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All you need to know about lavender


lavender healing calm women herb

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Having trouble sleeping? Too wired to unwind? Before you reach for the valerian or hot milk and honey, why not pour a cup of sweet-smelling lavender tea? With its health-giving oil, this nostalgic, aromatic purple flower is more than just a showpiece for English country gardens and an ingredient in pampering soaps, lotions, bath salts and scented drawer sachets. Lavender has a range of uses, both complementary and culinary, which can nurture your health inside and out.

There are four main types of this popular purple flower and, though they each have a similar botanical chemical makeup, their therapeutic benefits can differ. They include:

  • Lavandula latifolia, a Mediterranean grass-like lavender
  • L. angustifolia, or English lavender, the most used variety, which has a stockier plant with a fuller flower
  • L. stoechas, or French Lavender, which has butterfly-like bracts on top of the flowers
  • L. x intermedia, a sterile cross between Mediterranean and English lavender

Lavender oil is usually extracted from the flowers, stem and leaves of the herb using steam distillation. The pure essential oil has a sweet, sometimes fruity scent with woody and camphorus notes. When ingested as a tonic, lavender is used two to three times a day in doses of 2-4mL diluted in fluid. However, you should start with one dose daily and monitor for any reactions of sensitivity, which may include headaches, constipation, nausea/diarrhoea or constipation.

Lavender has a range of uses, both complementary and culinary, which can nurture your health inside and out.

Heating lavender oil in a diffuser appears to have no detrimental effects on its healing composition. Alternatively, if the essential oil of lavender is applied during a massage, some of its components can be detected in the blood within five minutes, peaking at 19 minutes and reducing in potency after about an hour-and-a-half.

Though it is a safe oil, with few side-effects, lavender oil should not be used during pregnancy, as it is an emmenagogue herb, meaning it encourages bloodflow to the pelvic region and may help stimulate menstruation. People who experience seizures should consult with a doctor before using lavender oil.

Historically, herbalists and healers administered lavender in tinctures to relieve all manner of ailments, from migraines, depression, anxiety and stomach aches to hair loss and infertility. Now a growing body of evidence is backing up this village herbalist wisdom with science that confirms the many therapeutic benefits of this impressive and attractive plant.

The calming flower

Undergoing an increase in anxiety due to stress or life changes such as peri-menopause, loss of a loved one or adjusting to a busy period at work? Lavender can come to your rescue. It can be used as a tonic for a jittery nervous system and lead you to a more sedate and still state of mind.

Anxiety

Research comparing the use of lavender to sedating benzodiazepine medication for anxiety has found it provides equal benefit, minus the side-effects of the medication, which may include tiredness, trembling, dry mouth, nausea and addiction. However, the sedating impacts of lavender may also intensify the impact of prescription medications such as anti-depressants and sleeping pills, so lavender should not be used along with these medications unless you first consult with your GP.

At the University of Miami in the US, researchers have examined the function of the brain before and after lavender oil inhalation. The mood and EEG brain pattern of participants was recorded, as well as their speed and accuracy while doing some visual and maths tests. Following this, lavender oil was placed directly under their noses and they inhaled the scent for three minutes. At the end of that period, all the measurements were taken again. Given the short timeframe, the results were very surprising.

The group given lavender oil reported feeler calmer and showed a significant drop in heart rate, blood pressure and skin temperature — all clear indications that their autonomic nervous systems had become less aroused and their mood more relaxed. On their EEG scan, they showed an increase in the activity of both the theta (4–8Hz) and alpha (8–13Hz) brainwaves. This group then performed visual and maths tests with less anxiety and with faster and more accurate results.

In short, lavender can keep you sharper and less stressed. Rushed and racing out the door? Grab a handful of lavender from your Garden en route to work, crush it gently in your fingers, then rub some of the scent onto your temples and a little under your nose for instant stress relief. Strung out after a tricky or exhausting day? Add 5–10 drops of lavender oil to a warm bowl of water and enjoy a foot bath. The lavender will be absorbed by your skin and rapidly circulate around your body, bringing calming benefits.

