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October 5, 2009
Growing up, one may have been given lavender baths, lathered with lavender lotion, or even seen a parent spray lavender room spray before bedtime. There are lavender candles, teas, oils, potpourris, body washes, lotions, and perfumes. The list does not stop there. Nearly any product that can be made to have a scent seems to have a lavender option. A popular scent among many people, lavender is often associated with relaxation. Many products advertise that lavender, aside from being a pleasing aroma, has the added benefit of calming or inducing sleep. Does lavender actually calm the senses? Can lavender be used as a sleep aid? Can lavender be used to treat insomnia?
Background: What is lavender?
Most simply, lavender is a flowering plant that grows natively in the Mediterranean, but can now be found to flourish in sunny climates all over the United States, Australia, and Europe. It is a shrub with a woody stalk and small budding flowers that range in colors from light blues to purple. The well-known fragrance is found in the oils of the flowers on the plant. Even a sprig of lavender straight from the earth will have a distinct scent, but when used in products the essential oils of the petals are extracted. The lavender plant is considered to be an herb used in complementary and alternative medicine with a history dating back to embalmment and mummification processes used by the Egyptians.
Background: What can lavender be used to treat?
The essential oils of lavender have been reported to be beneficial in treating many conditions. A quick search of the internet yields suggestions for using lavender to treat everything from skin care to conjunctivitis to weight loss, but there are other ailments for which there have been significant results when using lavender. Some of these conditions include hair loss, anxiety, postoperative pain, depression, and insomnia. Additionally, lavender has been used in the past as an antibacterial product and an antiviral agent. For the purposes of this research, the topic is narrowed to only investigate using lavender as a sleep aid, specifically, using lavender essential oils to remedy insomnia. Uncontrolled and largely anecdotal evidence can be found easily to support the effectiveness of herbal remedies such as this. However, the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate herbal supplements, so clinical trials are not required before allowing companies to market products. While this makes it harder to come to a final conclusion about the usefulness of lavender, there are other groups of scientists and researchers who have completed studies documenting the effect of lavender.
Background: What is insomnia?
Choosing to focus primarily on the effects of lavender on sleep, it is important to understand the definition of insomnia in the context of normal sleep habits. According to the Mayo Clinic, insomnia is one of the most commonly reported medical complaints that doctors receive. It has been speculated that more than one-third of adults will suffer from insomnia in their lifetimes. To start, insomnia is considered a “disorder,” and a “disorder” is a physical condition in which there is a disturbance of normal functioning. The diagnostic criteria that has been set forth for insomnia includes “(1) difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or nonrestorative sleep; (2) this difficulty is present despite adequate opportunity and circumstance to sleep; (3) this impairment in sleep is associated with daytime impairment or distress; and (4) this sleep difficulty occurs at least 3 times per week and has been a problem for at least 1 month” (Roth). Confusion arises because each individual requires a different amount of sleep to function normally and remain healthy, but when the difficulty sleeping manifests itself in the aforementioned ways the actual total number of hours of sleep is not a determining factor. Another complication of trying to clearly define and distinguish insomnia lies in the fact that this disorder most often stems from some other problem or existing condition. Some of the pre-existing conditions include stress, anxiety, depression, and learned insomnia (repeatedly trying too hard to fall asleep). Other problems that can cause insomnia include medications, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and over-eating. Finally, insomnia can be a result of changes made to the sleep environment or sleep schedule. In most of these scenarios, the insomnia could be lessened or treated by alleviating the existing problem but there are many instances when this is not a viable option. For example, there are many different routes that could be taken to treat anxiety but treating the insomnia in the mean time would be most beneficial to overall health. Furthermore, insomnia carries a long list of complications that impact well-being. Complications include lower performance in the workplace or at school, decreased immune system function, slowed reaction time, and increased prevalence of psychiatric problems. While age, gender, and mental health are all risk factors for insomnia, nearly all populations worldwide can be susceptible to the disorder.
Standard treatments for insomnia
With the large number of people suffering from insomnia, there are recommendations made by medical physicians for treating the disorder. Outside of addressing and treating the underlying causes of insomnia, there are two primary treatment methods suggested by experts. The first option is to consider behavioral sleep therapies in which new sleep behaviors and changes to the sleep environment are implemented. Therapies can be as simple as education about good sleep and learning relaxation techniques to perform before bedtime. Others include more hands-on techniques such as cognitive therapy and stimulus control through counseling. Finally, there are more extreme therapies such as sleep restriction, which causes partial sleep deprivation in order to reset the body’s sleep schedule. The second option for insomniacs lies in medication. There are both over the counter and prescription medications. The over the counter medications are mainly antihistamines that induce drowsiness, but these can reduce the quality of sleep and have daytime side effects. The prescription medications are reliable and stronger, but they are generally not recommended for long-term use. While all of these treatments may work for insomnia, many people seek alternative medicine.
Alternative treatments for insomnia
There are many alternative suggestions for alleviating insomnia. The alternative methods are considered more natural and are generally less expensive. Some of the most common are melatonin, valerian, Vitamin B6, calcium, and magnesium supplements. However, there is also a trend in using aromatherapy to treat insomnia. Using lavender, specifically as aromatherapy, is considered an alternative or holistic approach.
