Benefits and risks of using lavender oil for insomnia, stress, headaches, and more

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Benefits and risks of using lavender oil for insomnia, stress, headaches, and more
Lavender may help with everything from insomnia to menstrual cramps.Daniel Balakov/Getty Images
  • The scent of lavender is well-known for its ability to help people relax.
  • When lavender flowers are distilled and concentrated into an essential oil, the vaporized chemicals may be used to treat a variety of health issues.
  • You can get relief by breathing lavender oil in through a cotton ball or a diffuser, or by applying it to your skin.

As early as the first century AD, Greek botanist and physician Pedanius Dioscorides wrote about lavender's medicinal uses for indigestion and headache in his volumes on medicinal plants: De Materia Medica.

Today, many people enjoy the light floral scent of this flowering plant in soaps, lotions, and perfumes. Lavender is also a popular ingredient in food and drinks, including honey, tea, and cocktails. This article discusses the many benefits of lavender oil.

How best to use lavender oil

The scent of lavender is well-known for its ability to help people relax. When lavender flowers are distilled and concentrated into an essential oil, the vaporized chemicals may be used to treat a variety of health issues. As with all alternative medicine, what works for one person may not work for another.

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Here are the three recommended ways to use lavender oil:

  1. Breathe in the scent of lavender essential oil. "Put one or two drops of essential oil on a cotton ball and inhale," says Lynn Gershan, MD, a pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School who is certified in medical herbalism. One small 2020 study showed that inhaling lavender essential oil on a cotton ball helped decrease anxiety.
  2. Use an aromatherapy diffuser. An essential oil diffuser is a device combining water with a few drops of essential oil to create a fine vapor. A small 2017 study showed that lavender diffused twice a day decreased agitation in elderly dementia patients.
  3. Apply it to the skin. "Another way to get these effects from lavender is by applying it to the skin diluted in a carrier oil," says Gershan. A safe dilution preparation for those two years of age and older, according to Gershan, is 2% essential lavender oil diluted in a carrier oil, which is a plant-based oil with little or no scent. Unscented coconut oil, olive oil, or jojoba oil, which closely mimics the skin's sebum, may be used.

Benefits of lavender oil

From the treatment of physical ailments to mental health benefits, herbalists use lavender oil for many reasons that are positively linked to chemical reactions in the brain. It can be used with or without dilution and may help relieve various health issues. As the case of herbs and essential oils, what works for one person may not work for someone else.

Here are common conditions that lavender may help, according to Gershan:

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  • Insomnia. Several studies confirm lavender's relaxation benefits, including a small 2019 study showing that lavender aromatherapy favored increased melatonin levels, possibly helping participants sleep.
  • Anxiety/Stress. A 2017 review of studies found that lavender, whether it's breathed in through a cotton ball, inhaled by using a diffuser, or rubbed into the skin, may help to reduce anxiety and stress. For example, a 2017 study showed that lavender inhalation reduced preoperative anxiety in surgery patients. When used twice a day, lavender also may decrease agitation in dementia patients.
  • Wounds. Essential oils, such as peppermint and lavender, can be used as holistic treatments for pain associated with burns and wounds. A 2012 study on 120 postpartum women researched the use of lavender oil application after episiotomy, a surgical incision of the perineum. While there were no significant differences in pain levels or complications between the two groups, researchers found significantly less redness in the lavender group versus the control group who were treated with the antiseptic povidone-iodine.
  • Headaches. A small 2012 study showed that inhaling lavender may be an effective treatment for migraine headaches.
  • Menstrual cramps. A 2016 study found that inhaling three drops of lavender oil on a piece of cotton reduced menstrual cramps.

While lavender essential oil is readily available in stores and online, quality varies. When purchasing, choose bottles that contain 100% pure lavender essential oil, with no fillers or chemicals.

Risks and side effects of using lavender oil

"Lavender oil is generally very safe to use," says Gershan. However, she does caution against the following:

  • Use discretion if you're pregnant. Lavender is generally not recommended in the first trimester. Gershan suggests discussing any use of essential oils while pregnant with your doctor.
  • Pay attention to allergic reactions. While rare, lavender oil can cause sensitivity. If you get a rash, hives, or your skin itches, apply a carrier oil to help remove the lavender, then wash with soap and water and discontinue use.
  • Take immediate action if you get lavender oil in your eye. This can cause burning and irritation, says Gershan. Flush with clean, warm water or use cold full-fat milk. Call your doctor if necessary.

Gershan notes that some people don't like the smell of lavender. If that's how you feel, don't use it. The negative association with its smell may block its positive effects.

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Insider's takeaway

Lavender isn't just a nice-smelling plant, it also has several useful health benefits, including alleviating insomnia and reducing stress and anxiety.

You can get relief by breathing lavender oil in through a cotton ball or a diffuser, or by applying it to your skin.

"Lavender oil is one of five essential oils - along with peppermint, eucalyptus, lemon, and tea tree - that I believe every household should have," says Gershan. "It has so many uses, and so few potential side effects."

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