Of all the natural remedies associated with sleep, lavender is probably the best known. The ancient Egyptians are known to have added it to cosmetics and perfumes, and the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes recommended it as an aid for achieving serenity. The Romans gave lavender its modern-day name, which comes from the Latin root lavare—“to wash”—and used its blossoms scent soaps and create fragrant baths. From the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment, lavender was recommended for a variety of medicinal purposes, especially those afflicting the head. Those traditional uses of lavender are today being shown to have some basis in fact, as increasing scientific and medical studies are providing a better understanding of why lavender seems to help with relaxation and sleep.
Modern lavender is native to Africa, Asia, and Europe, and over 40 species and varieties exist today. The chemical components that give lavender its characteristic fragrance and therapeutic properties are Linalool and Linalyl Acetate, and are germane to all varieties. However the two most commonly used are Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender) and Lavandula stoechas (French lavender). Linalool and Linalyl Acetate are both absorbed rapidly through the skin and through inhalation, making lavender oil perfect for aromatherapy and transdermal applications.
Humans are especially responsive to scent, and it used to be thought that lavender’s power to induce sleep was primarily a psychological effect of its pleasant aroma. However, increasing studies are finding that lavender is more effective than other scents at helping us fall asleep faster and wake up more refreshed, indicating a possible biochemical effect as well. While the mechanism behind this is still not completely understood, it is believed that the volatile compounds in lavender affect the limbic system to relax the central nervous system.
One study of 31 healthy men and women compared their sleep after sniffing lavender oil, distilled water, and nothing, using polysomnography to measure brainwaves and the subjects’ own reports of how quickly they fell asleep, how well they slept, and how refreshed they felt the following morning. It found that lavender aromatherapy increased the amount of slow wave deep sleep that subjects experienced as well as self-reported energy levels the following day. Another study of 20 healthy adults exposed one group to lavender oil and another to sweet almond oil as a control. Researchers then noted a variety of vital signs, and found that inhaling lavender oil corresponded with a significant decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature. Subjects who inhaled lavender oil also reported awakening more refreshed and energetic than those who were exposed to a placebo. Improvements in blood pressure and sleep quality were also observed in hospitalized patients who were exposed to lavender oil in a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Critical Care.
A longer-term study, published in 2015 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, used a combination of activity tracker data and self-reporting on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index and NIH Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System sleep disturbance short form and found that subjects who were exposed to lavender reported better sleep quality, energy, and activity than subjects who only practiced good sleep hygiene habits. Another study to utilize the PSQI found that sniffing lavender oil each night before bed resulted in an improved score of an average of 2.5 points in 10 adults with insomnia.
Clinical trials of a steam distilled lavender extract showed that the extract did more than a placebo to improve sleep-related complaints in over 200 patients. Additional studies have investigated the effects of lavender aromatheraphy on intensive care patients, middle-aged women with insomnia, and healthy college students, with promising results.
So go ahead, indulge in your favorite lavender-scented luxuries. Not only will they calm your mind, evidence is mounting that they may physically relax your body as well!
Originally published on Wink & Rise