Lavender Seen With Medical Insight

Background

Lavender is well-known and commonly used throughout the world. Thinking of lavender brings a picture to mind of a vibrant purple-blue color and the soft, soothing and woody smell of the flowers. Traditionally, the oil of this shrub has been used as an antiseptic, a calmative, to deter insects, to treat burns and most notably used as a perfume. Today, uses are extensive in aromatherapy as well as in the production of perfume. Most individuals, through readings or even television product ads, are familiar with lavender as a relaxant. On-going science studies are investigating the properties of lavender in potential cancer treatments for breast, ovarian, pancreatic, liver and prostate. Current clinical studies have reported lavender essential oil as possibly being beneficial for a number of conditions, including insomnia, alopecia (significant hair loss), anxiety, stress, postoperative pain and as an antibacterial and antiviral agent.

Although generally known as lavender, there are actually thirty-nine species of the genus Lavendula, yet only a handful is used commercially. This fragrant plant is native to the Mediterranean region south to tropical Africa and to the southeast region of India. Today lavender is successfully cultivated in southern Europe, Australia and the United States. Aromatherapists distinguish lavender species according to their therapeutic uses and medicinal properties. True lavender (L. officinalis, L. angustifolia) when distilled at high elevations is known for its large percentage of ester content and regarded as the best in quality. Uses for true lavender include cases involving anxiety, stress, small burns, cuts and insect bites. Spike lavender (L. spica, L. latifolia) is known for its camphor content and thus used for respiratory infections, for muscular aches and pains and as a possible stimulant. Lavendin (L.fragrans, L. burnatti) is a hybrid of true lavender (L. angustifolia) and spike lavender (L. latifolia) and commonly used for large-scale commercial purposes. Stoechas lavender (L. stoechas) is used as an expectorant and known for its antimicrobial properties.

Sedative Effects of Lavender

Lavender is well established as supporting a reduction in anxiety, mainly due to its high linalool levels. The physiological process of reducing anxiety through the use of essential oils is quite phenomenal. Once the diffused molecules of essential oil enter the nasal cavity, they bind to receptor sites of the olfactory neurons which then trigger a cascade of events. In short, the olfactory neurons send messages to the olfactory nerve and then onto the olfactory bulb (located just three inches from the brain) where messages are initially processed. Within the olfactory bulb are input and output stations, the glomeruli and M/T (mitral and tufted) cells respectively. The olfactory output from the bulb to the brain has several targets, mainly the primary olfactory cortex and the higher olfactory associated areas where olfactory discrimination, perception and memories take place. The other is the limbic system, sometimes referred to the ‘nose’ brain comprising a complex system of 122 regions and associated areas which together is heavily responsible for the expression of emotion. Main structures of the limbic system (LS) are the amygdala, septum, hippocampus, anterior thalamus, and hypothalamus.

Diffused essential oil of lavender has been shown to alter reactions in the limbic system – a system that includes the amygdala and hippocampus, both of with are vital to our behavior, mood and memory. Recent studies have found lavender to reduce levels of cortisol (a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands). High and prolonged levels of cortisol have been shown to have a deleterious effect on the body, such as higher blood pressure, lowered immunity and decrease in bone density. A 2008 study published by the International Journal of Cardiology (Sep 26; 129(2): 193-7)found that lavender aromatherapy reduced serum cortisol and improved coronary flow velocity reserve (CFVR ) in healthy men after stress was induced and concludes that lavender aromatherapy has relaxation capabilities and may be beneficial for cases concerning coronary circulation. Another study from the Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine, Osaka, Japan (Archives of Oral Biology 2008 Oct; 53(10): 964-8) found that salivary cortisol levels decreased in stressed subjects (via a series of mathematical tasks) after being exposed to air-borne lavender essential oil; cortisol levels did not decrease in the control group. Lavender essential oil has also been found to help babies as well. The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Florida (Early Human Development 2008 Jun; 84(6): 399-41) found that babies bathed with essential oil of lavender cried less and spent more time in deep sleep than babies who were not bathed with the oil.

Other Applications for Lavender

A rather haphazard discovery of lavender in the use of tissue regeneration was made by the late Dr. Rene-Maurice Gattefosse (a French cosmetic chemist) who after he severely burned his hands in a laboratory accident, submerged them in a container of lavender essential oil and noted the remarkable speed at which they healed. More recent research has newly discovered the possible antimutagenic (inhibits mutations) effect of lavender. In this study (Food and Chemical Toxicology 2005 Sept; 4319: 1381-7) scientists noted antimutagenic effects of lavender oil (L. angustifolia) on a strain of Salmonella bacteria, concluding that such uses of lavender may be promising for applications in modern human healthcare. Other uses, such as antimicrobial and antiviral have been recognized and supported on the University of Maryland Medical Center website (www.umm.edu).

Concluding Remarks

The physiological pathway for molecules of lavender essential oil to reach the brain is remarkable. By following the molecular trail into the nasal cavity and its subsequent neurological reactions, one can better appreciate the recognized stress-reducing qualities found in lavender. Traditional uses of lavender are now being investigated and their diverse applications more fully understood. With science now uncovering the specialization of olfactory receptor sites for certain scent molecules, aromatherapy becomes an even more valuable remedy for maintaining wellness. We would all do well to familiarize ourselves and perhaps re-remember what our ancient brain (the limbic area) has stored for thousands, even millions of years- molecules of scent, and in this case lavender, are powerful and effective.

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