Primrose, Lavender and Tuberose.” Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 71.2 (2009): 134–136. PMC. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.
Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Volume 2013 (2013), Article ID 852049, 10 pages
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