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Lavender- Just in My Head or Is There Something There?

When I get a tension headache, one of my reliable solutions is to place a little lavender essential oil on my neck and breathe in the smell of lavender. My favorite part of yoga is Savasana (corpse position) where I spend 5 minutes in meditation with a lavender-scented eye pillow. Nothing makes me feel more relaxed. I love smelling linens and towels stored with lavender. And at night, if I am restless and unable to fall asleep, I spritz my pillow with a lavender mist.

Clearly, I find pleasure, relaxation, and relief from lavender essential oil, but I’ve always wondered if this was something I imagined or whether actual science supported the benefits I felt.

The use of plants and natural remedies for medicinal purposes has a long history. Over 5,000 years ago the Sumerians documented medical uses for various plants, like myrrh. Likewise, ancient Egyptians used essential oils both for healing and as cosmetics. Medical texts from ancient Greece, China, and India record the use of essential oils as having effective healing properties. Even many modern medicines that have shaped human history, like Aspirin and Penicillin, have their roots in plants and fungi.

Although the research into lavender aromatherapy isn’t developed enough to be an evidenced-based practice, some studies do lend support to the positive feelings many of us experience from lavender. Two of the chemical compounds extracted from lavender—linalool and linalyl acetate—may depress the central nervous system to slow heart rate and breathing. When exposed to the lavender scent, study participants will show autonomic deactivation responses, like skin conduction and heart rate, which indicate a calming of the nervous system compared to when a person is exposed to a noxious smell like vinegar.

In another lab study, participants exposed to lavender reported better mood compared to participants exposed to rosemary, though participants exposed to rosemary reported being more alert. Both rosemary and lavender seemed to decrease the time it took participants to complete math problems, but the group who smelled lavender showed improved accuracy in their math computations. In this same study, EEG data showed that participants who smelled lavender had brain patterns suggesting increased drowsiness compared with those exposed to rosemary. This biological data suggest lavender increases a sense of relaxation and drowsiness, which explains why it reduces my tension and helps me sleep.

A few studies also suggest that lavender is beneficial in real life situations outside of a lab. In a small study of ICU patients, those who received a massage with lavender aromatherapy reported reduction of anxiety compared to patients who received dedicated time for rest. Patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery had decreased heart rate and lower anxiety after exposure to lavender compared to patients who did not receive a pleasant aroma. In a study of 50 patients who underwent breast biopsy surgery, those who received lavender aromatherapy reported higher satisfaction with their post-operative pain management. In a small study of women with insomnia symptoms, lavender aromatherapy improved their perception of sleep compared to women who did not. Piping lavender aroma into a dental office resulted in reduced anxiety, more positive mood, and patients reported feeling more calm than compared to when music was piped or no music or aroma. I cannot think of a more anxiety-provoking place than a dental office, so my next visit with the dentist will be preceded by an application of lavender aromatherapy!

So it turns out the relaxation, calming, and pleasant experiences I have when using lavender aromatherapy are in my head AND not imagined! There’s a lot of room for more research, but I feel reassured to continue using lavender as part of my personal wellness routine. BUT—if I or one of my loved ones experienced pain, stress, anxiety, depression, or sleeplessness on a regular basis or in a way that interfered with the ability to live a happy functional life, I would recommend speaking to a doctor or therapist. Sometimes we need a little more support than essential oils alone can provide.

Though studies have not shown adverse side effects to lavender use, some people may experience skin or allergy irritation. Some people may not find lavender to be a pleasurable scent or may not experience the same benefits I described. Always be cautious when trying something new like aromatherapy and pay attention to your personal preferences and reactions. If you are worried, don’t take the advice of an internet blog. Consult a trusted doctor.

Plant and essential oils have great potential to complement self-care or medical interventions. People have used medicinal plants and calming oils for centuries, and this traditional practice was foundational to the development of modern medicine. I started using lavender based on intuition and my enjoyment of the smell. And with greater understanding of the science of plants and oils, I can use aromatherapy and essential oils to help my sense of well being and relaxation. I hope the medical field continues to research essential oils so we can all better understand how they can help us. And always remember—if you have questions about your health and wellbeing, talking to a trusted doctor is the best course of action.

Now if you will excuse me, it’s time to start my yoga YouTube video. I’ll be skipping to the last five minutes to practice being a corpse with my lavender eye pillow.

[1] Elshafie, H. S., & Camele, I. (2017). An Overview of the Biological Effects of Some Mediterranean Essential Oils on Human Health. BioMed Research International, 2017, 9268468.

[2] Cavanagh, H. M. A., & Wilkinson, J. M. (2002). Biological activities of lavender essential oil. Phytotherapy Research, 16(4), 301-308.

[3] Alaoui-Ismaili, O., Vernet-Maury, E., Dittmar, A., Delhomme, G., & Chanel, J. (1997). Odor hedonics: connection with emotional response estimated by autonomic parameters. Chemical Senses, 22(3), 237-248.

[4] Diego, M. A., Jones, N. A., Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Schanberg, S., Kuhn, C., ... & Galamaga, R. (1998). Aromatherapy positively affects mood, EEG patterns of alertness and math computations. International Journal of Neuroscience, 96(3-4), 217-224.

[5] Dunn, C., Sleep, J., & Collett, D. (1995). Sensing an improvement: an experimental study to evaluate the use of aromatherapy, massage and periods of rest in an intensive care unit. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 21(1), 34-40.

[6] Rajai, N., Sajadi, S. A., Teymouri, F., Zareiyan, A., Siavoshi, S., & Malmir, M. (2016). The effect of aromatherapy with lavender essential oil on anxiety and stress in patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Jundishapur Journal of Chronic Disease Care, 5(4).

[7] Kim, J. T., Wajda, M., Cuff, G., Serota, D., Schlame, M., Axelrod, D. M., ... & Bekker, A. Y. (2006). Evaluation of aromatherapy in

treating postoperative pain: pilot study. Pain Practice, 6(4), 273-277.

[8] Chien, L. W., Cheng, S. L., & Liu, C. F. (2012). The effect of lavender aromatherapy on autonomic nervous system in midlife women with insomnia. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012, 1-8.

[9] Lehrner, J., Marwinski, G., Lehr, S., Johren, P., & Deecke, L. (2005). Ambient odors of orange and lavender reduce anxiety and improve mood in a dental office. Physiology & Behavior, 86(1-2), 92-95.

[10] "Of course this is all happening inside your head. But that doesn't mean it isn't real." - Albus Dumbledore (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, 2007)


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