What Are The Health Benefits of Lavender? 5 Ways It Soothes the Soul

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), also commonly known as the English lavender, common lavender and French lavender, is an easy-to-grow plant known for its fragrant flowers and aromatic leaves.

Native to the Mediterranean region, including France, Spain and Italy, its name comes from the Latin verb "lavare" which means "to wash."

Back in ancient times, lavender was used as a bath additive in Rome and today it is often among the ingredients of countless soaps.

Lavender products come in various forms including as an essential oil (plant extracts) or in creams, lotions, perfumes and other cosmetic items.

But beyond its cleansing benefits and pleasant fragrance, some studies have suggested lavender could provide relief with certain medical conditions too.

Why Is the Smell of Lavender Soothing?

Lavender is commonly used in aromatherapy in the form of aromatic oils. But what is it about the smell of lavender that seems to produce a soothing therapeutic feel?

Speaking to Newsweek, Dr. Michael T. Murray, scientific adviser for the U.S. Organic & Natural Health Association, explained scent (the basis of aromatherapy) is determined by chemical composition. "The unique volatile oils in lavender stimulate the olfactory nerve, which in turn is processed by the limbic system. This area of the brain is the center of our emotions as well as survival instincts.

"Ultimately, the compounds in lavender produce feelings of calm and relaxation. These effects have been confirmed in clinical trials where lavender oil aromatherapy has also been shown to improve anxiety, sleep quality, and mood. These effects are mild, but it does work," he added.

Murray explained there is a growing public awareness of the benefits of lavender oil used in aromatherapy, which have been confirmed in numerous double-blind clinical trials. This popularity has seen lavender also be used in dietary supplements. While there is evidence that oral intake of lavender produces similar benefits, proper dosage is key, he said.

The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) also warns that while several studies on the effects of lavender on various health conditions have been done, there is still a lack of research to make definitive conclusions about the plant's effectiveness.

Bearing all that in mind, below we take a closer look at some of the potential health benefits of lavender.

A close-up view of lavender flowers.
A close-up view of lavender flowers. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Sleep

Speaking to Newsweek, Luke Taylor, the head of technical development at Aromatherapy Associates, a luxury well-being brand in the U.K. specializing in therapeutic essential oil blends, said: "Lavender is perhaps the most used natural aid for sleep not only now but for countless years in the past. Whilst the benefits have long been known, it is only more recently that scientific studies have demonstrated the relaxing powers of the essential oil."

Lavender has been associated with sleep improvement in multiple studies, including for those suffering with insomnia, says the Sleep Foundation, a health information website overseen and reviewed by a medical advisory board and review panel of doctors and researchers.

Murray told Newsweek: "A commercial lavender oil preparation for oral intake (Silexan) at a dosage of 80 mg/day has been studied in five double-blind clinical trials. The results from these studies showed benefits in reducing bodily pain and improving general health, sleep quality and fatigue."

A man sleeping peacefully.
A man sleeping peacefully on a bed. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Ever wonder why lavender is used in many pillow sprays, body mists, oils and other sleep aid/relaxation products? That's likely because of its calming effects on your heart rate and blood pressure (more on this later below).

Taylor explained the two major components of lavender essential oil are linalool and linalyl acetate. Both have been shown to have a relaxing effect on the nervous system, which allows us to wind down, relax and lead to better sleep.

According to a March 2013 paper by Hindawi (a publisher of peer-reviewed scientific journals) published at the NIH website, a 2011 study looking at 67 middle-aged women experiencing insomnia showed 34 of them reported a "significant improvement in sleep quality" after 12 weeks of lavender aromatherapy.

The Hindawi paper also highlighted a study in 2010 that indicated lavender scent improved the sleep quality of 64 ischemic (restriction of blood supply to tissues) heart disease patients in intensive care units in Iran.

Lavender on a pillow.
Lavender essential oil and fresh lavender on a pillow. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Anxiety

Some studies have also shown the effects of lavender on certain mental health conditions such as anxiety.

Lavender may help ease anxiety by reducing heart rate and adrenaline levels and regulating breathing, among other effects, according to a 2021 Healthline article reviewed by Dominique Fontaine, a double board certified holistic nurse and health and wellness nurse coach of the American Holistic Nurses Credentialing Corporation.

According to Murray, there is clinical evidence from human studies that the anti-anxiety and sleep improving effects of lavender also apply to water-soluble extracts of lavender devoid of the volatile oils (the stimulating component of lavender).

Murray told Newsweek: "In fact, a water-soluble lavender extract (100 mg per day) outperformed a conventional drug therapy in a head-to-head comparison in patients with feelings of anxiety, depression, and helplessness. A big advantage was that the lavender extract was without side effects common to the drug treatment."

Research published in 2017 by The Mental Health Clinician, a peer-reviewed journal, which looked at lavender essential oil and anxiety disorders, stated: "Lavender essential oil has an extensive anecdotal history of anxiolytic [medication used to reduce anxiety] benefit that has recently been supported by clinical efficacy studies."

The research said that "evidence from multiple high-quality randomized trials suggests a role for SLO [standardized lavender oil extract] in the treatment of anxiety disorders."

The SLO product was found to exhibit a calming effect without sedation, as well as "a lack of dependence, tolerance or withdrawal" and "relatively benign" side effects in short-term studies.

