Most everyone knows and loves lavender. It appeals to masses of people and each person who holds a special place in their heart for lavender does so for a different reason. Just admiring it in a garden inspires one to take a deep breath. The beautiful light purplish-blue of the flower and the felt-like texture of the leaves are comforting, cooling and calming.
When I first began my studies as an aroma therapist and herbalist, my friend and I were traveling through the southwest on a wild-crafting trip. We found ourselves in southern Utah, and he wound up with horrible sunburn. I was so excited to try my first lavender burn treatment under such serious circumstances. As I gently applied lavender neat (undiluted) to the burned area, I began to rattle off everything I knew about the plant. I lost track of the fact that I was applying an ungodly amount to my poor friend’s neck. All of a sudden I hear a voice say, “I can’t breathe.” Oops! But it worked beautifully. The next day, on what had appeared to be a crispy late-stage 1st degree burn, there was barely any red. The blisters were gone. He slept well that night from the calming properties, and because of the anesthetizing qualities of lavender, felt no pain.
Without lavender, my friend would have had a bad couple of days. But without lavender, aroma medicine would have remained dormant in western culture much longer. In the 19th century, the use of essential oils as medicine had fallen out of vogue. Oils began to be used solely in perfumery and cosmetics. Synthetic oils were increasingly being used. Even with so much history behind it, aroma medicines became a lost art. It was not until 1928, when a French perfumer named Gattefosse rediscovered the medicinal benefits of essential oils. Working in his family’s distillery one day, he suddenly burned his hand badly, and in a panic, swung around and plunged it into a vat of lavender pure essential oil. To his surprise, his pain was eased immediately, and his hand healed very quickly, for lavender possesses great cell regenerating properties. The art of aroma medicine becomes known as aromatherapy, a term Gattefosse himself coined and a term that to this day labels the use of essential oils for therapeutic purposes.
In the last 15 years, there have been numerous studies done on Lavender pure essential oil. In 1991 a 6-week project study was done comparing Lavendula angustifolia (lavender) to the class of sleep aid drugs called benzodiazepines. The studies goal was to find an alternative to the benzodiazepine Temazepam for the elderly. The study measured the average number of hours slept during the night and day by four elderly men. Medication was used during weeks 1 and 2, no medication or essential oil was employed weeks 3 and 4, and no medication but vaporized lavender oil was used for weeks 5 and 6. It was found that the four parties involved slept the same number of hours with the lavender oil as with the medication. The quality of sleep during the night was so improved by two of the participants with lavender that they did not feel the need to sleep so much during the day. One of the participants who suffered from the greatest disturbances slept longest with the lavender than with the drug. His aggressive mood-swings during the day improved greatly with the use of lavender. This makes perfect sense, as lavender is specifically indicated for disorders of the nervous system, aggression being one. There were other perks associated with the efficacy of lavender. The cost of lavender essential oil was found to be 60% less than the cost of conventional drugs. Replacing the drug with lavender also avoided potential for drug interactions and drug dependency. These issues not only affect the elderly in this day and age, but all of us.
Though studies are highly respected, I find it more comforting to look at history. Lavender’s name comes from the Latin word lavare, to wash, a root which also gives us lavatory, meaning washroom. The ancients employed the flowers and leaves to aromatize their baths giving a sweet scent to the water they washed in. Throughout Europe in the time of the Black Plague people washed their floors down with lavender and wore it round their necks to escape the smell of the plague. The towns that distilled lavender essential oil were virtually plague-free. Little did they know they were actually protecting themselves with an oil that is anti-bacterial and anti-viral. Maude Grieves describes lavender as a main ingredient in a concoction taken internally for epilepsy, and the giddiness or turning off of the brain in the 18th Century. Salman in his herbal of 1710 gives indication of use “…against biting of serpents, mad-dogs and other venomous creatures, being given inwardly and applied poultice wise to the parts wounded. The spirituous tincture of the seeds and dried leaves, if prudently given, cures hysteric fits though vehement and of long standing.” The 1700’s indicates lavender in remedies for headaches brought on by nervousness, fatigue and exhaustion. They found it appropriate for indigestion, mental depression, anxiety, delusion and head colds.