How to use lavender as a sleep aid
Unlike many other herbs, lavender is most often used as a form of aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils and aromatic compounds inhaled to affect a person’s mood or health. In explanation, when used to induce calming effects, the lavender aroma should be inhaled. The recommended way of doing this is to dilute 2 to 4 drops of the essential oil in 2 to 3 cups of boiling water. The vapors from the boiling water should then be inhaled (done by wafting the vapor, not directly inhaling steam). Breathing in the vapors have been cited to help with relaxation which then in turn, could provide evidence for treating insomnia.
In addition to using the lavender as an aromatic, many use lavender internally by taking it in the form of tea. This can be done by taking 1 to 2 teaspoons of the lavender leaves, steeping them in one cup of boiling water for 15 minutes, and then ingesting the tea after it has cooled. Finally, lavender can be used as a tincture. A tincture is an alcohol-based derivative of a natural plant material. The mixture should be at approximately a 1:5 ratio. When using lavender in this form, one should use 40 to 60 drops per day.
Despite the fact that many people will testify that lavender relaxes them, there are not overwhelming amounts of research involving using lavender as a sleep aid. Furthermore, when studied to specifically treat insomnia, the results are inconclusive in most studies. The National Institute of Health gives lavender a grade of “C” for its use in sleep aid. This grade means that the NIH has found “unclear scientific evidence for this use”. On the matter, the NIH states, “Lavender aromatherapy is often promoted as a sleep aid. Although early evidence suggests possible benefits, more research is needed before a firm conclusion can be drawn.”
Although there are no studies that could be located to conclusively verify that lavender is an effectual mode of treatment for insomnia, there are major published studies that have found that the effects are beneficial enough to be tried as an alternative therapy. Before taking a look at the scientific studies performed, it is important to recognize the major drawback in testing lavender (and aromatherapy in general) in a controlled clinical setting. Ideally, participants in clinical studies should not know whether they are receiving a placebo or an intended treatment. However, “when aromas are used, particularly recognizable ones such as lavender, it is not possible for participants to be ‘blinded’ to the smell of the active therapy.” Even when using various aromas to test which scent is most effective, when the aroma is recognized, some of the scientific authenticity may be lost.
One study that can be used to support trying lavender as a treatment for insomnia involved exploring the effects of the lavender fragrance on insomnia and depression in female college students. As previously mentioned, insomnia is closely related to and usually stems from an underlying problem such as depression. Thus, this study did not separate the two medical complaints and focused on whether there were dual effects of the lavender fragrance. Forty-two females who complained of insomnia were studied over a four-week time period comparing weeks of no fragrance to weeks of lavender fragrance treatment (Lee, Lee 2006). The number of participants involved was low when compared to many other drug or treatment trials, but otherwise the study was peer-reviewed and found credible enough to be included in a scientific journal. The results found the lavender to be a suitable treatment, stating, “Among sleep variables, length of time taken to fall asleep, severity of insomnia, and self satisfaction with sleep were improved,” but also stated that more trials would need to be done to confirm the effective proportions and doses of lavender to yield the best results (Lee, Lee 2006).
A different study performed in the UK also tested lavender aromatherapy as a possible treatment for insomnia, but this time only insomnia was examined (not an additional problem like depression). Another key difference in this trial was that a placebo was used in the form of sweet-almond oil. This addition makes it easier to conclude that lavender was the cause of increased sleep and not just aromatherapy or a pleasant aroma inducing sleep. The study was comprised of 5 male and 5 female volunteers who had defined insomnia and all participants reported better sleeping with lavender aromatherapy using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (Lewith, Godfrey, Prescott 2005). Once again, however, while the results support the effectiveness of lavender, the authors state “a larger trial is required to draw definitive conclusions” (Lewith, Godfrey, Prescott 2005). The study had too few participants to gain the authority required to attract others from the scientific community to substantiate the effectiveness of lavender.
From a scientific perspective, lavender has not been conclusively proved to remedy insomnia. This is primarily due to the lack of research that has been dedicated to using aromatherapy as an alternative treatment. It is likely that as evidence builds, it will gain a greater following. Additionally, there is a current trend for people to seek more natural remedies to ailments, so a greater interest in lavender might be taken. Despite the fact that none of the research yielded a firm commitment to the effectiveness of lavender, there is scientific evidence to show that it is can be an acceptable alternative for those that wish to try a natural sleep aid. Aside from allergies, there are no serious side-effects from using lavender aromatherapy, so it can be concluded that it is something to be tried. Lavender is not a cure for insomnia, but it proves to have sedative properties that could provide many people with the effect necessary to fall asleep more easily.
Lee IS, Lee GJ. [Effects of lavender aromatherapy on insomnia and depression in women college students] Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 2006;36(1):136-43
Lewith GT, Godfrey AD, Prescott P. A single-blinded, randomized pilot study evaluating the aroma of Lavandula augustifolia as a treatment for mild insomnia. J Altern Complement Med 2005 Aug;11(4):631-7.
Roth T. Insomnia: definition, prevalence, etiology, and consequences. J Clin Sleep Med. 2007:S7–10
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