Latin: Lavendula angustifolia (Elpel, 1997; Johnson et al, 2014).
Parts Used: Aerial: Mostly flowers; sometimes leaves (Gladstar, 2014).
Common Forms: Essential oil, tea, tinctures (Winston & Maimes, 2007, p. 227-228).
Native To: Mediterranean region and Southern Europe (Castleman, 2009).
Energetics: Bitter, cooling or warming (Crowell, (Links to an external site.) n.d.); spicy, fragrant, mildly bitter, cool (Tierra, 1998, p. 151)
Actions: aromatherapeutic; Also antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic, carminative, nervine, mildly nootropic, and antidepressant (Gladstar, 2014, p. 94; Winston & Maimes, 2007, p. 227; Tierra, 1998, p.151)
It is likely that many individuals are more familiar with lavender for its usage in the fragrance industry. The greatest commercial usage of lavender blossoms today is in perfume and perfumed products, with the essential oil of lavender containing over 150 different phytochemicals that contribute to its pleasing fragrance (Kowalchik et al, 1987, p. 350; Castleman, 2009, p. 302). Yet lavender is more than “just a pretty face” or aroma. Don’t be fooled by her delicate appearance, this gal has both beauty and brawn. She’s an aromatherapeutic powerhouse when it comes to treating anxiety and her purplish-blue flowers speak to her ability to calm the emotions (Culpepper, 2007; Tierra, 1998, p. 151).
Lavender’s nervine and nootropic qualities contributed to a variety of historical usages. Greek and Roman women clung to it for courage in childbirth (Gladstar, 2014, p. 93). In the Middle Ages, it was believed that sprinkling a lover’s head with lavender water would keep him or her faithful, and some even viewed it as an aphrodisiac. English farmers put sprigs under their hats to prevent sunstroke and headaches, and all over Southern Europe and the Mediterranean region people used it as an air-freshener in sachets and potpourris. Fusions and tinctures of it were used through the early 1900’s to cleanse wounds (Castleman, 2009, p. 300; Kowalchik et al, 1987, p. 350). It was also used for acne, fainting and dizziness, and muscle spasms. The 16th century British herbalist John Gerard wrote in his Herball, “It profiteth them much that have the palsy if they be washed with water of lavender flowers, or are anointed with the oil made from the flowers and olive oil” (Castleman, 2009, p. 301).
There have been multiple studies on the efficacy of lavender in relieving both situational and clinical anxiety. For starters, those ancient Greek and Roman women who clung to a sprig of lavender during childbirth exhibited intuitive wisdom not superstition. In a study of women in labor, 63 were randomly assigned to receive lavender aromatherapy while 58 were used as a control group (Mizraei et al, 2009). All of the women were first-time laboring mothers >37 weeks, 3-4 centimeters dilated, and with average anxiety levels at the start of labor. In the end, those mothers receiving lavender aromatherapy treatments while giving birth exhibited lower perceived anxiety, reduced plasma cortisol levels, and greater serotonin levels than women in the control group - demonstrating that lavender is an effective anti-anxiety remedy for birth.
In another study, a lavender oil capsule called silexan was compared to the benzodiazepine lorazepam (Ativan) in a randomized adult population diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) (Schlafke et al, 2010). Baseline and six week measurements of anxiety were taken with the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale. Researchers concluded that lavender oil capsules were equally effective to the benzodiazepine treatment but without the dangerous pharmaceutical side-effects.
In short, lavender is good for a pattern of anxiety or nervous exhaustion in which the person needs to be both relaxed (lowering stress hormones) but also strengthened to deal better with stress over the long-term. For example, a woman in childbirth needs to be relaxed to allow her body to open and birth with ease - but also needs strength for labor.
Lavender is a powerful nootropic that has been described as both stimulating and sedative (Winston & Maimes, 2007, p. 227; Culpepper, 2007, p. 110). One Chinese herbalist describes it as follows: “Lavender is pungent, slightly bitter, and cooling or slightly warming. It is both stimulating and relaxing; it sinks the qi in the body and disperses it. Lavender is both restoring and astringing. Sounds a bit contradictory, doesn't it?” (Crowell, n.d.) Gladstar explains these seemingly paradoxical energetics pointing out that lavender has both the ability to relax a person while also giving them a felt sense of resilience (Gladstar, 2014, p. 93). Anxiety and depression are often comorbid; thus these qualities of lavender make synergistic sense. Yet even for an individual solely experiencing anxiety these opposing qualities are beneficial. Gladstar elaborates “It is one of the best herbs to use in herbal baths to relieve tension, stress, headaches, and insomnia. Used traditionally to imbue courage and strength, lavender is still a favorite herb to strengthen the heart and mind during stressful situations” (Gladstar, 2014, p. 93). It is not always enough to gain relief from the stress; lavender offers the courage to muster hope and move forward as well.
Lavender essential oil is very safe and diffusing it is an excellent way to obtain the calming yet fortifying aspects of lavender without actually ingesting it.
- Diffuse 10 drops of pure lavender essential oil in an electric diffuser for 15 minutes at a time. Never diffuse for longer than 15 minutes. Essential oils are strong chemicals. While they are natural and while lavender is one of the safest, they can be toxic in high quantities.
- Alternately, put about 10 drops of pure lavender essential oil in a bath.
- A lavender hydrosol is water leftover from processing the essential oil and provides a lower dosage of the phytochemicals in lavender. It’s a great aromatherapeutic choice for children.
- Finally, for a more traditional and less aromatherapeutic (but still pleasant smelling) dosage… A tincture or tea is a common herbalist’s recommendation for lavender intake. Winston & Maimes recommend a tincture (1:5) of 15-30 drops to be taken three to four times per day and Tierra recommends a similar 10-30 drops (Winston & Maimes, 2007; Tierra, 1998). Various infusions of one to three teaspoons of lavender per cup are also recommended (Castleman, 2009).
Caslteman, Michael (2009). The New Healing Herbs (2nd ed). Rodale Press: Emmaus, PA.
Crowell, April (n.d.). Lavender’s dynamic energetics. Retrieved from: http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/lavenders-dynamic-energetics-0 (Links to an external site.)
Culpepper & Potterton, David (editor) (2007). Culpepper’s Color Herbal. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc: New York.
Gladstar, Rosemary (2014). Herbs for Stress & Anxiety: How to Make and Use Herbal Remedies to Strengthen the Nervous System. Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA.
Johnson, Rebecca & Foster, Steven & Low Dog, Tieraona M.D. & Kiefer, David M.D. (2014). National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs. National Geographic Society for Barnes & Noble: Washington D.C.
Kowalchik, Claire & Hylton, William Editors. (1987). Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Rodale Press: Emmaus, PA.
Mirzaei, Firoozeh & Keshtgar, Sara & Kaviani, Masoumeh & Rajaeiford, Abdoreza. (2009). The effect of lavender essence smelling during labor on cortisol and serotonin plasma levels and anxiety reduction in nulliparous women. Journal of Kerman University of Medical Sciences. 16(3).
Schlafke, S. & Woelk, H. (2009). A multi-center, double-blind, randomized, study of the lavender oil preparation silexan in comparison to lorazepam for generalized anxiety disorder. Phytomedicine: International Journal of Phytotherapy & Phytopharmacology. 17(2).
Tierra, Michael L.Ac., O.M.D. (1998). The Way of Herbs. Pocket Books: New York, NY.
Wood, Matthew (1997). The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, CA.