Lavender, well-known in the worlds of gardening, baking, and essential oils, has now amassed substantial research and is taking the scientific world by storm.

As a pharmacognosist who’s studied the science of plants as medicines at King’s College London and now as a director at Dilston Physic Garden, a medicinal plant center and charity for the education of plants for health and medicine, I’ve carried out clinical trials with my teams on reputed plants through history.

And so it’s with confidence I can reason why lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, syn. L. officinalis — no other types) is often introduced as a queen of medicinal plants.

When my co-author and I placed this ancient remedy in the top category of plants for the brain, it was no accident. It was because of the evidence. Research, compared to other plants, is abundant in showing how lavender:

  • calms
  • helps sleep
  • boosts moods and memory
  • relieves pain
  • heals skin
  • acts as a protective agent

From the Mediterranean and Middle East, this evergreen perennial woody shrub looks very similar to rosemary. And like rosemary, it likes well-drained soil and plenty of sun.

Both its pinnate, silvery-green leaves and purplish-blue flowers have a scent that’s crisp, clean, floral, and sweet. (I also discovered, from looking at its essential oil ingredients, that lavender’s scent has much in common with rosemary).

Bushes grow up to a meter (3 1/4 feet) tall and look spectacular grown in expanses of dazzling blue, blooming in midsummer.

Growing it: Though lavender is originally a Mediterranean herb, it grows surprisingly well here in my Northern European medicinal garden.

Easier to grow from plant plugs than slow-growing seeds, lavender survives in pots but prefers being in the (non-waterlogged) ground. Prune back new growth each year or it’ll grow woody, straggly, and eventually die. Rows of plants make excellent bed dividers or mini-hedges.

Its recorded use through ancient and modern history is extensive.

Love, or the history of lavender affection

Lavender’s association with love extends from Cleopatra to modern times. Tutankhamun’s tomb contained traces of still-fragrant lavender, and it’s said Cleopatra used lavender to seduce Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

Not so long ago, ladies wore small lavender pouches in their cleavage to lure suitors typified in the lyrics of a lullaby:

“Lavender’s green dilly, dilly,

lavender’s blue,

You must love me, dilly, dilly

’cause I love you.”

Evil, or more commonly known today as microbes

Beyond scenting bed linen and clothing, lavender was hung above doors to protect against evil spirits. We know now it’s a strong antimicrobial that may help prevent certain diseases, but back then the idea was that lavender protected against evil fits.

Sixteenth-century glovemakers who perfumed their ware with the herb were said to not catch cholera. Seventh-century thieves who washed in lavender after robbing graves didn’t get the plague. In the 19th century, gypsy travelers sold bunches of lavender on the streets of London to bring people good luck and protect against ill fortune.

In Spain and Portugal, lavender was traditionally strewn on the floor of churches or thrown into bonfires to avert evil spirits on St. John’s Day. In Tuscany, pinning a sprig of lavender to your shirt was a traditional way to ward against the evil eye. Queen Elizabeth I of England had fresh lavender in vases at her table every day.

Use by ancient doctors

The Greek physician to the Roman army, Dioscorides, wrote that lavender taken internally would relieve indigestion, sore throats, headaches, and externally cleaned wounds.

The Romans named the plant after its use in their bathing rituals (“lava” is to wash), realizing lavender isn’t only relaxing, but also antiseptic.

Sixteenth-century English herbalist John Parkinson wrote that lavender was “especially good use for all griefes and paines of the head and brain,” and Charles VI of France insisted his pillow always contain lavender so he could get a good night’s sleep. People still use lavender in pillows today.

In Asian traditional medicine, lavender has long been used for its “cooling” effect and for helping the “Shen,” or mind, by cooling the heart, helping people relax and find relief from troubles in the mind that give rise to tension in the body.

In more recent history, lavender became famous for its skin healing when René-Maurice Gattefossé, the 1930s French chemist, burned his hand in his laboratory. He applied lavender oil to treat the burn and was so impressed by the quick healing process that he published a book, “Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles, Hormones Végétales,” and coined the word aromatherapy (the therapy of aromatic plants). Lavender was used by doctors during WWII to heal wounds.

At the same time, a French biochemist, Marguerite Maury, developed a unique method of applying these oils to the skin with massage — hence the practice of aromatherapy massage — now used all over the world.

In 2017, an article in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience suggested that essential oils should be “developed as multi-potent agents against neurological disorders with better efficacy, safety and cost effectiveness.”

So, can we protect against the ravages of neurological disorders? There’s certainly a case for preventive plant medicine in all its forms. And we can start looking at plants from a scientific perspective. Clinical trials mainly use the essential oil, either in capsule form, inhaled, or applied topically.

Although many of these studies use small sample sizes, lavender’s outlook is very promising. Here’s what the research says about lavender’s benefits:

1. Creates calm and lifts moods

Lavender (alongside the calming kava kava) has now been named as one of the few alternative medicines for generalized anxiety disorder that’s passed the rigors of scientific assessment for efficacy.

In controlled trials, lavender promotes calm and lowers anxiety or related restlessness in several settings, comparable to conventional drugs for anxiety.

In pilot studies, lavender also relieved anxiety before and after surgery and during:

For people in hospice, lavender may relieve depression and improve well-being, too.

Lavender in a controlled study was also found comparable to paroxetine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), for depression. When given with imipramine (the tricyclic antidepressant), lavender improved the benefits of the drug for depression.

The scent of lavender has also been found to increase interpersonal trust (in a game situation, compared to peppermint) and, as a tea, promote a short-term bonding effect with infants and new mothers.

