Best known for its fragrant purple blossoms, lavender is a perennial plant (regrows every year) that’s also known for its health benefits.
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“That trademark smell comes from oil in the flower, which has medicinal properties. But the flower itself has medicinal properties, too,” says integrative medicine specialist Yufang Lin, MD.
Dr. Lin explains what lavender is good for and how to effectively use it.
The benefits of lavender
Traditional herbal textbooks and research studies alike confirm lavender’s role as a health jack-of-all-trades. That’s because the plant’s parts contain different chemical compounds that positively affect your body.
“These compounds include flavonoids, which are also found in vegetables and fruits, and coumarin. Both have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions,” explains Dr. Lin. “Lavender essential oil is just as powerful and contains important compounds such as linalool. Linalool has been shown to reduce anxiety and blood pressure.”
From its ability to boost your mood to reducing colic symptoms, Dr. Lin shares lavender’s eclectic list of potential benefits:
- Supports sleep: Some studies suggest lavender can improve your body’s melatonin levels, supporting a better night’s rest.
- Reduces pain and inflammation: Research has shown that lavender essential oil can help reduce headache pain.
- Helps with mood, anxiety and depression: “Lavender is known for its ability to calm the nervous system, lift the mood and even lower blood pressure,” says Dr. Lin. “Research links lavender usage to less anxiety and depression.”
- Relieves menstrual pain: In one study, women who smelled lavender for 30 minutes a day during the first three days of their period had less pain after two months. Other research has linked applying lavender essential oil to the abdomen with less menstrual pain.
- Kills harmful viruses and bacteria: “Before we had antiseptics, people used lavender to clean hospital wards,” explains Dr. Lin. “It’s still used for its antimicrobial and antiviral properties.”
- Reducing colic symptoms: One study found that aromatherapy massage using lavender oil was effective in reducing colic symptoms in infants, including how long they cried per week.
Additionally, an animal-based study found that lavender oil aided wound healing by improving the skin’s ability to produce collagen post-surgery.
The forms of lavender
You can use lavender in these forms:
- Essential oil.
- Plant (flower, stem and leaves).
How to use lavender essential oil
The sky’s the limit when it comes to uses for lavender essential oil. Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts. Because they are so strong, use them sparingly and with care.
Dr. Lin suggests trying a few drops of lavender essential oil in:
- Distilled water to make a room or body spray.
- Massage oil.
If you plan on using lavender essential oil on your skin, Dr. Lin notes the importance of diluting it with another oil. Good oils to use are ones you aren’t allergic to and might include:
- Almond oil.
- Coconut oil.
- Jojoba oil.
- Olive oil.
To make your mixture:
- Add enough essential oil to your base oil so it falls between 1% (six drops of essential oil per ounce) and 2% (12 drops of essential oil per ounce) of the mixture.
- Shake it.
- Apply it anywhere.
Cleaning with lavender essential oil
“To make a homemade cleaning solution, add a few drops of lavender essential oil to distilled water, some vinegar and a few drops of castile soap. The vinegar and soap help cut grease, and the soap and lavender have antimicrobial properties,” explains Dr. Lin. “You also get that beautiful scent.”
How to use lavender extract
“Lavender essential oil does not include the water-soluble part of the plant. When you make lavender extract, you use both the oil- and water-soluble parts of the plant,” explains Dr. Lin. “With lavender extract, you take the flower and cover it with some form of liquid, usually a combination of water and alcohol, to extract the medicine out.”
You can capsulize lavender extract into a pill you can take. “But you need to be judicious and make sure you have the proper dose,” advises Dr. Lin. “Because it’s so strong and toxicity is possible, do this under the supervision of a well-trained herbalist who knows how to properly use it.”
How to use the lavender plant
Dr. Lin says just breathing in the fragrance of a lavender blossom provides big benefits. To enjoy it as aromatherapy, use the flowers to make:
- Lavender soap.
- Lavender-infused oil for your skin.
- Sachet or potpourri bag.
- Scented bath.
- Tea. (“Tea provides double the benefit since you’re inhaling the scent and getting the medicinal components of the plant by drinking it,” notes Dr. Lin.)
Dr. Lin also suggests using dry or fresh lavender flowers in your cooking. “Lavender is an ingredient in the French spice mixture, herbs de Provence. But be careful how much you use. Too much lavender can make food or tea taste soapy.”
What is the best form of lavender to take?
It depends. “If you’re using lavender to improve mood, essential oil aromatherapy is the way to go,” says Dr. Lin. “If you’re using it for muscle pain or soreness, apply lavender-infused massage oil directly to the area of discomfort.”
But Dr. Lin adds that lavender tea may give you the most bang for your buck. “The act of making a cup of tea is itself a form of self-care. It gets you into a ‘me-time’ mindset. Then as you drink it, you get both the aromatherapy and herbal part of the lavender.”
Potential side effects of lavender use
While experts consider lavender safe, Dr. Lin says to consider these three cautions:
1. Lavender aromatherapy isn’t for everyone
“Essential oils often work so well because they trigger an emotional memory,” explains Dr. Lin. “For most people, lavender is calming and soothing. But for some, the smell may be associated with a negative experience, such as abuse. If they smell lavender, it may take them back to that place. So if lavender is triggering for you, don’t feel forced to use or try it.”
2. A research study found a potential link between lavender oil and premature breast development
In one study, three young girls and one young boy with premature breast development had been exposed to lavender oil, including in a soap, cologne or diffuser. When they stopped using the product or removed exposure, the breast development went away.
“It’s important to note that there are subsequent studies that questioned the validity of this one. These products may also have contained estrogen disruptors, so we don’t know for sure whether it was the lavender or another ingredient in the product,” says Dr. Lin. “So take this finding with a grain of salt and consider limiting how much lavender you use for developing children.”
3. Taking lavender essential oil by mouth can be dangerous
“Traditional herbalists would not use lavender essential oil orally,” says Dr. Lin. “When you use the lavender plant as food or tea, you’re less likely to have a toxic effect because generally, it’s gentle. But because essential oils are so strong, I would be more cautious about using them with food or drink.”
Dr. Lin also notes that essential oils can burn and irritate your mucosa, the lining of your soft palate, throat and tongue. But with the help of an herbalist, it’s safe to explore the many positive impacts lavender can have on your life and health.