Lavender is the shrub-like aromatic plant, Lavandula officinalis , sometimes called Lavandula vera or true lavender.
Lavender is a mild sedative and antispasmodic. The essential oil derived from lavender is used in aromatherapy to treat anxiety, difficulty sleeping, nervousness, and restlessness. Other preparations of the plant are taken internally to treat sleep disturbances, stomach complaints, loss of appetite, and as a general tonic.
Lavender is a shrubby evergreen bush that grows to about 3 feet (1 m) tall and 4 feet (1.4 m) in diameter. The plant produces aromatic spiky flowers from June to September. An essential oil used for healing and in perfume is extracted from the flowers just before they open.
Lavender is native to the Mediterranean region and is cultivated in temperate regions across the world. There are many species and subspecies. The preferred lavender for medicinal use is L. officinalis or true lavender. In Europe, lavender has been used as a healing herb for centuries. It was a prominent component of smelling salts popular with women in the late 1800s.
Lavender is used both externally and internally in healing. Externally the essential oil is used in aromatherapy as a relaxant and to improve mood. Aromatherapy can be facilitated through massage, used in the bath, in potpouri jars, and burned in specially-dsigned oil burners. Lavender is also used to treat fatigue , restlessness, nervousness, and difficulty sleeping. Pillows stuffed with lavender have been used as a sleep aid in Europe for many years. Lavender oil applied to the forehead and temples is said to ease headache.
Researchers have isolated the active compounds in lavender. The most important of these is an aromatic volatile oil. Lavender also contains small amounts of coumarins, compounds that dilate (open up) the blood vessels and help control spasms. Some modern scientific research supports the claim that lavender is effective as a mild sedative and a calming agent. In one Japanese study, people exposed to the odor of lavender were found to show less mental stress and more alertness than those not exposed to the fragrance when evaluated by psychological tests. In a peer-reviewed British study, when the sleeping room was perfumed with lavender, elderly nursing home residents with insomnia slept as well as they did when they took sleeping pills and better than they did when they were given neither sleeping pills nor exposed to lavender fragrance.
Other external uses of the essential oil of lavender are as an antiseptic to disinfect wounds. When used on wounds, lavender oil often is combined with other essential oil extracts to enhance its antiseptic and dehydrating properties. Lavender oil added to bathwater is believed to stimulate the circulation.
Taken internally as a tea made from lavender flowers or as a few drops of lavender oil on a sugar cube, this herb is used as a mild sedative and antispasmodic. The German Federal Health Agency's Commission E, established to independently review and evaluate scientific literature and case studies pertaining to medicinal plants, has approved the use of lavender tea or lavender oil on a sugar cube to treat restlessness and insomnia. Despite conflicting scientific claims, this organization has also endorsed the internal use of lavender for stomach upsets, loss of appetite, and excess gas. Animal research confirms that lavender oil has an antispasmodic effect on smooth muscle of the intestine and uterus. These results have not been confirmed in humans.
Lavender tea is made by steeping 1 to 2 teaspoons of flowers per cup of boiling water. One cup of tea can be drunk three times a day. Alternatively, 1 to 4 drops of lavender oil can be placed on a sugar cube and eaten once a day. Externally, a few drops of oil can be added to bath water or rubbed on the temples to treat headache. Like any herbal product, the strength of the active ingredients can vary from batch to batch, making it difficult to determine exact dosages.
The use of lavender, either alone or in combination with other herbs, is not regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration. Unlike pharmaceuticals, herbal and dietary supplements are not subjected to rigorous scientific testing to prove their claims of safety and effectiveness. The strength of active ingredients varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, and the label may not accurately reflect the contents.
Particular problems with lavender oil revolve around substitution of oil from species of lavender other than Lavandula officinalis , the preferred medicinal lavender. Most often true lavender oil is adulterated with less expensive lavadin oil. Lavadin oil comes from other species of lavender. It has a pleasant lavender odor, but its chemical compositions, and thus its healing actions, are different from true lavender oil. People purchasing lavender oil or tonics containing lavender should be alert to substitutions.
When used in the recommended dosage, lavender is not considered harmful. Some people have reported developing contact dermatitis (a rash) when lavender oil is used directly on the skin.
There are no studies on interactions of lavender with conventional pharmaceuticals. Traditionally lavender has been used in combination with other herbs such as tea oil and lemon balm without adverse interactions.
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