Why do so many humans love the scent of Lavender?
The allure of lavender is a world wide phenomenon that humans can’t get enough of her scent. This ubiquitous plant has us under her spell. Every aspect of lavender is there to entice and hypnotize.
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To visually experience lavender’s aromatic trance, would be like watching soft billowy clouds slowly drift across a tranquil blue sky. If you could hear lavender it would sound like peaceful water rippling over time smoothed pebbles. To experience lavenders’ caress would be like a feather, ever so slightly drifting across your skin. It is true that we cultivate lavender for mass farming, but I often wonder; who is the slave and who is the master? Has lavender cunningly tricked us into propagating her well into the future?
Every aspect of this marvelous plant is enticing and soothing. She is not a showy plant. Even her appearance is understated and serene. Her drab green petite leaves don’t beacon your attention. The small in stature bush produces tiny purple flowers stacked on each other like a stunted purple pine cone atop the end of a long slender stem. The bloom and stem induce a vision that resembles elongated delicate fingers motioning me over to take a deep conscious breath.
Lavender is the worlds greatest hypnotist. So what exactly is lavender doing to our brains?
Well then, we shall begin with history. The Egyptians were big fans of lavender. They used her in their cosmetics, anointing, and embalming formulations (Cache, 2021). The Greeks wrote about it in their medicinal books as early as 300BC (Cache, 2021). And the Romans regularly took lavender into battle campaigns with them (Cache, 2021). In fact lavender can be found in literature of medicinal use from the Middle Ages, to the Resistance, through the Victorian Age all the way up to modern history (Cache, 2021). So basically it has literally been used throughout our time as a record keeping species, and most likely well before that. Because of its wide acceptance across time and peoples, this would draw the conclusion that it is not a cultural phenomena and that there must be something physically happening inside all us humans universally as a species for so many of us to be drawn to it.
A Brief Science Behind Her Molecular Brain Hijacking
So enter the studies that show that she really does calm the brain.
My first piece of evidence is a study that proves her potent sedative potential. Researchers divided up test subjects into two groups and exposed them to stressful situations in a field test. One group was treated with lavender aroma therapy before and after the test, while the other was given a sedative-hypnotic medication, Librium. In this study, the effects of of lavender provided similar anti anxiety relief as seen in the Librium group (Shaw, 2007).
Another well documented study on lavenders’ sedating effects focuses on sleep. In this study, researchers took nursing home patients that were dependent on benzodiazepines for sleep. Several patients were removed from their sleeping medication and their sleep duration dramatically decreased. Next the researchers provided half of these sleep deprived patients with lavender aroma therapy throughout the night. The researchers noted that in the lavender aromatherapy group, they were able to restore the previous duration of sleep (when they were on benzodiazepines) in these patients without having to wait through the usual withdrawal period of that with the control group (Hardy, 1995). That means the withdrawal from the benzodiazepines was shorter and sleep ended up being just a good as when they were on the medication. Even more interesting, the group that received the lavender was more alert during the day (Hardy, 1995). There you have it; they got all the benefit of sleep without the groggy side effects the next day.
I could truly go over hundreds of studies that scientifically document the calming effects of lavender on sleep, anxiety, conflict, and even pain. Yet, don’t you want to know how lavender is working her magic on our brains? That is what I really wanted to know.
One really big variable in all of these studies that we need to take into consideration is the route of administration of the lavender. Many studies (and traditions) rely on oral ingestion of lavender for its results, while others use absorption through skin via massaging essential oils. These routes of administration are often used treat gestational problems or used for its neuroprotective properties (Koulivand, 2013). The two aforementioned routes of administration would provide results via different mechanisms of actions. Depending on how it is given needs to be taken into account when figuring out how it is working.
What I found most interesting, is that the bulk majority of the studies which focused on the aromatherapy of lavender often had the greatest statistical evidence of efficacy. This means, lavender really gets to work on the brain best when her teeny tiny volatile terpenes are inhaled, not ingested or absorbed.
How does lavender create such power with just her microscopic airborne chemistry?
Lavender is an ingenious plant, she seduces you by infiltrating your most powerful sense. Your sense of smell. Or otherwise known as the olfactory system.
It turns out this explanation took a really long time and took some really smart people to figure out. In fact, the process of this explanation produced Nobel Prize winners in the category of ‘Chemistry or Medicine’! (Wong, 2004). That is because the process by which our human brain inhales negligible floating chemicals up through the nose and then interfaces with the brain to produce a meaningful output is really, really, complicated.
Here is my quick oversimplification of how it works. At the top of your nose, sits billions of very specialized proteins. (G-protien coupled receptors - GPCR) These special proteins are covering millions of hair like nerves that are dangling though a portion of your skull known as the cribriform plate. The cribriform plate is like a small sieve allowing the entrance of the nerves from the brain and into the sinuses to directly communicate with the portion of the brain called the olfactory bulb. But, first, let us get back to these proteins that are covering the dangling nerves like sand on a baby. It turns out that these proteins attract and trap volatile (floating) aerobatic molecules, such as terpenes. Then this is where it really gets interesting. These proteins take the chemical they just trapped and make a ‘code’ for it. They literally convert the physical chemical into a unique electrical signal. This is how nerves communicate with one another, through electrical impulses. Just like a computer microprocessor, these special GPCR proteins are instantaneously creating an electrical signal that corresponds to that specific chemical that they have trapped. GPCR proteins are translators to the nerves, now the nerves can understand and communicate through electricity to the brain about how a molecule smells. Amazing!
