For centuries, the sweet-smelling, lilac-colored lavender flower has been sought after as a culinary and cosmetic delicacy. In the Provence region of France, where abundant lavender fields paint the landscape purple, lavender is often an integral part of the herbal bouquet known as herbes de Provence, used to flavor a variety of savory dishes. On the sweet side, candied lavender flowers infuse cakes and chocolates with a floral essence and beauty, while lavender honey and lavender sugar over fruit or ice cream add a luscious depth of flavor. Across the regions where lavender grows natively — from the sunny Mediterranean south to tropical Africa and east to Persia and India — the plant's pale purple blossoms have been relished for their aroma, extracted for use in perfumes, lotions and soaps. The Romans used lavender in their famous baths to scent the water, while central Europeans during the Renaissance sprinkled their love letters with lavender fragrance, believed to imbue them with greater power.
It's clear that the pleasures of lavender — whether destined for our sense of smell, taste or romanticism — have given people the world over a boost in mood and outlook. Yet science is backing centuries-old wisdom that lavender can have a positive impact on our physical and emotional health. Though more research is necessary, data is mounting for lavender's ability to soothe many persistent ailments of modern life.
A potpourri of lavender slid under a pillow or an herbal infusion at bedtime have long been thought to calm the nerves and ward off insomnia. According to the National Institutes of Health, there is now good evidence to support lavender aromatherapy as an effective treatment for anxiety, and preliminary evidence for its use to treat depression, insomnia and workplace stress. In one study, a bath filled with lavender and grapeseed oils elevated mood while decreasing anger and frustration. In another, office workers who received lavender aromatherapy during breaks increased their efficiency, perhaps, the researchers speculated, because the lavender helped combat the accumulated stress of workplace fatigue. Lavender aromatherapy may be especially beneficial for those with Alzheimer's or other dementia, as some studies indicate its potential for reducing aggression and agitation in such patients. Lavender also shows promise as a companion to anti-depressant and hypnotic (sleep aid) pharmaceuticals.
Science has yet to fully tackle the other myriad uses of lavender as a folk remedy. In Iran and elsewhere, essential lavender oil is believed to have multiple merits for the skin. It is used to cool burns, including sunburns, with its anti-inflammatory properties, and heal acne, wounds and insect bites with its natural antiseptic properties. Lavender buds and oil are thought to repel insects, such as moths and mosquitoes, making them ideal additions to potpourris placed with stored clothes and candles burned outdoors. During the Middle Ages, lavender may have even protected people from the Plague by fending off the fleas that transmitted the disease. During World War II, lavender was utilized as a hospital disinfectant. Early lab studies corroborate lavender's antibacterial power.
Brewed as a tea or massaged into skin, lavender is a common home remedy for headaches, respiratory illness, muscle aches and digestive distress. Rubbing the oil into one's temples may mitigate migraines, while rubbing it onto the neck, chest and back may clear lung passages in the case of colds, asthma or bronchitis. Such application may also calm muscle cramps associated with menstrual pain or arthritic disorders. Ingesting lavender as a seasoning or tea is thought to stimulate bile production, which reduces indigestion and gas.
Use with Caution
As folklore and science continue to dovetail, the demand for lavender will no doubt expand. There are a few cautions to consider, however. Lavender is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Because the body processes lavender oil like estrogen, in rare cases, products made with lavender can disrupt hormonal balances in young boys. Prolonged skin application can also lead to allergic reactions in some individuals. For the rest of us, lavender remains an indulgence for the senses and a miracle of medicine.