Lavender oil, which is distilled from lavender flowers, is often used in aromatherapy and massage. Despite its popularity, only recently have scientific investigations been undertaken into its biological activity.
While there have been small-scale studies suggesting benefit from lavender oil massage, we didn’t know if the benefit was coming from the lavender, the massage, or both. In an attempt to separate these two variables, a study was conducted in which patients in intensive care were given massages with either odorless oil or lavender oil. While patients massaged with lavender oil did say they felt less anxious and more positive, there were no objective differences found in terms of blood pressure, breathing, or heart rate. Perhaps the lavender was just been covering up the nasty hospital smells.
Subsequent studies using more sensitive tests did find physiological changes, though. We now know the scent of lavender can actually change brain wave patterns, but we didn’t know what the implications were until recently. Studies have shown the scent of lavender makes people feel better as well as perform math faster and more accurately (whereas the smell of rosemary, for example, seemed only to enable folks to do the math faster, but not necessarily with greater accuracy).
But what if we actually eat lavender flowers? Or in the case of the study I profile in my 3-min video Lavender for Generalized Anxiety Disorder, take capsules of lavender-infused oil so as to perform a double-blind study to compare lavender head-to-head to lorazepam (Ativan).
Generalized and persistent anxiety is a frequent problem and is treated with benzodiazepines (also known as benzos or downers) like Ativan and Valium. Unfortunately, these substances can not only make one feel hungover, but they have a high potential for drug abuse and addiction. So researchers decided to give lavender a try. Ativan certainly reduced anxiety, but so did the lavender. By the end of the study you couldn’t tell which group was which, and among those that responded to either, the lavender actually seemed to work better.
The spice saffron may be aromatherapeutic as well. See Wake Up and Smell the Saffron for its role in treating PMS, above and beyond its other effects on the brain (Saffron vs. Prozac, Saffron for the Treatment of Alzheimer’s, and Saffron Versus Aricept).
Since lavender oil has no potential for drug abuse and no sedating side-effects, it appeared to be an effective and well-tolerated alternative to benzodiazepine drugs for amelioration of generalized anxiety.
One cautionary note, however: There was a case series published in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled “Prepubertal Gynecomastia Linked to Lavender and Tea Tree Oils.” They reported cases of young boys exposed to lavender-containing lotions, soaps, hair gels, and shampoos starting to develop breasts. These effects disappeared after the products were discontinued, suggesting that lavender oil may possess hormone-disrupting activity. Indeed, when dripped on estrogen receptor positive breast cancer cells, lavender does show estrogenic effects and a decline in male hormone activity. It’s unknown, however, if similar reactions occur inside the body when lavender flowers or lavender oil is ingested.
There are some dietary components known to affect with the hormonal balance of young boys. Check out Dairy & Sexual Precocity.
More on lavender in Lavender for Migraine Headaches.
And more on dietary interventions for anxiety can be found in:
- Plant-Based Diet & Mood
- Improving Mood Through Diet
- Inflammatory Remarks About Arachidonic Acid
- The Best Way to Boost Serotonin
- Saffron for the Treatment of PMS
For more flower power see my blog and videos on hibiscus tea (Better Than Green Tea) and chamomile tea (Red Tea, Honeybush, & Chamomile and Chamomile Tea May Not Be Safe During Pregnancy). And hey, broccoli florets are just clusters of flower buds. See The Best Detox, Broccoli Versus Breast Cancer Stem Cells, and dozens of my other broccoli videos.
-Michael Greger, M.D.
Image credit: tfengreen / Flickr