Lavender And Its Uses In Traditional Medicine

  • Asha MoalinMaster’s degree in Healthcare Technology, University of Birmingham

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Introduction

Lavender is a popular flowering garden plant that is aromatic, easy to grow, and an excellent pollinator.1 Lavender has small green leaves and tiny purple flowers that have been used in many products due to their sweet aromatic scent. 

Lavender has been used by humans for a very long time, as early as 2,500 years ago in Ancient Egypt where it was used in the mummification process.2 The plant arrived in the UK via the Romans and it was originally used for medicine to treat wounds caused in battle due to its antiseptic properties.2 The Romans had several uses for lavender, from repelling insects in their gardens, adding it to their dishes, and using it as a cleaning product.2 

Whilst lavender is native to the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East, it can be found in Asia, Russia, Australia and America depending on whether the growing conditions are suitable.2 Lavender grows best in moderate climates where the summer is temperate and the winter mild and dry as lavender is sensitive to humidity.2

Types of lavender

Lavender is a varied plant. There are more than 45 species of lavender with over 450 different varieties with more being discovered.3 The lavender plant belongs to the genus Lavandula and there are three lavender species that are the most common:4

  1. Lavandula angustifolia
  2. Lavandula stoechas 
  3. Lavandin 

Lavandula angustifolia, also known as the English lavender, is one of the most common lavenders grown in the UK. This plant is great at attracting bees and butterflies whilst also having a sweet fragrance.4 English lavender is easy to grow, low maintenance, and grows in a wide range of weather conditions.4

Lavandula stoechas is known as the French or Spanish lavender, which blooms in late spring.4 Lavandula stoechas is known for having a stronger fragrance than English lavender whilst still attracting wildlife, making it a great pollinator.4 This lavender is also edible and is used in dishes like salads and desserts. 

Lavandin is a hybrid plant between Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula latifolia. The hybrid plant produces more essential oils and is more fragrant than the natural plants. Hence,it is grown for commercial uses.4 

Key components of lavender

Lavender is a purple plant commonly grown in gardens. The main features of lavender include:

  • Narrow green leaves
  • Clusters of small flowers on long stems
  • Flowers of different shades of purple from lavender to violet 
  • Blooms in late spring and early summer depending on the variety of lavender
  • An evergreen plant5,6

Lavender consists of components that are important in providing lavender with its fragrant smell which has become the main reason for commercial use and consumption.6 Key chemical components of lavender include but are not limited to:

  • Linalool: terpene alcohol found in lavender essential oil and is responsible for the lavender scent
  • Perillyl alcohol: is extracted from lavender and perilla oil, and has a potential role in decreasing the growth of tumour cells
  • Linalyl acetate: an organic compound found in lavender that is responsible for its fruity fragrance. It also has sedative properties and is used in aromatherapy
  • Limonene: a hydrocarbon found in lavender
  • Tannin: polyphenols found in plants
  • Cineloe: aromatic compound 
  • Flavonoids: antioxidants found in plants 
  • Coumarin: benzo-alpha-pyrone compound responsible for lavenders’ fragrance 
  • Triterpene: terpene compound found in lavender and other plants6

Traditional medicinal uses

Lavender is not only appreciated for its pleasant fragrant and pretty flowers, but it is also used a lot in traditional medicine to treat a range of conditions, including insomnia, skin conditions, and stress.7 

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils to treat conditions. It works by the scents from the essential oils travelling to the brain through the olfactory nerves when the oils are breathed in. Dating back centuries, lavender has been used by aromatherapists to treat several conditions:

  • Headaches
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Tiredness
  • Sleep disorders

People have been sleeping with lavender in their pillows to improve sleep for years.7 Studies have shown lavender’s use in aromatherapy increases the sleep time of patients and found that individuals who inhaled lavender essential oil sleep better and deeper than those who do not.6 Lavender essential oil aromatherapy also reduces anxiety and stress in individuals.6 Lavender aromatherapy works by slowing down the nervous system making people more calm and relaxed to improve sleep.

