Using Lavender to Treat Anxiety

Using Lavender to Treat Anxiety

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 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).

How else might one use natural means to improve cognitive performance? Check out my video Does a Drink Of Water Make Children Smarter? and for more brain hacking tips, Dietary Brain Wave Alteration.

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:

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 DetoxBroccoli Versus Breast Cancer Stem Cells, and dozens of my other broccoli videos.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image credit: tfengreen / Flickr

  • Southlander

    Have been using lavender oil on cotton pads in a small bowl behind (intake) my bedroom air purifier for several months now. I like to believe that it helps me sleep. Don and I CAN! :-))

  • Lori

    Hmmm, wondering if the lavendar could negatively affect chemo treatments with the hormone disruptive info? I have some lavendar tea and hope that doesn’t interrupt the chemo progress I’ve been making. Thank you.

  • Ronald Chavin

    Dr. Greger seems to be attracted to purple-colored plants. Anthocyanins, which are purple-colored flavonoid polyphenols and not tannins, are not any more beneficial to our health than many other flavonoid polyphenols. Anthocyanins usually – but not always – come together in nature together with tannins, which are the most poweful antioxidants (have the highest ORAC scores) in the human diet. This is why all berries and all cherries have higher ORAC antioxidant scores than the most common supermarket fruits. All berries and all cherries contain moderate to high amounts of tannins.

    Tannins are not perfect. Some high-tannin foods such as green tea, sorghum, and betel nuts have been shown to cause esophageal cancer in real populations of real people. Hibiscus tea contains even higher amounts of protocatechuic acid than green tea.

    Another problem with tannins is that they inhibit both the good bacteria and the bad bacteria in our intestines. This is in sharp contrast to non-tannin polyphenols, which protect the good bacteria and help them to multiply and inhibit the bad bacteria. Hydroxytyrosol (in extra virgin olive oil and olive leaf tea) is the strongest antioxidant that is not a tannin. Lactobacilli and bifidobacteria thrive on olive fruits and olive leaves. Meanwhile, triphala, which contains powerful tannins, can be used for disinfecting wounds or as a mouthwash, killing 80% of the lactobacilli and bifidobacteria in the mouth.

    The big picture with tannins, however, is that the benefits greatly exceed the harm, especially if precautions are taken to prevent irritating the mouth, throat, and esophagus. It’s quite safe to eat most common berries and cherries because their tannin levels are just moderate – not extremely high. I swallow 4,000mg of triphala tablets every day. Triphala contains extremely powerful tannins such as gallic acid (amalaki), chebulinic acid (haritaki), chebulagic acid (haritaki), and belleric acid (bibhitaki).

    Because eggplants contain high amounts of anthocyanins without any tannins, eggplants make an excellent test of the benefits of the purple color without the help of powerful tannin antioxidants:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15207376
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10962130

  • John Clewett

    Do you think that the risk of prepubertal gynecomastia from lavender would be limited to topical use (or ingestion) – so that it would be OK for a mother to use lavender for aromatherapy without any risk to her young boys?

  • Plantbaseddiet

    I’ve actually read the “study” performed on Lavender and gynecomastia that was published in the NEJM and Pubmed, but I found the person’s research to be inappropriately assuming. The study stated (as did this article by Dr. Greger) that the Lavender found in hair gel, lotions, shampoos, etc. was probably causing the gynecomastia. However, having researched this topic extensively, almost all the “Lavender oil” in these products is synthetically made, just as the “butter” from the movie theater is synthetic and made to taste like butter in a lab, and is not real butter. They usually hide this fact by calling it “Natural Fragrance,” “Fragrance,” “Natural Flavoring,” etc. Even the term “Made with Lavender Oil” can be quite misleading

    We found via the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) that “as of 2011, 3,059 materials that have been reported as used in fragrance compounds” can legally be hidden under the verbiage “Fragrance,” among which some are admittedly “not researched” in regard to their effects on people. This was actually a backdoor reference provided by the company Clorox (and their Pinesol product) when they say “want to see more of our ingredients? click here!” when we were trying to purge our home of chemicals and processed foods.

    Thus, I have learned that is safer to assert the gynecomastia comes from the random assortment of nasty chemicals (including the synthetic lavender oil) in each of these products and lifestyle decisions. Additionally, it is too assuming to selectively choose synthetic lavender oil to be the culprit out of a horde of other synthetic chemicals. Rather, true certified pure therapeutic grade lavender essential oil, which is actually extremely difficult to find even in expensive “health-nut” products, has many therapeutic and medicinal effects.

  • LW

    Are they any studies on the safety of ingested lavender for girls? Thanks.

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Hi LW. It is hard to tell from the abstract how many women were enrolled in the study Dr. Greger mentions from this blog and his video on lavender. There appears to be some concern with estrogenic activity in young boys. If I find out more I’ll post here. Thanks for your question.