Scientific name: Lavandula angustifolia Mill. (Syn: L. officinalis L. vera DC.)
Family: Lamiaceae (Labiatae)
Ancient Cultivation and Cultural Significance
The earliest recorded uses of lavender date back over 2,500 years to ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome. Lavender preparations were used to disinfect sick rooms and hospitals. The ancient Greeks referred to the plant as nardus or nard after the Syrian city Naarda. Lavender was highly prized by the Roman aristocracy, with blossoms selling for 100 denarii per pound in the 1st century CE.
The Romans used lavender for its medicinal properties and pleasant scent. However, the most commonly cultivated species today, Lavandula angustifolia, was likely unknown to the Romans. Lavender’s genus name Lavandula probably derives from the Latin word livere meaning bluish or livid, referring to the plant’s blue-violet flowers.
In ancient India and Tibet, lavender was incorporated into traditional Ayurvedic and Tibetan medical texts as early as the 8th century BCE. The Gyu-zhi, translated into Tibetan during this time, describes lavender as an ingredient in edible medicinal ointments used to treat psychosis and neurological disorders. Lavender continues to be used in Tibetan Buddhist medicine today.
Medieval to Modern Medicinal Uses
Lavender gained recognition in modern Europe as a versatile medicinal herb. The flowers and essential oil are approved by the German Commission E for use in treating restlessness, insomnia, stomach irritations, and circulatory disorders. The German Standard License approves internal use of lavender teas and extracts for restlessness, sleep disorders, nervous intestinal discomfort, and functional abdominal problems.
Research on Lavender Essential Oil
A recent comprehensive review published in Phytomedicine sought to analyze all of the available scientific evidence on the effects of lavender essential oil on anxiety. The results provide an insightful look at how lavender may work to reduce anxiety levels and point to some promising applications of this aromatic oil.
The authors conducted an extensive literature search for clinical trials investigating the effects of lavender essential oil on anxiety in human subjects. They ultimately analyzed 90 studies – 65 randomized controlled trials (the gold standard in research) involving almost 8000 participants, and 25 non-randomized trials with 1200 participants.
The lavender preparations used included inhalation of the essential oil, oral doses (like Silexan capsules containing lavender oil), massage with lavender oil, and aromatherapy diffusion. The studies measured anxiety using psychological questionnaires like the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory and also looked at physiological measures like blood pressure and heart rate.
- 54 out of 65 randomized trials found that lavender led to a significant improvement in at least one anxiety measure compared to control groups.
- 44 trials showed a significant difference in anxiety levels between lavender and control groups after the intervention.
- Oral doses of a standardized lavender essential oil product (Silexan at 80 mg/day) significantly reduced anxiety compared to placebo over extended treatment periods (at least 6-8 weeks) in multiple randomized trials.
- Meta-analysis of 12 trials found inhaling lavender essential oil significantly decreased state anxiety compared to no treatment. Benefits were seen for both single and multiple doses.
- Meta-analysis of 24 trials found inhaling lavender significantly reduced anxiety levels overall compared to controls. Benefits were greatest in high anxiety-provoking situations like before surgery.
- Lavender massage showed significant anxiety-reducing effects compared to massage alone or standard care in a meta-analysis of 6 trials.
Potential Mechanisms of Action
How might lavender essential oil provide anxiety relief? Although more research is needed, some potential mechanisms include:
- Increasing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) – GABA is the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. Many anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines work by increasing GABA activity, which has a calming effect. Animal and lab studies indicate lavender may increase GABA levels in the amygdala, a brain region involved in regulating emotions like fear and anxiety.
- Modulating glutamate – Glutamate is the brain’s main excitatory neurotransmitter and in excess can induce “excitotoxicity” damaging nerve cells. Lavender compounds like linalool may reduce glutamate activity. This calming action on “overexcited” nerve cells may underlie lavender’s anti-anxiety effects.
- Inhibiting voltage-dependent calcium channels – These channels play a key role in neurotransmitter release when activated. Lavender essential oil has been shown to inhibit the opening of these channels in lab experiments, which may prevent excessive nerve cell excitation that can lead to anxiety states.
- Interacting with serotonin receptors – Lavender essential oil appears to reduce 5-HT1A receptor activity in brain areas involved in mood and emotion regulation like the cingulate cortex and hippocampus. This may mimic the effects of SSRIs and other antidepressant/anti-anxiety medications.
- Enhancing parasympathetic activity – The parasympathetic nervous system controls the body’s “rest and digest” functions. Some studies of lavender inhalation have noted increased parasympathetic activity markers like heart rate variability, indicating relaxation of the autonomic nervous system.
- Brain Waves – Changes in brain wave patterns and EEG readings indicating increased theta waves and drowsiness have been noted in studies of lavender aromatherapy, which could relate to relaxation effects.
Implications of the Research
Given the overall evidence for modest anxiety-reducing effects, the use of lavender essential oil shows promise for these potential benefits:
Complementary treatment for anxiety disorders
The data suggests oral lavender supplements like Silexan may help reduce excessive anxiety as part of an integrative approach, in conjunction with psychotherapy and conventional medications as needed.
Aromatherapy for situational anxiety
Inhaling lavender essential oil seems particularly helpful for alleviating anxious feelings in stressful situations like before surgery, during medical procedures, or in high-anxiety healthcare settings. It may provide a simple way for patients to self-manage anxiety.
Reducing anxiety associated with procedures
Several studies found lavender aromatherapy reduced needle-related pain and anxiety during IV, venous catheter, and blood draw procedures. It may serve as a non-pharmacologic analgesic and anxiolytic for routine needle procedures.
Improving preoperative and postoperative anxiety
Multiple randomized trials have shown lavender aromatherapy can significantly reduce patients’ anxiety levels preoperatively. A few studies also noted less postoperative anxiety. This may promote better surgical experiences and recoveries.
Enhancing well-being in pregnancy & childbirth
Studies of lavender aromatherapy during pregnancy, cesarean sections, and labor found reduced anxiety, improved sleep quality, and enhanced well-being. Lavender appears a safe, effective way to minimize anxiety and stress during the perinatal period.
Relieving student test-taking anxiety
Several studies demonstrated Lavender aromatherapy helped decrease testing anxiety among middle school, high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. It may serve as a practical stress management tool.
Managing Anxiety in Dementia
Preliminary evidence indicates lavender aromatherapy may alleviate agitation, restlessness and anxiety symptoms in older adults with dementia. It appeared well-tolerated and could provide an alternative to anti-anxiety medications in this population.
Lavender for Anxiety
Overall, this comprehensive review indicates lavender aromatherapy has significant potential as a non-pharmacologic approach for managing different anxiety states. Though more research is still needed, lavender essential oil appears reasonably safe and shows promise as an inexpensive, accessible option for relieving anxiety. The pleasant aroma makes it easy and enjoyable to integrate into daily life.
Donelli, D., Antonelli, M., Bellinazzi, C., Gensini, G. F., & Firenzuoli, F. (2019). Effects of lavender on anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Phytomedicine: International Journal of Phytotherapy and Phytopharmacology, 65, 153099. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.phymed.2019.153099
Other Research Used for this Blog post include:
- Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J, eds. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Newton, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications; 2000.
- Upson T, Andrews S. The Genus Lavandula. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 2004.