Topological application

Lavender essential oils can be used on your skin and hair to treat skin conditions.7 It can be used for:

  1. Skin conditions such as acne, eczema, cuts, small wounds, and fungal infection. This is due to the antibiotic properties of lavender, which aids in healing7 
  2. Healing joint and muscle pain as lavender has some anti-inflammatory properties.7 This can be achieved by adding lavender essential oil to a warm bath
  3. Hair growth. When lavender oil is added to the scalp it can help hair to regrow more quickly. It can also help reduce dandruff and scalp itchiness7

Ingestible forms

Lavender essential oil should not be ingested and oral use of essential oil is not recommended. However, some lavender species and varieties can be included in cooking and teas. Lavender can be added to desserts and sauces to add a floral flavour or it can be drunk as a herbal tea.

Scientific basis 

Chemical composition

Lavender essential oil is high in linalool and linalyl acetate, followed by terpinen-4-ol, lavandulyl acetate, and lavandulol.8 It also has high levels of cineol and camphor.7 It is important to note that the chemical composition of the lavender essential oil will vary depending on many factors:

  • The species and variety of the plant - the genetic makeup of the plant will be the most important factor in determining the chemical composition of the lavender essential oil
  • The environment the plant was grown in
  • The region in the world it was grown in
  • When and how it was harvested
  • How it was processed post-harvesting8

Pharmacological studies

Lavender essential oil has been studied to understand the health benefits of lavender and how traditional medicine can be incorporated into pharmacology-based medicine. As discussed earlier, linalool is a major chemical compound found in lavender essential oils and studies have shown that it can suppress motor activity in the brain by binding to glutamate.6

Lavender is used as a hypnotic to calm people down and this study shows that lavender has anticonvulsant properties which has the potential to be used in antiseizure medicine.6 Cineol also has an inhibitory effect on muscle contraction, causing the muscle to relax which may have some pharmacological benefits. 

Lavender essential oils have antibiotic properties where a high concentration of lavender essential oil slows bacterial growth. It is also effective against yeasts and mould, which could have pharmacological potential in the future. 

Cultural significance

Lavender is an important plant that humans have cultivated, grown, and utilised for thousands of years and has important cultural significance. Lavender flowers have been used as symbols to represent purity, grace, and tranquillity. Additionally, the purple colour of lavender is the colour that royalty used to wear as a symbol of luxury and elegance.9 

Lavender is enjoyed worldwide and cultures use lavender for different things: 

  • Curandera uses lavender in childbirth and during infancy. They use lavender to calm and relax the mother during childbirth and lavender seeds are given to babies to soothe their gums and mouths. It is also used to clear out sick rooms10
  • In Mexico, lavender is used in teas to support digestion and soothe indigestion. Lavender is also used to purify rooms by bundling the lavender together10 
  • In Provence, France, lavender is farmed. It has attracted many artists, with Van Gogh painting many paintings of the lavender fields10

Harvesting and preparation

Growing lavender

  1. Lavender is planted in late spring (April and May), just as the soil begins to warm up. A good indicator to start growing lavender is when they become available in garden centres11 
  2. It can be grown in flower beds, hedges, herb gardens or containers11 
  3. Soil is important and the lavender will need fast-draining soil in a sunny environment.11 The best soil type is poor, dry fertile soil such as chalky and alkaline soils. This is instead of heavy clay soil as this can cause the plant to become water clogged11
  4. Planting lavender is easy and does not take too long. Remember to water the lavender after planting, especially during the dry summer periods and for the first season11

Harvesting

Harvesting can begin as soon as the plant begins to flower. The lavender can produce flowers early on, in the middle of the season and then a final bloom at the end.12 To get the most essential oil, harvesting is recommended in the morning since this is when the oil is concentrated at the buds of the plant.13 Steps to harvest include:

