Can lavender really help us relax?

By Susan Dewhirst in Natural Products

Jealousy reigns in my house at bedtime. Ever since having kids I’m a light sleeper. My husband, however, regularly gets 8 to 10 solid. He’s a natural skeptic but won’t go to bed without his lavender eye pillow. Even he believes the scent helps ease him into a deep, restful sleep.

For years lavender has been used in soaps, shampoos and sachets but recently it’s cropping up in chocolate, household cleaners and bug repellent. Like my husband, many believe it helps reduce anxiety and promotes relaxation and good sleep. With its growing popularity we delve into a few theories of how this lovely scent works.

Lavender Origin

Native to France and the Western Mediterranean, the Greeks and Romans used it in their bath water and the essential oil has been used by a variety of cultures to sooth burns and scrapes and as an expectorant (mouth rinse). Lavender’s name comes from the Latin Lavare which means “to wash” so it’s history of using it to clean our bodies makes sense. In Germany recently, the flowers of the herb have even been approved to be used in tea for insomnia, restlessness and nervous stomach irritations.

How Lavender Works With Smell Receptors

The main components of lavender, linalool and linalyl acetate, occur together in many essential oils. Linalyl acetate is a colorless, water insoluble liquid and is typically over 50% of an essential oil. Linalool is a naturally occurring terpene alcohol chemical. Studies are not conclusive but several suggest that when combined in lavender these two components help activate the olfactory (smell) receptors in the brain helping slow down the central nervous system. Calming the central nervous system can increase slow wave sleep; that’s the precious, deep part of the sleep cycle when the heartbeat slows and muscles relax. Interestingly, it’s during this phase the brain is thought to organize memory.

Taking Big Breaths of Lavender

Other studies have shown that lavender doesn’t actually make you more relaxed but because the scent is so pleasant people take big inhales of it and thus increase the oxygen going into the body. The extra oxygen, not the lavender itself, is what helps reduce the body’s heart rate and blood pressure and those reductions then help the body relax. Fascinating huh?

Calming addition to your day

Either way, it doesn’t seem long before the science of how it works will catch up to the love for lavender. For now, my husband will continue to enjoy his eye pillow and I’ll try the herb in my baths.


Why It’s Good

For a long time lavender has been popular in shampoos and soaps but now it's cropping up in chocolate and household cleaners. Does it really help us relax? If so, how does it work? Good Matters takes a look at the components of herb that might help us relax and a few theories about it works.