The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Persians used it as an antiseptic to disinfect their hospitals and sick rooms. They also added it to their baths and laundry to purify both body and spirit. If you travel to Tibet today, you may be surprised to find it being used to treat psychoses and insanity.
But modern medicine is catching up. Now we know this simple herb can reverse memory loss, relieve fatigue, reduce pain and fatigue, and much more.
We know it best as a decorative garden herb that reduces anxiety and improves sleep. It's become one of the most frequently used fragrances in bath and body products. I'm talking about lavender, an herb known as much for its beauty as its perfume. Now it's being used increasingly for its medicinal qualities.
Of about 20 species of lavender, the most studied is Lavandula angustifolia, English lavender. Here are some of its uses.
Helps the brain: Believe it or not, lavender can actually help you think more clearly - and not just by clearing away the mind-fogging effects of pain or anxiety. Lavender can help sharpen your cognition even if you were feeling great to begin with.
A review study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine listed a number of studies investigating lavender's effects on our brainpower. One such study of 144 participants that used the Cognitive Drug Research computerized cognitive assessment battery found that diffusing four drops of lavender oil helped the participants' working memory and reaction times. The lavender also helped the participants stay content and in a good mood while taking the test, which may have contributed to the good scores.
Lavender can even make a difference for people who are experiencing cognitive decline. An aromatherapy study with 28 elderly participants with dementia found that exposure to rosemary and lemon essential oils in the morning followed by lavender and orange essential oils in the evening led to significant improvements in cognitive function.
Relieves fatigue: Spritzing lavender water on your face, or smelling its aroma, can perk you up whether you've just had a hard day or are fatigued from illness. A group of patients with advanced cancer and debilitating fatigue were given oil of lavender to smell. Then they soaked their feet for three minutes in warm water containing lavender oil. Finally, they were given a 10-minute foot rub with lavender-infused massage oil. All of them felt revitalized for up to four hours. Add a few drops of lavender oil to a vegetable oil and massage your hands or feet with it.
Improves concentration: If your job or hobby requires constant concentration, you may want to refresh yourself with lavender. Three-dozen young men were given computer work requiring a great deal of concentration. They worked for an hour in each of five sessions. In between each session they were given half an hour off. During these recesses some were exposed to lavender, some to jasmine, and some to nothing. Those who smelled the lavender had the best concentration. For periods of mental fatigue, try sniffing a little lavender.
Another study found that even when the lavender odor is subtle, participants perform better when it's present. The study found that 108 participants made fewer errors on mathematical and letter counting tests when they were unknowingly exposed to the scent of lavender, compared to no odor or the scent of jasmine.
Lavender could even help you perform better at work. After one workplace added lavender oil in burners for three months, almost 90% of the 66 employees reported having experienced an improvement in their work environment.
So if you want happier, calmer, more productive employees, adding a lavender diffuser could be the answer. Or put one in your home office or bedroom to help you stay focused and peaceful.
Acts as a sedative: Lavender not only relieves fatigue, it can relax you and help you sleep. In Germany, it is a medicinal tea given for nervous stomachs and sleep disorders. Apparently, the people at Traditional Medicinals knew this. Several years ago, they added Organic Chamomile with Lavender tea to their line. This is a light, delicate tea you may want when you're feeling a bit queasy or would like a warm beverage before bed. Look for it in your health food store or phone Natural Resources (800-747-0390). These sedative attributes also work to lower blood pressure. One animal study found that smelling lavender oil lowered the blood pressure of laboratory animals. Spray your face with a little lavender water (hydrosol) in addition to anything else you're doing to lower your blood pressure. It can't hurt, and it may help.
Dementia anxiety: Up to 65% of people with dementia become agitated. The most common treatment is to sedate them with drugs. A study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry suggests that this may not be necessary. People with severe dementia were placed in a room for two hours where diffusers emitted lavender oil fragrance into the air. Sixty percent of the people improved. If you have a loved one who suffers from dementia and gets agitated, you can also try rubbing a drop of lavender oil on their hand when the agitation begins and watch it calm them down. If smelling lavender can quiet down someone with severe dementia, it should work beautifully with someone with mild to moderate dementia.
Antidepressant: In a study of more than four-dozen outpatients with major depression, adding tincture of lavender (20 drops a day) to imiprimine (100 mg a day) made the drug more effective. Lavender may reduce minor to moderate depression even without drug therapy. But don't stop taking antidepressants without your doctor's knowledge Instead, discuss the possibility of using lavender either alone or in conjunction with your medication. Tinctures of lavender can be found in many health food stores, or ordered through HerbPharm (800-348-4372).
Soothes burns: Its antimicrobial and antibacterial activities make lavender oil an excellent choice for cuts, bruises, insect bites, and burns. One study found it had a strong anesthetic activity. Another found that both water and ethanol extracts of lavender reduced inflammation. Consider adding a drop or two of lavender essential oil, or 10 drops of a tincture to a small spray bottle of water and spray on any inflammation or irritation. Or you can add a few drops of the oil to a small spray bottle of water and spritz it on burns, insect bites, and other skin irritations.
Anti-fungal: In a laboratory cell study, lavender oil (2%) killed 100% of the yeast Candida albicans in 15 minutes. If you have a yeast overgrowth, or want to ward one off, you may want to add a drop of lavender essential oil to a cup of herb tea and drink it once or twice a day. Or add a few drops of the oil to a douche. Do this in addition to any anti-candida program you're using.
Reduces pain: A study of 100 patients in the ICU, half of whom were on artificial ventilation, found that using lavender essential oil during foot massage significantly reduced pain. But that’s not all. It also lowered blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and wakefulness, allowing patients to get some much-needed rest.
Foot massage isn’t the only place you can use lavender oil. One study of massage therapy followed massage recipients for eight sessions using 3% lavender oil. They found that those with subacute neck or back pain experienced significant relief and greater range of motion in their spines.
While you can easily absorb lavender essential oil through the skin, you also can benefit from breathing it in. In fact, one study of 25 patients undergoing breast biopsies found that breathing through an oxygen face mask treated with just two drops of 2% lavender oil helped decrease the patients’ need for opioids after their surgeries. Another study indicated that breathing in lavender essential oil can help provide relief for migraine headaches. In the study, 47 patients noted that the severity of their pain and other symptoms decreased significantly within 15 minutes of inhaling the oil.
A study of aromatherapy massage that included rose geranium, rose, and jasmine in almond and primrose oils in addition to lavender found that this treatment could provide relief of hot flashes, depression, and pain associated with menopause.
It’s no surprise that a good massage can help you feel better. But the research is clear that adding lavender oil to the experience can significantly increase the pain-relief potential. And if regular massages don’t fit into your schedule, you can also experience benefits by simply inhaling the fragrance of the oil.
External use: Add one to five drops of essential oil to your bath, massage oil, or aromatherapy diffuser. There are many types of diffusers, but try using an ordinary vaporizer. Put several drops of lavender essential oil in the little depression often used for menthol. You'll soon fill the room with its scent.
Internal use: Make a tea with one to two teaspoons of lavender blossoms or leaves, or put one to four drops of essential oil on a sugar cube or in one teaspoon of honey.
Quality: Only buy lavender pructs that are organic and say "angustifolia" on them. This assures you of a high-quality product.
Consider growing your own: If you have the space, and you live in a temperate climate, plant some lavender. Save the blooms and some of the leaves when you cut them back each fall, and you'll have a ready supply of this useful and fragrant herb.