  1. Selecting the budding stem - where the purple buds (buds are before the flowers have opened fully) shoot above the leaves
  2. Snip the stem, just below the new growth
  3. Only take one-third of the plant when harvesting by limiting the cutting to the flowers and buds as the plant can still produce more buds and flowers later in the season
  4. Make sure you prune the leaves when winter begins12

Potential risks

As with all things, there can be a potential risk of lavender in traditional medicine that you will need to be aware of. Lavender is considered safe for use but there are some individuals who are allergic to lavender. This can lead to skin rashes, itching, and soreness. It is recommended to do a patch test to see if you are allergic. 

It is also important to use lavender safely and to consume it in moderation. Essential oils should not be consumed internally as they are very concentrated and can lead to toxicity. 

Summary 

Overall, lavender does have amazing properties that have been used in traditional medicine. With many beneficial molecules, it has uses in traditional medicine and can serve us if we choose to use it. Nonetheless, traditional medicine is not a replacement for doctors and if you are suffering from a medical condition, it is best to get medical help and advice before trying out traditional medicine. 

References

  1. Lavender [Internet]. [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: https://www.rhs.org.uk/plants/lavender 
  2. Lavender history – hitchin lavender [Internet]. [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: https://hitchinlavender.com/lavender-history/
  3. Lavender varieties [Internet]. [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: https://www.uslavender.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=73:lavender-varieties&catid=24:lavender-101&Itemid=138
  4. https://www.supersonicplayground.com. Hopes Grove Nurseries. [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Lavender species - types of lavender plant. Available from: https://www.hopesgrovenurseries.co.uk/knowledge-base/types-of-lavender-plant/
  5. Gardenuity. The lavender one sheet: everything you need to know about lavender [Internet]. THE SAGE. 2023 [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: https://blog.gardenuity.com/lavender-one-sheet/
  6. Batiha GES, Teibo JO, Wasef L, Shaheen HM, Akomolafe AP, Teibo TKA, et al. A review of the bioactive components and pharmacological properties of Lavandula species. Naunyn Schmiedebergs Arch Pharmacol. 2023 May;396(5):877–900.
  7. Lavender Information | Mount Sinai - New York. Mount Sinai Health System [Internet]. [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: https://lit-mshscld-p01.mshs.cloud.opentext.com:8080/health-library/herb/lavender.
  8. Pokajewicz K, Białoń M, Svydenko L, Fedin R, Hudz N. Chemical Composition of the Essential Oil of the New Cultivars of Lavandula angustifolia Mill. Bred in Ukraine. Molecules. 2021; 26(18):5681.
  9. Maffia N. Lavender Meaning & Symbolism. 1800Flowers Petal Talk [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: https://www.1800flowers.com/blog/flower-facts/all-about-lavender/.
  10. Lavender (Lavandula). UIC Heritage Garden [Internet]. [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: http://heritagegarden.uic.edu/lavender-lavandula.
  11. How to grow lavender / RHS Gardening [Internet]. [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: http://www.rhs.org.uk/plants/lavender/growing-guide.

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Asha Moalin

Master’s degree in Healthcare Technology, University of Birmingham

Asha is a recent graduate with a Master’s degree in Healthcare Technology from the University of Birmingham. With a passion for innovating medical therapies and technologies, Asha is dedicated to contributing advancements that allow patients to lead longer and healthier lives.

Her expertise includes both laboratory research and comprehensive literature reviews. Drawing on several years of academic writing, Asha enjoys translating complex data into accessible and informative articles.

She is committed to bridging the gap between scientific intricacies and public understanding. Beyond healthcare, Asha also possesses exposure to the business world. This is evident in her work experience at J.P Morgan chase and Turner & Townsend, where she explored finance, consultancy and sustainability. These experiences have equipped her with a diverse skill set and understanding of the connection between healthcare and business.

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