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Borrowing its common name from the Latin lavare, which means “to wash”, Lavender has been used since ancient times. Of the 25 or so species of lavender currently grown commercially, Lavandula officinalis is the one that herbalists consider to be “true” lavender.
The Greeks first used this small, branching perennial for insomnia, depression and anxiety and cultures around the Mediterranean quickly recognized the antimicrobial potential of lavender. Springs of lavender were hung near windows, over beds and tucked into the folds of clothing. Until World War I, lavender tinctures were also used on European battlefields as a wound disinfectant.
Lavender as Medicine
In the 16th-century, British herbalist John Gerard noted that lavender was an effective treatment for the symptoms of palsy and wrote about lavender extensively in his books. A half-century later, Nicholas Culpepper recommended lavender for “all the grief and pains of the head” and prescribed lavender distillate for patients struggling with voice problems. The 19th-century Eclectics, who were the grandfathers of what we now call naturopathy, prescribed lavender for digestive problems.
In modern times, lavender was found to increase the brain waves associated with relaxation, lending credibility to the millennia-old practice of using lavender as a sleep aid. Additionally, the German version of our FDA, Commission E, approved lavender as a treatment for anxiety and restlessness. But perhaps the most compelling study comes to us from England. Ninety patients in intensive care units were divided into three groups and given standard care, standard care and massage or standard care combined with both massage and lavender essential oil. The patients receiving massages with lavender essential oils reported an overall improvement in mood and relief from anxiety.
Lavender's Contribution to Aromatherapy
Undoubtedly, lavender's greatest use is in aromatherapy. In the 1920s, a French perfumer named Rene-Maurice Gattefosse was accidentally burned in a laboratory accident. In his panic, he plunged his badly burned arm into a vat of lavender oil and immediately experienced relief from his pain. As his burn began to heal, without the blistering and scarring typical of similar burns, Gattefosse came to believe that some chemical in the lavender oil was responsible for his near-miraculous healing and devoted the remaining years of his life to studying the potential healing benefits of aromatic botanical oils. In 1928 Gattefosse published his book Aromatherapie, coining the word that's now widely used to describe the study of volatile plant extracts used for medicinal purposes.
Lavender essential oil is generally considered safe for topical use but is toxic in large doses and should not be taken internally without close medical supervision. Large doses of other lavender preparations like teas and tinctures are generally considered safer but can still cause nausea, headache and vomiting. Lavender can also interact with alcohol, benzodiazepines and narcotic pain relievers.
Herbalists generally agree that lavender shouldn't be used internally during pregnancy or lactation. Of course, it's always a good idea to discuss any herbal medicines with your physician.
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