The Science Behind How Lavender Oil Helps Promote Calm & Relaxation*
Many people already turn to lavender before bed, but this beloved botanical has its daytime perks too.* Most notably, it shows a lot of promise in the stress department thanks to its parade of unique plant compounds.* Today, we're sniffing out some of the research on those.
The sweet history and fascinating biology of lavender oil.
Whenever you take a whiff of lavender, you're connecting to a long and ongoing history. The plant is thought to be named after washerwomen, or "lavenders" in Middle English because one of its first uses was as a scent for laundry. (And still today, it's a popular fragrance for detergents and cleaning products.) Renaissance royalty also supposedly added the plant to their tubs to bathe in the pleasant aroma (again, still a thing—and not just among royals).
Medieval doctors also used the plant as a botanical approach to help with headaches1, while De materia medica, one of the first known texts on herbal medicine, described it as a chest soother.
With such a storied past, it's no wonder that lavender is one of today's most-studied essential oils. Scientists have pegged many of its therapeutic properties to its high terpene count.* Terpenes are aromatic phytonutrient compounds that give plants, herbs, and trees their signature scent.
In the wild, terpenes help organisms survive and reproduce: Plants use them as defense mechanisms2, flowers churn them out to attract pollinators3, and trees even emit them to warn each other of incoming threats4. Everything down to microscopic bacteria and fungi seems to interact using fragrant terpenes, leading researchers at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology to dub them the world's most widespread communication medium.
And while we aren't always aware of it, these compounds are constantly communicating with us, too. "Even though terpenes come from trees, mushrooms, and herbs that are communicating with one another, our immune system can also decode them," forest medicine researcher Clemens G. Arvay, MSc, previously wrote on mbg. "Like other plants, we respond to terpenes by strengthening our body's defenses."*
Some of the main terpenes in lavender oil are linalool, linalyl acetate, cineol, and camphor. When the plant is distilled for human use, these fragrant active compounds are preserved. They're what gives a vial of lavender essential oil its nose-thrilling kick and therapeutic qualities—which we're learning more about by the day.*
The research on lavender for stress and relaxation.*
While many terpenes have antimicrobial and antifungal properties, lavender's seem to be especially beneficial for the nervous system.* Clinical research shows that they provide mood-stabilizing and calming effects.*
Ali Gorji, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of neurophysiology at the University of Münster in Germany, tells mbg that lavender's linalool has been shown to inhibit excitability in the brain through direct interactions with receptors like NMDA (associated with learning and memory) and GABAA (promotes calm and balance throughout the body).*
"Lavender oil is also suggested to modulate GABAergic neurotransmission, especially on GABAA receptors, and enhance the inhibitory tone of the nervous system," Gorji explains, meaning it may help the body stay even-keeled in the face of outside stressors and pressures.* Lavender oil may also have a helpful anti-inflammatory effect on the central nervous system, he adds.*
As Gorji and others noted in their 2013 literature review on lavender and the nervous system5, there's still more high-quality research that needs to be done before we fully grasp the therapeutic potential of this lovely plant. But we're getting there. A recent study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine6 found lavender to be a useful strategy for stress relief in a small cohort of nine people, and a separate neuroimaging study7 supports that its calming, anxiousness-reducing benefits come from the way it interacts with key brain receptors.* In light of this, some physicians are now experimenting with giving patients a smell of aromatic essential oils like lavender to help them relax while they sit in waiting rooms.*
And while smelling lavender is a way to reap these calming benefits quickly, since aromatherapy goes straight to the brain, recent research8 shows that consuming it orally (in a high-quality supplement form, never straight from the vial) has longer-term effects on inducing relaxation.* That's why mbg opted to include GMO-free, linalool-rich lavender oil in our newly renovated calm+ supplement, which you can learn more about here.*
The bottom line.
Lavender has a captivating history, and a bright future, too. As more research continues to come out on its potential for easing stress, we bet you'll be seeing—and smelling—a lot more of it.*
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.