On my friend’s farm in central Colorado grows rows of lavender, and by mid-summer its flowers fragrantly scent nearby fields. While working on the farm, I find my spirits lifted and happy despite the intense heat and my tiring muscles. It is no wonder that for much of history, lavender has been used in sachets and oils alike to bring pleasure as well s reduce stress and anxiety. Other traditional therapeutic uses include as a sleep-aid, relief from pain and headaches, an anti-inflammatory, treatment for cough and respiratory infection, and as an insect repellent as well as a perfume. Greeks, Romans and Egyptians alike have all recorded using lavender in various remedies. Today, lavender is mostly used in the same way – widely used to dress wounds, induce sleep, ease depression and reduce stress. It can also be found in ingredients of teas and culinary dishes and of course the delightful scent in perfume. Current research is investigating the antimicrobial as well as anti-cancer properties of lavender essential oil.
Although generally known as lavender, there are actually thirty-nine species of the genus Lavendula, but only a handful are used commercially. This fragrant plant is native to the Mediterranean region south to tropical Africa and to the southeast region of India. Today lavender is successfully cultivated in southern Europe, Australia and the United States. Aromatherapists distinguish lavender species according to their therapeutic uses and medicinal properties. True lavender (L. officinalis, L. angustifolia) when distilled at high elevations is known for its large percentage of ester content and regarded as the best in quality. Uses for true lavender include cases involving anxiety, stress, small burns, cuts and insect bites. Spike lavender (L. spica, L. latifolia) is known for its camphor content and thus used for respiratory infections, for muscular aches and pains and as a possible stimulant. Lavendin (L.fragrans, L. burnatti) is a hybrid of true lavender (L. angustifolia) and spike lavender (L. latifolia) and commonly used for large-scale commercial purposes. Stoechas lavender (L. stoechas) is used as an expectorant and known for its antimicrobial properties.
Therapeutic uses of lavender are well regarded by conventional and alternative practitioners alike, specifically in stress and anxiety reduction. Its effectiveness is due to its chemical properties (mainly linalool and linalyl acetate) and its molecular pathway to the brain. Diffused molecules of essential oils, such as lavender, illicit a rather quick response from the brain. They enter the body through the nasal cavity and thus able to by-pass the blood-brain barrier. Through a series of rapid events, molecules of essential oil enter the nasal region, bind to chemical receptor sites of the olfactory system which then send a series of electronic impulses (messages) via the olfactory nerve. The nerve fibers of the olfactory system run directly to the limbic (or primordial) area of the brain, which is intimately associated with the expression of emotion, without passing through the dorsal thalamus (a relay station to the cerebral cortex). Even more intriguing, in 2004 Linda Buck and Jim Axel won a Nobel Prize on their work on smell, discovering that each olfactory receptor cell has only one type of receptor able to detect just a few related molecules.
True lavender (L. angusifolia) is thought to have a sedative effect on the amygdala, which is considered to plays a role in processing emotion as well as governing emotional response and greatly responsible for the sensation of fear. Recent science studies looking at anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) propensities of lavender are numerous. A University of Central Lancashire, UK study (J Ethnopharmacol. 2007 May 22; 111(3): 517-25) investigated the effects of lavender odor inhalation on the behavior of gerbils (a type of rodent often used in laboratory research) and noted that exposure to lavender may have an anxiolytic effect in gerbils similar to that of the common anti-anxiety medication diazepam. A recent study published in Holistic Nursing Practice (2009 Mar-Apr; 23(2): 88-93) concluded that the use of lavender (as well as rosemary) essential oil sachets reduced stress-taking anxiety for graduate nursing students. Also in 2009, a study published in Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology (Nov 23) found that dental patients who were exposed to lavender scent had a reduction in their forthcoming procedure.
Other Noteworthy Uses
Although lavender is mostly known for its calming properties, it has other valuable offerings as well. With the growing resistant strains of bacteria to conventional treatments, lavender is being investigated as a probable candidate for use in antibacterial products. A study by Thames Valley University, Bentford, UK (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2009 Mar: 15(3): 275-9) looked at the antimicrobial effectiveness of various species of lavender oil on methicillin-sensitive (MSSA) and methicillin-resistant (MRSA) Staphylococcus aureus; all selected oils inhibited growth on MSSA and MRSA strains by direct contact. A preliminary study conducted by Southern Cross University, Australia (Alternative Medicine Review 2009 Dec; 14(4): 380-4) found that Lavender angustifolia was able to discriminate between beneficial intestinal bacteria and potential pathogens of the human gastrointestinal tract, indicating that lavender might be a possible alternative to common antibiotics that are non-discriminatory.
The physiological pathway for molecules of lavender essential oil to reach the brain is remarkable. By following the molecular trail into the nasal cavity and its subsequent neurological reactions, one can better appreciate the recognized stress-reducing qualities found in lavender. Traditional uses of lavender are now being investigated and their diverse applications more fully understood. With science now uncovering the specialization of olfactory receptor sites for certain scent molecules, aromatherapy becomes an even more valuable remedy for maintaining wellness. We would all do well to familiarize ourselves and perhaps re-remember what our ancient brain (the limbic area) has stored for thousands, even millions of years- molecules of scent, and in this case lavender, are powerful and effective.
The author is a consultant to The Ananda Apothecary, an excellent online resouce for essential oil, aromatherapy supplies, flower essences, and usage instructions for a great many natural products and therapies.