A 2005 study published by Physiology & Behavior, a peer-reviewed journal, analyzing the impact of orange and lavender essential oils on anxiety, mood, alertness and calmness in 200 dental patients showed that ambient odors of orange and lavender reduced anxiety and improved mood in patients waiting for dental treatment.

"These findings support the previous opinion that odors are capable of altering emotional states," the study said.

A woman smelling lavender flowers.
A woman smelling lavender flowers. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Blood Pressure

Some research has shown lavender could potentially help reduce blood pressure.

The results of a 2012 study in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand among 20 healthy people showed the inhalation of lavender oil caused "significant decreases" of blood pressure, heart rate and skin temperature.

A 2017 report published by the Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research, which looked at what effect inhaling lavender essential oil had on vital signs in 40 patients who had open-heart surgery, suggested aromatherapy could effectively reduce blood pressure and heart rate in patients admitted to the open heart surgery ICU and potentially help stabilize vital signs.

The study noted when lavender oil is inhaled for 10 minutes, there is an increase in the body's blood flow rate and a decrease in "galvanic skin conduction and systolic blood pressure."

Post-Childbirth Care

Some studies have shown the potential benefits of lavender following childbirth.

Research published in 2011 by the Pakistan Journal of Biological Sciences done among 200 women who underwent a cesarean section concluded that aromatherapy using lavender essence is "a successful and safe complementary therapy" for reducing pain after a C-section.

Another study published in 2016 by the Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research conducted among 140 women hospitalized at a maternity unit after giving birth said that inhaling the scent of lavender for four weeks can potentially prevent stress, anxiety, and depression after childbirth.

Those in the study group underwent aromatherapy (which entailed inhaling three drops of lavender essential oil every eight hours for four weeks), while the control group only received routine care.

The results showed the mean scores for stress, anxiety and depression at two weeks, one month and three months after delivery were "significantly lower" in the study group compared with the control group.

The research concluded that inhaling lavender can lead to the prevention of stress, anxiety, and postpartum depression and "can be used as a complementary method to prevent these disorders" following childbirth.

A bottle of lavender essential oil.
A bottle of lavender essential oil placed near some fresh lavender. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Calming Children

The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) website says aromatherapy can help calm children who may be anxious or under stress and may help reduce nausea, discomfort and pain.

Vanessa Battista, a pediatric nurse practitioner at CHOP, says: "Aromatherapy can have real benefits to children. But people need to be informed and take seriously the very real risks of improper use."

Among the handful of aromatherapy oils deemed safe and effective for use with children over the age of 5 is lavender. Battista suggests trying lavender first, over the other oils, as many kids like its scent and it's generally effective in calming an anxious child.

Battista explained: "Aromatherapy only works if a child enjoys the smell and finds it calming or uplifting. Different people have different smell preferences and associations.

Another key aspect was to make the aromatherapy fun, Battista said, allowing the child to choose the device for the therapy, whether that be a diffuser in the bedroom or a personal inhaler.

"Giving your child control of the therapy is also part of its effectiveness," Battista said.

A child laying in a lavender field.
A child laying in a lavender field. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Expectation Bias in Lavender Studies

It is also important to note that expectation bias (ie previous experience with lavender aromatherapy) could also influence the perceived effects of lavender on health.

A 2008 lavender study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, a peer-review reviewed scientific journal, warned: "Placebo and expectancy effects are central problems in human olfactory research and interpretation of a number of studies is difficult for this reason.

The study of 56 healthy men and women compared the "psychological, autonomic, endocrine and immune consequences" of smelling lavender, lemon and water (which acted as the "non-smell" element of the study).

Speaking to Newsweek, one of the authors of the study, Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser (the director of the Ohio State Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research), explained: "In our carefully designed study we investigated the possibility that enhancing expectations about the effects of lavender might make a difference.

"We also investigated the possibility that a person's prior belief and experience with aromatherapy might produce stronger effects," she said.

Half of the participants were given no information about what they would smell, while the other half were told what they'd smell and what changes to expect. For lavender, participants were told that lavender is a calming odor, sometimes used as a sleep aid because of its relaxing qualities.

It was also suggested to them that lavender might lower their heart rate and lower the production of stress-related hormones, also provoking positive or warm memories.

Kiecolt-Glaser said the study looked for the positive effects of lavender in multiple ways but found "nothing that suggested lavender had a real effect compared to smelling distilled water or lemon."

Bars of soap made with lavender.
Bars of soap made with lavender. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Lavender Safety

There are also safety warnings to be aware of when using lavender as part of any treatment, such as potential allergic reactions with the topical use of lavender products in some people.

The government's NCCIH warns there have been a few reported cases of breast tissue swelling among children who used topical products containing lavender. "However, it's unclear whether the lavender was responsible for the breast swelling, a condition that can have many causes," the NCCIH explains.

"Little is known about whether it's safe to use lavender during pregnancy or while breastfeeding," the federal body adds.

However, the consumption of lavender in amounts typically used in foods is likely to be safe, while short-term oral use in amounts tested in studies of lavender for anxiety or other conditions may also be safe, the NCCIH says.

Sunrise over a lavender field.
Sunrise over a lavender field. iStock / Getty Images Plus