Does Lavender Help You Sleep?


Written by Dr. Michael Breus

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You know the scent when it hits you — the rich, mellow, floral scent of lavender. In Southern California where I live, it grows both wild and cultivated in gardens (including my own). I’m always struck by how instantly calming that familiar lavender smell is. It’s no accident that lavender pops up all the time in soaps, shampoos, lotions and other body and self-care products. It’s wildly popular.

Lavender’s potential benefits as a medicinal herb go beyond what many people know. There’s a lot to learn about lavender and how this flowering plant may benefit sleep and health.

What Is Lavender?

Lavender is a perennial and evergreen plant. There are more than 40 types of lavender. One that is common and used for medicinal purposes is Lavendula angustifolia. Native to North Africa and the Mediterranean region, lavender now also grows throughout the United Kingdom and in parts of the United States, as well as other parts of the world.

Almost wherever lavender grows, it grows abundantly. It’s a plant that’s known to spread quickly, leading some people to think of it as a weed! The plant’s flowers, leaves and essential oil are all used as natural medicines.

Lavender is taken orally as a supplement, often to treat anxiety, depression, insomnia, as well as physical pain, including headache and toothache. Lavender is used topically in lotions and creams for skin and hair treatments, as well as to treat wounds and pain. It’s often used as an aromatherapy tool for sleep problems, to improve mood and relieve stress.  Lavender is brewed into teas and infusions, and used as an ingredient in recipes.

How Does Lavender Work?

This gently scented flowering herb has been shown to have a pretty broad range of effects in the body, as an essential oil, an oral supplement, and a topical cream or salve:

  • Lavender works as an anxiety reliever and as a sedative, to increase relaxation and calm
  • Lavender interacts with the neurotransmitter GABA to help quiet nervous system activity, reducing agitation and restlessness
  • Lavender functions as a pain reliever, or analgesic
  • Lavender has anti-bacterial capabilities
  • Lavender can reduce inflammation

Scientific evidence indicates that lavender may interfere with the hormones estrogen and testosterone, which influence development of male and female characteristics. Always consult your doctor before you begin taking a supplement or make any changes to your existing medication and supplement routine. This is not medical advice, but it is information you can use as a conversation-starter with your physician at your next appointment.

Benefits of Lavender

Studies have shown lavender can have a variety of beneficial effects, including improved sleep quality and lowered anxiety.

  • For sleep: Lavender oil is a popular aromatherapy choice for sleep and relaxation. Several studies show using lavender oil for aromatherapy can improve sleep quality, including in people with insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Aromatherapy using lavender oil may also increase time spent in deep, slow-wave sleep.
  • For anxiety, stress, and depression: Studies show both oral lavender and inhaled lavender may reduce anxiety. Some studies suggest oral lavender may work as effectively as anti-anxiety medications to improve anxiety. Scientists have found similar types of results for lavender’s effectiveness in treating depression. Lavender oil aromatherapy has been shown to reduce the physical and emotional signs of stress, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and increasing feelings of relaxation and calm.
  • For menstrual symptoms: Two recent studies indicate that lavender aromatherapy can help reduce pain and other symptoms associated with menstruation. Uses and delivery vary, but many studies have used lavender aromatherapy for 30 minutes or more in a well-ventilated room.
  • For menopause symptoms: Women in menopause may find lavender helpful in addressing sleep difficulties and also anxiety and restlessness. Some research also indicates lavender aromatherapy may also improve hot flashes.
  • For blood pressure: Lavender’s quieting effects on the nervous system appear to be responsible for its ability to lower blood pressure and reduce heart rate. Research shows that aromatherapy with lavender — both on its own and blended with lemon and ylang ylang oils — may reduce blood pressure and heart rate, including in middle-aged women with insomnia.  
  • For pain: Lavender is a natural pain reliever (analgesic) and also a natural antibiotic. Studies show using lavender aromatherapy, in massage, and topically can be effective in improving several different forms of pain, including headaches, toothaches, ear pain, and osteoarthritis pain. Lavender oil is also used to treat pain and swelling of canker sores. Talk with your doctor about the right way to use lavender to treat a particular pain issue.
  • For cognitive health: There’s scientific evidence from studies in animals that indicates both lavender aromatherapy and oral lavender may offer protection to cognitive health and function, including memory. Scientists are studying the potential benefits of lavender aromatherapy to improve symptoms Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Among essential oils, lavender is relatively well studied as a therapy for sleep, anxiety, and other potential therapeutic uses. Still, we need to see more research into lavender’s effects and possible benefits in order to better understand how well lavender may work to improve sleep and mood, as well as its other benefits to health and treatment of illness and disease. As well as being used on their own, these oils are also found in products such as soaps, shampoos, and lotions.

Possible Side Effects of Lavender

Lavender is generally safe for healthy adults when added to food, and when taken as an oral supplement, applied to the skin, or used in aromatherapy.

Side effects of lavender include:

  • Constipation
  • Headache
  • Increased appetite
  • Skin irritation

The following people should take special precaution when considering using lavender:

  • Women who are pregnant and breast feeding: Women who are pregnant or breast feeding are advised not to use lavender, because there isn’t sufficient information establishing the safety of lavender for these women.
  • People having surgery: Lavender has a slowing effect on the central nervous system. If lavender is used along with anesthetic or other surgery-related medications, the combination may cause the nervous system to slow down too much. It’s recommended not to use lavender for two weeks before a scheduled surgery.
  • People with hormone-sensitive cancers: Lavender has been shown to affect the body’s hormones, specifically estrogen and testosterone. It’s not clear what affects lavender might have in people with hormone-sensitive cancers, and they are advised not to use lavender orally or topically.

Lavender Interactions

People who take these or any other medications and supplements should consult with a physician before beginning to use lavender as a supplement.

  • Anti-hypertensive drugs. Lavender may lower blood pressure. Using lavender in combination with drugs that treat high blood pressure may lower blood pressure too much.
  • Chloral hydrate. This medication causes sleepiness. Lavender may increase the effects of chloral hydrate, and result in excessive sleepiness.
  • Pentobarbital. This medication causes sleepiness. Lavender may increase the effects of pentobarbital and result in excessive sleepiness.
  • Sedative medications. Because lavender may cause sleepiness, excessive sleepiness may result when lavender is used with sedative medications including barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and central nervous system depressants such as zolpidem, lorazepam, phenobarbital, and clonazepam.

Because of lavender’s sedative effects, using it in combination with other herbs or supplements that promote sleep may lead to excessive sleepiness. Lavender may also lower blood pressure. Avoid using it in combination with supplements that treat high blood pressure.

It’s no coincidence we find the scent and essence of lavender in such a wide range of products. It’s a powerfully relaxing smell. As you can see, it’s potential therapeutic powers go well beyond relaxation, to helping ease pain, lift mood, and boost sleep.

About The Author

Dr. Michael Breus

Clinical Psychologist, Sleep Medicine Expert

Michael Breus, Ph.D is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. He holds a BA in Psychology from Skidmore College, and PhD in Clinical Psychology from The University of Georgia. Dr. Breus has been in private practice as a sleep doctor for nearly 25 years. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is also the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan, Good Night!, and Energize!

  • POSITION: Combination Sleeper
  • TEMPERATURE: Hot Sleeper

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