2. Induces sleep

In a review of lavender, controlled studies found inhaled lavender improved sleep in people who are in intensive care or have cancer. Students with sleep problems also self-rated improvements in sleep quality and energy, and pilot studies showed a reduction in restless leg syndrome.

3. Improves memory

In other pilot trials, inhaling lavender reduced working memory under normal circumstances, but improved working memory during stressful situations.

4. Relieves pain

The essential oil may also relieve pain in the following conditions:

  • headache
  • carpel tunnel
  • dysmenorrhea
  • lower back pain
  • arthritis
  • during surgery and postsurgery

Clinical studies on lavender have also looked at its:

  • Antiseptic effects. Topically applied lavender can treat bruises, burns, and wounds. Controlled trials found it especially effective for birth injuries to the mother.
  • Insecticide abilities. Topical lavender is also clinically shown to help treat fleas and lice in humans (and other animals).
  • Skin-healing effects. Its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, and wound-healing properties can benefit the skin.

Many people believe that gentle touch in massage has its own important effect in the healing process. But scientific research today shows how the different bioactive plant chemicals are absorbed by the skin into the blood, enabling them to reach the brain.

Not a panacea Medical herbalists recognize that medicinal plants don’t work on just one symptom or system. This makes sense scientifically: Each plant contains more than one active ingredient that can target different systems, and the health of one part of the body is affected by other parts. Links between heart and mind is an obvious example.

This is why conditions like depression or sleep deprivation can impair the ability to think, and stress or anxiety can interfere with memory or increase feelings of pain.
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Like most medicinal plants, lavender contains different active chemicals, and it’s the combined effects of these chemicals that make this plant work like a skilled car mechanic: adept at finely tuning the whole body to make it run smoothly.

For lavender, the chemicals are:

  • polyphenols like rosmarinic acid
  • flavonoids like apigenin
  • volatile aromatics

The main anxiety-relieving components are linalool and linalyl acetate. They’re also found in other relaxing aromatic plants, including citrus fruits, like bitter orange (neroli).

Lavender oil also contains the terpenes cineole and camphor. These are also found in memory-boosting European sage and rosemary.

When purchasing lavender essential oil, see if you can ask about its chemical formulation. The composition of essential oils can vary depending on many factors (such as time of harvest), and some oil can be adulterated with synthetic chemicals.

Lavender should contain:

  • 25 to 38 percent linalool
  • 25 to 45 percent linalyl acetate
  • 0.3 to 1.5 percent cineole

Before taking any plant at a medicinal level, always consult a registered medical herbalist and inform your healthcare provider if you’re taking medication or have a health condition.

In general, small doses are beneficial, but it by no means should be your only treatment. Don’t stop taking any prescribed medication. Be sure of the identity of your plant as well, and only take the recommended dose.

Using it

With all this science to complement lavender’s 1,000-year-old medicinal use, it’s no surprise that we find it in everything from beauty products and aromatherapy to baking.

It’s one of the most used essential oils in my home. I use it in baths, diffusers, and sprinkle it on pillows to calm my kids. It’s my go-to for reducing the pain and inflammation of insect bites or treating a skin infection.

And you can make use of lavender’s healing potential free by growing it yourself! Gather the leaves and flowers just before blooming to capture the highest concentration of the essential oil. Use it fresh or dried for teas and tinctures.

Tincture recipe

  • Ingredients: Soak 5 grams of dried lavender in 25 milliliters of 40 percent alcohol
  • Take daily: 1 teaspoon, 3 times for a medicinal dose

For relaxation, use the leaves and flowers in baths, body oils, or perfumes. You can also cook with it, from biscuits and desserts like creme brulee to roasts, particularly lamb. It’s also great in smoothies and cocktails. Try using a lavender syrup or single drop of the essential oil in vodka or champagne cocktails.

Like all medicinal plants (and many drugs), lavender may affect people differently. Some are sensitive to it, and different doses can have different effects. A little can relax, a lot can stimulate. Overuse can lower its efficacy.

Safety

Lavender is one of the safest plants for general use, and even the essential oil has very low toxicity when used at the correct dose. It may be applied undiluted in minute quantities on the skin, too.

But it’s not without its contraindications.

For example, people with sensitive skin may find it irritating. Lavender may also exacerbate sedative or anticonvulsant drugs. And because of hormone-disrupting properties, regular use isn’t recommended in young males.

Don’t overuse lavender essential oil or any essential oil.

Medicinal effects of lavender species other than L. angustifolia (syn. L. officinalis) aren’t known. There are hazards associated with taking the attractive species French lavender (L. stoechas) internally, with reports of toxicity in children.

But L. angustifolia is so widely accepted as safe that it’s approved by the European Medicines Agency as a plant medicine to relieve mild symptoms of stress and anxiety.

One question we haven’t answered yet is about lavender and love. Could the love we have for this plant inspire love among each other? Do the antimicrobial and mood-lifting effects of lavender fit with its folkloric use as a protector from the evil eye and a perfume for love?

When calmness is often in short supply, finding out whether lavender can really prompt positive feelings — between family members, workmates, or in the world in general — could give us another reason to fall for this plant.

However, for a plant renowned for inspiring or inducing love, there’s not a single study on lavender’s social bonding, aphrodisiac, or sexual activity effects.

So, for now, loving lavender and all its calming effects will have to do.


This information is taken from “Your Brain on Plants,”available to buy in all good bookshops. Please note the U.K. version of this book is called “Botanical Brain Balms.”

Nicollete Perry, PhD, specializes in pharmacognosy, the study of the medicine produced from plants. She has published and frequently gives talks on medicinal plants for brain health.