Mad dogs aside, there is so much room for this plant in our lives. The essential oil is the best known and most used form of the plant. I have found it useful for burns from fire and sun, but also on chemical burns, such as those that women receive accidentally in beauty salons, and burns from radiation treatment. The most appropriate treatment for the later two burns is a combination of tea tree and lavender pure essential oil in St. Johns Wort and Calendula infused oil. For some cancer patients, this formula has worked wonders. Lavender’s quality of cell regeneration minimizes scaring if applied in a timely manner: mix 1 oz. of St. Johns Wort infused oil, 1 oz. of Calendula infused oil, 6 drops of lavender essential oil, and 4 drops of tea tree essential oil. Apply to cleaned area.
Indigestion is mentioned in historical references, as is hysterics. Put the two together and I believe you have something called colic. Lavender being anti-spasmotic and calming, it works for some babies with colic. Put 3 drops of lavender in 1 oz. of olive oil and, if the baby will allow, rub their tummy gently in a clockwise motion. Rubbing the feet is also a great place to target. Or just put a little dab of the oil mixture under their nose while you carry them around.
It is also known to make an excellent insect repellent that smells so much nicer than plain citronella. Combine lavender with citronella, sweet basil, mint, tea tree, and atlas cedar wood. This combination works well for itchy bites. Applying lavender neat to stings and bites works just as well. For headaches, mix German chamomile, peppermint and eucalyptus with lavender. One of my favorite combinations is lavender, vetiver, myrrh and peppermint for a cooling and calming, summer, foot and leg rub. Use in a clay facial or skin tonic for any skin type, as lavender is balancing to skin.
History tells us that using the tea or tincture internally is an excellent way to incorporate lavender into our healing repertoire. The tea or 10 to 15 drops of the tincture should be taken 3-4 times daily (in this busy day and age I encourage my clients to at least go for 2 times). It is excellent at lifting the spirits when they are low, especially when anxiety and stress are a factor. We hear so much of lavender being sedative, but it is actually balancing emotionally. If someone needs to sleep, lavender encourages this. If someone needs a boost, it lifts. Since folks in this state of mind are also prone to illness, for we know when we can’t sleep and are stressed, our immune system is compromised, we find lavender to be a mild anti-bacterial and anti-viral. Combine it synergistically with other bug fighting herbs to create an even more potent immune tonic.
There once was a wonderful medicine woman with whom I had the great opportunity to study. She spoke of lavender being Grandmother medicine. When she had someone come to her with a migraine like headache, she would give feverfew tincture with a bit of lavender tincture. She said feverfew was the warrior that pushed the body into battle, mainly via the liver, and that lavender was the gentle balance of the Grandmother who makes us feel safe and protected.
People under stress are also prone to digestive disorders, especially if they are workaholics. This is where the digestive properties of lavender come in handy. When we are in fight or flight mode, our blood goes out to the periphery of our body, leaving our digestive tract a bit dry and low on circulation. This opens a person to digestive problems. Lavender calms the nerves, and when combined with a bitter like dandelion root, encourages blood to pull back into the interior of the body, thus optimizing digestion. Lavender also acts as a carminative, and lessens nausea. Another great tea to drink about 30 min. before eating is lavender with mint. Add a bit of catnip for even more of the carminative effect and another sedative. This combination is also great for fevers
The emotional and spiritual dimensions of the plant deepen the healing properties of the physical. We have seen it calm anxious elderly clients, screaming babies, and burned skin. It is a plant that helps the human spirit remembers what plant medicines can do for us. It almost seems this plant slows down time, helping us regain our balance, allowing us to gather ourselves in a moment of difficulty before pieces of us scatter. By retaining our wholeness, we live in the greatness of who we are; we are more capable of compassion and understanding.
Note: Please remember to check contraindications of all plants before using them for alternative treatments. The ones for lavender are: an allergy to the plant, and if using blood-thinning medication, do not take internally.