If you are struggling with anxiety on a regular basis, invest in a commercial bottle of lavender mist or keep handy a spray bottle filled with a few drops of lavender diluted in water. Spray it on your pulse points, including wrists, neck, ankles and inner elbows when you are feeling tense.

Sleep

Lavender is a powerful treatment for insomnia and interrupted slumber. In countries such as Greece, France and the UK, lavender flowers have long been sewn or sprinkled into fragrant “dream pillows”, used to help people suffering from insomnia or overnight restlessness slip into a calmer state of sleep. Research now suggests that lavender may be as effective as some sleeping pills when used as a sedative — minus the side-effects, such as potential addiction, depression and morning-after exhaustion.

In one study at the UK’s University of Southampton, the sleeping patterns of two groups of adults were examined over a period of a week. One group slept in a room where lavender essential oil was diffused into the room, while the other group slept with a placebo oil (almond) diffused in the other room. Then the groups swapped. At the study’s end, researchers concluded that on the mornings after inhaling lavender scent overnight, the volunteers reported a 20 per cent improvement in their quality of sleep.

Another study at Wesleyan University in the US found that, when volunteers inhaled the scent of lavender oil for about eight minutes before bedtime, they slept more soundly and woke feeling more refreshed and energised than the volunteers who inhaled distilled water. Those inhaling the lavender scent also enjoyed increased slow-wave sleep — the deep and restorative part of the sleep cycle where the heartbeat slows down and muscles relax.

If you find that putting a little lavender oil on your pillow or in an oil diffuser is too strong, place a handful of the fresh flowers in a bowl near your bed and enjoy the benefits while you slumber.

The medicinal flower

Lavender has many functions that benefit your inner health.

Digestion

Lavender is a balancing tonic, which can reduce the levels of bad bacteria so that you absorb nutrients more effectively and experience fewer digestive upsets, such as gas and bloating. Taken internally as a tea or tincture, lavender may also help to lower the risk of gastric ulcers. It can reduce indigestion by stimulating the body’s production of digestive juices and bile. Lavender helps settle acidity in an anxious stomach while its antispasmodic effects benefit the sensitive nerves in your digestive system, reducing the likelihood of nausea, cramps and tummy pain or distension. To make fresh lavender tea, add lavender flower bulbs to a tea ball and infuse for 10 minutes or longer in hot water. For additional relief, gently rub several drops of diluted lavender oil directly on to your stomach and massage into your skin.

Respiratory issues

During the cold and flu season, lavender can be a powerful ally. You can dilute drops of lavender oil in a little water to wash hands and the oil can be used neat as an antiseptic wipe, to help sterilise surfaces like doorknobs and combat the common cold virus. Lavender can also be employed as a natural decongestant. Dab a few drops under each nostril and it will help improve breathing and assist to clear a blocked nose. Or try a sinuses steam bath.

Research involving small sample groups has shown that when inhaled from a bowl of steaming hot water (with a towel placed over the head to create a canopy), lavender oil can help relieve symptoms of nasal congestion for up to two hours. This potent purple flower also has antiseptic properties, which can reduce symptoms of a sore, tickly, inflamed throat. Add 2–3 drops to a small glass of water and gargle. Repeat several times.

Aches & pain

Massage therapists often reach for lavender when treating pain, whether from headaches, joints, sprains, sore muscles or tension and strain in areas like the back and shoulders. The anti-inflammatory and sedative qualities of this attractive herb soothe bodily aches, throbbing, tenderness and swelling, and calm inflammation to the area so that sensations of heat and discomfort subside.

The anti-inflammatory flower

Lavender can help banish blemishes, sores and rashes so that your skin glows with health and vitality.

Skin healing

The name lavender comes from the Latin root lavare, which means “to wash”. During combat in World War II and the Vietnam War, lavender is thought to have helped saved countless lives of soldiers: in some army battalions, the military and medicos were issued vials of lavender oil to sterilise wounds and help counter infection. More recently, scientific research has confirmed that lavender has potent antibacterial and antifungal benefits.