To understand why lavender is such a potent aromatherapy agent is to look at its volatile chemicals. Lavender is 51% Linalyl Acetate and 35% Linalool (Koulivand, 2013). These are both terpenes that travel though the air and would get trapped in our GPCR proteins. Linalool is the real secrete agent in lavender. It turns out that Linalool is a supercharging chemical in our brains, and when the signal is transmitted to the olfactory bulb, the brain is jolted into action. The GPCR proteins not only encode Linalool’s signature, but it seems to really fire them up and amplify the electrical signals the nerves receive and fire away to the olfactory bulb with zest. The olfactory bulb is located right in the middle of our brain, very close to some important brain structures that are responsible for emotion, stress, pain, and most importantly, memory. This effect was proven by using fMRI brain scanning. Studies were conducted on persons inhaling lavender, the scans captured a significant activation of the hippocampus parahippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, orbitofrontal cortex, insular cortex and extended into the inferior lateral frontal region of the brain (Koulivand, 2013). These regions are known to play a huge role in emotion, pain perception and decision making. Other studies that measured EEG brain waves of persons experiencing anxiety and then undergoing 3 minutes of lavender aromatherapy showed patients increased in their theta and alpha Hz measurements, this was consistent in the patterns observed when baseline patients reported to be ‘very comfortable’ (Koulivand, 2013). Further studies suggest that the inhibitory tone of the nervous system from lavenders chemical stimulation is because it causes a significant increase in GABAergic neurotransmission, which increases the performance of the cholinergic system. This increased performance would affect lavenders role in anti-anxiety, anti-depression, and anti-convulsant properties (Koulivand, 2013). So there you have it, lavender keeps us under her spell because she is so good at stimulating our brains and that keep us coming back for more.
As a scientist I love learning about how lavender is hypnotizing humans with her powerful scent. As a skin care formulator, what I really want to know is what does it do for the skin?
Taking a look at lavenders two most dominate terpenes, Linalyl Acetate, and Linalool, we find the these molecules bind to several receptors in our skin structure to produce super charging results just like in our brains. While it is true that Linalyl Acetate and Linalool both readily absorb into our blood stream through our skin, many molecules do stick around and interact with our skin cells, especially if they are formulated into creams, lotions, and ointments aimed to not penetrate to the deeper levels of the skin.
As far as benefits to skin care are concerned, lavender is largely anti-inflammatory as well as a speedy wound healer. Remember I mentioned earlier that the Romans took lavender on battle campaigns with them? I don’t think it was because they wanted to relax or smell good, it was probably because they already have discovered that it speeds up the time of wound healing, and therefore making it easier to get back into battle.
Lavender promotes wound healing through stimulating transforming growth factor (TGF-Beta) cells that increase granulation and wound contraction (Mori, 2016). Topical application of lavender induced expression of type I and III collagen at day 4 after topical application, and increased number of fibroblasts (Mori, 2016). We know that fibroblasts are the first step in laying down new rows of collagen needed for the scaffolding that skin cells move into and close the wound. Wound healing though accelerated cellular differentiation and formation of granulation tissue is speed up under the presence of lavender (Mori, 2016). This means that lavender is helping build your skins support structure much faster than you can alone, and this is explains why Roman worriers would go off to war with bushels of lavender.
As far as lavenders anti-inflammatory effects, those are facilitated through it depressing effects on prostanoids, pro-inflammatory cytokines, nitric oxide, and histamine (Cardia, 2018). While inflammation is a critical part of wound healing, it can often slow the body’s ability to repair skin if it gets overzealous. Lavender appears to keep that in check. Of course, when using it for non-wound healing inflamed skin, lavender is a wonderful natural ingredient that can help us ‘reset’ the inflammatory response occurring at a particular location. Now you can see why lavender is often used with great success in people with rosacea, acne, and eczema.
I need you to take a second and pause here, because the next part is very crucial.
It it essential to point out something very important about topical lavender. Just like a great glass of wine, or a fabulous dessert, too much of a good thing can have bad results. Linalyl Acetate and Linalool are toxic to skin cells if they are used in a high concentration (Brasher, 2004). This is often misinterpreted as an allergic reaction to lavender, when in reality the product formulation was not done correctly. Additionally, many untrained people often recommend applying Lavender essential oils directly to the skin without dilution that other essential oils receive. This too is can be a cause of irritation because if that particular essential oil is good quality, it will have Linalyl Acetate and Linalool in concentrations too great for the skin to handle. Also, your skin will develop a sensitization to lavender if you keep applying high concentrated doses. This creates an immune response that is likely to develop and get worse with each application. The key is be weary of lavender in ‘everything’ .. lotions, soaps, shampoos. If the formulator is just dumping in vast amounts of lavender without paying attention to the final concentration, they could be producing an irritating product and one that you can develop an allergy to. One thing to check for is they type of lavender they are using. It could be lavender extract which is the most mild. If they are using essential oils, that is more concentrated. Because of lavenders’ potency, it should be one of the least concentrated ingredients in a formula, ie. Listed near the end of the ingredient list. If you have a lavender product that is irritating you, chances are there is too much lavender in there, not that you are allergic to lavender.
This is one reason why I like to formulate with isolated terpenes. As with the scenario of lavender and my desire to harness her power of 'redness reducer’ without running the risk of irritation, I did a lot of research to find out the best concentration is less than 0.25% Linalool, or the product could make the inflammation worse! Therefore, I make sure to say below that in my topical recipes. By using isolated Linalool terpenes, I can harness the anti-inflammatory effects of lavender and expertly control the concentration of Linalool to take advantage of her skin calming effects.
So there you have it. I hope you never look at the humble little lavender bush that same way again. See though her drab exterior for the hypnotist and powerful healer that she is.
Written by: Dr. Chantelle Davidson, Pharm.D
Aug 1st, 2020
Learn more about Chantelle in her Author Bio.
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