Lavandula angustifolia – or Lavender is a member of the mint family. We see it growing in borders around Britain and being used to scent everything from candles to soap to lotions. It has many culinary and cosmetic uses, but research continues to demonstrate its medicinal properties for potential use in mental health issues.
Lavender has carminative properties due to the presence of rich volatile oils in the plant that stimulate the digestive system to work properly, soothing the gut wall, reducing inflammation and helping with the removal of gas from the digestive tract. It’s also an antispasmodic herb so can relieve smooth muscle spasms. Lavender may also be quite effective in clearing depression, especially if combined with other herbs, and can be used to promote natural sleep. As a nervous system tonic, it may be used to treat nervous debility and exhaustion.
The part used is the flower. To make an infusion, you can simply pour a cup of boiling water over a teaspoon of flowers and leave covered for around ten minutes. This will stop all those rich volatile oils from evaporating. This infusion can be drunk three times a day. The essential oil, which is widely available, can be used in an inhalation, diluted with a carrier oil to rub on the skin or can be added to baths. Although some of the studies I mention used lavender oil capsules, I do not recommend that you use lavender essential oil internally.
Relaxed but alert
A review of studies by Psychotherapy Research on lavender essential oil concluded that scenting a room with the oil can improve feelings of well being, sleep and alertness while reducing aggression and anxiety. Lavender is interesting because it can help you feel relaxed while at the same time making you feel more alert. A study in 1998 in the International Journal of Neuroscience found that people who used lavender oil were less depressed and more relaxed, but also were able to perform maths calculations more quickly and accurately. Another study in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand showed that people who used lavender oil felt more relaxed and alert when compared to a placebo oil. Lavender also reduced their blood pressure, heart rate and skin temperature.
Depression, Anxiety and Insomnia
A small study published in the Lancet found that lavender essential oil used as an inhalation was as effective as tranquilisers for helping elderly people with insomnia sleep. In another study, 170 people who suffered from restlessness, anxiety, tension and insomnia were either given 80mg capsules of lavender essential oil or a placebo. After 10 weeks, those who were taking the lavender showed significant improvement in their symptoms according to the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale (HAM-A). In the lavender group, symptom scores dropped from 25.5 to 13.7, while in the placebo group, scores reduced from 26.5 to 16.9. 48.8% of the lavender group responded to treatment versus 33.3% of the placebo group, and 31.4% of those taking lavender achieved remission from anxiety compared to 22.6% of the placebo group (European Neurophyschopharmacology, 2015).
Lavender oil capsules were compared to Lorazepam, a benzodiazepine in a 6 week study of people with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Both treatments showed equal improvements on the HAM-A. Unlike Lorazepam, lavender was found to be safe, non-sedating and non-addictive (Phytomed, 2010). Lavender oil was also found to be safer and more effective than Paroxetine, an SSRI, for GAD (Int J Neuropsychopharmacol, 2014).
In a double-blind study, when people with Mixed Anxiety and Depressive Disorder were given 80mg of lavender oil or a placebo for 70 days, scores on the HAMA dropped significantly more in the lavender group: 10.8 versus 8.4. Depression scores also dropped more in the lavender group: 9.2 points versus 6.1. People in the lavender group had better overall clinical outcomes and improvement in daily living skills and quality of life (Eur Neuropsychopharmacol, 2016).
Many elderly people with dementia demonstrate agitated behaviour that affects daily activities. In a study where a long stay unit for people with severe dementia was diffused with lavender essential oil or water, 60% of patients showed improvements, 33% showed no change, and one patient demonstrated worsening behaviour. The results were described as “modest efficacy” by the authors. Even though the patient number was small, essential oil of lavender may be a non-invasive, beneficial method for treating agitated behaviour in patients with severe dementia. Since one patient worsened following aromatherapy, a group setting may not be the best way to administer treatment.
In another study in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 70 people with dementia and associated agitation were given lavender essential oil or a placebo oil in a diffuser on either side of their pillow while they slept. The agitation decreased significantly in the lavender group but not at all in the placebo group.
These were small studies, but a larger study looking at different ways of administering lavender for varying severity of dementia is needed.
Mother and baby
A study in the Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal looked at improving sleep quality for 158 women who had just had a baby. One group inhaled the aroma of lavender oil in a carrier oil, and another group inhaled just the carrier oil before sleep, every night for 4 nights over 8 weeks. At the end of the study, women inhaling the lavender showed a significant improvement in their sleep quality when compared to the placebo group.
In another double-blind study, healthy, pregnant women using lavender cream on their legs before bed showed an improvement in symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression. Improvements were marked after just 4 weeks of this 8 week study (J Caring Sci, 2015).
A study on the therapeutic effects of lavender essential oil inhalation during labour showed a reduction in labour pain when compared to a placebo (Complement Ther Clin Pract, 2016), and a controlled study found that babies given an abdominal massage with diluted lavender oil spend less time crying due to colic (Int J Nurs Practl, 2012).
In a double-blind study completed just last year, lavender aromatherapy was found to significantly reduce hot flushes when given to menopausal women for 20 minutes twice a week for 12 weeks (J Chin Med Assoc, 2016). Lavender aromatherapy may also help women who suffer from PMS (Biopsychosoc Med, 2013) and painful periods (Pain Manag Nurs, 2012). In a study where 80 women used lavender essential oil aromatherapy massage during the first few days of menstruation, there was a significant decrease in menstrual pain when compared to a placebo oil massage (Iran J Nurs Midwifery Res, 2015).
A study conducted on 50 people who had undergone open heart surgery found that the group who inhaled a mix of 2% lavender essence in a carrier oil mixed in with their oxygen, had significantly less severe pain when assessed after 5, 30 and 60 minutes (Adv Biomed Res, 2015). In another study, patients in a hospital given lavender aromatherapy had reductions in anxiety (Complement Ther Med, 2016).
In patients about to undergo open heart surgery, inhaling lavender oil reduced anxiety by 10% more and decreased cortisol by 69.9% more than inhaling a water placebo (Iran J Nurs Midwifery Res, 2016). Other research has also shown that lavender aromatherapy can significantly reduce stress and the pain from inserting a needle (J Altern Complement Med, 2011).
Finally, a group of 60 coronary artery disease patients in ICU who inhaled lavender essential oil had significantly improved sleep quality and anxiety compared to a control group (Nurs Crit Care, 2017).
Although more research is needed, there are some good studies that support the traditional, medicinal uses of lavender. Before taking any herbal medicines, it’s always best to consult a qualified Medical Herbalist.
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