A study published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology found that lavender oil could be very effective in treating infections caused by varieties of fungi that are resistant to treatment. Conducted at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, the research found that lavender oil worked like a natural lethal weapon when used on a range of pathogenic fungi. An Italian study has also shown that lavender inhibits the growth of candida, helping to kill it off, in part by inhibiting the germ tube formation of the fungus.

Rashes & sensitive skin

If you suffer from dandruff or a sensitive, itchy scalp, lavender may prove an effective salve. Steep it like a tea then allow it to cool and use it as a rinse on your scalp after your shampoo, until your skin has cleared. Or use 15–20 drops of lavender essential oil in about two tablespoons of warm olive or almond oil. Massage this mix onto your scalp, wear a shower cap for an hour to allow full absorption, then gently rinse with a little shampoo (preferably a lavender variety).

Some small studies have also shown that lavender may help to treat alopecia, a condition in which hair falls out in patches, often due to periods of stress or hormonal changes, such as breastfeeding. When massaged into the scalp, lavender oil may help promote hair regrowth.

Staph infections

Many studies have shown that lavender can help relieve and reduce symptoms of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) or eradicate it altogether. This is important given that MRSA, which causes a contagious skin rash and was once largely found in hospitals, has now spread to the wider community and is resistant to antibiotics.

Eczema & acne

One of the biggest problems with eczema and pimples is that inflamed skin becomes infected with bacteria. Applying a lavender lotion or dabbing a little diluted lavender on irritated areas can reduce the infection and the inflammation, helping to clear and soothe. In acne, lavender inhibits the growth of bacteria that leads acne to become chronic and it also reduces the over-production of sebum (oil), which feeds the bacteria that cause redness and pustules on acne-prone skin. However, as people with eczema and acne often have sensitive skin, patch testing before application is important to ensure there is no allergic reaction. If you tolerate a small dose, you can gradually increase the number of drops of lavender essential oil that you apply in a water or moisturiser solution.

Insect bites

This multi-talented purple flower may help reduce the skin itch that occurs due to bites from midges, mosquitoes and other insects. Its anti-inflammatory properties work on the inflamed area to soothe and reduce redness, itching and swelling. Apply a few drops of lavender oil diluted in water or moisturiser. In addition, lavender oil itself can be applied to the skin to act as an insect repellent. Try it the next time you’re heading off to an evening barbecue or al fresco dinner and enjoy returning home with bite-free skin that’s also smooth and clear.

Lavender on the menu

Lavender is an edible herb that can be dried and used in cooking. However, it’s important to select the right species. The only lavender recommended for cooking is angustifolia, which has a light, sweet smell, whereas the others are all high in camphor oil, which is slightly bitter in food and is treated by the digestive system as a toxin.

The tradition of lavender’s culinary use dates back centuries. One of the oldest recipes comes from the chef of Queen Elizabeth, who regularly made lavender sugar for the queen. In Europe, the use of the herb’s light, sweet flavour in cooking also has a long, established history — lavender-seasoned food is well established in historical areas like Provence in France.

Equally suited to an entrée dish or dessert, lavender can be a feature ingredient in mouth-watering fare such as lavender-flavoured biscuits, bread, fudge, fruitcake, ice-cream, pâté, marmalade, mustard, chutney, honey, blueberry jam and tea. Like aniseed or caraway, lavender has its own distinctive flavour and should be used sparingly, otherwise it’s too overpowering. It can be added fresh or dried to food, but the dry flowers are four times more concentrated than the fresh lavender.

To prepare English lavender for cooking, pick some and hang the bunch of flower-heads downwards until the flowers are dry. Using your fingers, gently rub the flowers off the stem and store in an airtight container. Then try using a small crumbled amount:

  • To season a leg of lamb. Roll the lamb in the lavender, then pat the herb on the meat. As the leg starts to roast in the oven, the oils will be released, penetrating the meat and creating a nice crusty skin and sweet lavender scent.
  • For flavour in a favourite biscuit, bread or muffin recipe. Add one teaspoon of dried lavender to about one cup of flour.

 



 

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.