Lavender bath bombs; lavender candles; deodorizing lavender sachets for your shoes, car or underwear drawer; lavender diffusers; lavender essential oils; even lavender chill pills for humans and dogs, and a search on Pinterest will deliver 370 recipes for lavender desserts.
Take a deep breath. Release.
People like lavender. We’ve been using this violet-capped herb since at least medieval times. It smells nice. But Google “lavender” and results hint at perhaps the real fuel for our obsession: “tranquillity,” “calm,” “relaxation,” “soothing,” and “serenity.” Lavender has purported healing powers for reducing stress and anxiety. But are these effects more than just folk medicine?
Yes, said Hideki Kashiwadani, a physiologist and neuroscientist at Kagoshima University in Japan — at least in mice.
“Many people take the effects of ‘odour’ with a grain of salt,” he said in an email. “But among the stories, some are true based on science.”
In a study published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, he and his colleagues found that sniffing linalool, an alcohol component of lavender odour, was kind of like popping a Valium. It worked on the same parts of a mouse’s brain, but without all the dizzying side effects. And it didn’t target parts of the brain directly from the bloodstream, as was thought. Relief from anxiety could be triggered just by inhaling through a healthy nose.
Their findings add to a growing body of research demonstrating anxiety-reducing qualities of lavender odors and suggest a new mechanism for how they work in the body. Dr. Kashiwadani believes this new insight is a key step in developing lavender-derived compounds like linalool for clinical use in humans.
Dr. Kashiwadani and his colleagues became interested in learning how linalool might work for anti-anxiety while testing its effects on pain relief in mice. In this earlier study, they noticed that the presence of linalool seemed to calm mice.
In this study, they exposed mice to linalool vapor, wafting from filter paper inside a specially made chamber to see if the odor triggered relaxation. Mice on linalool were more open to exploring, indicating they were less anxious than normal mice. And they didn’t behave like they were drunk, as mice on benzodiazepines, a drug used to treat anxiety, or injected with linalool did
But the linalool didn’t work when they blocked the mice’s ability to smell, or when they gave the mice a drug that blocks certain receptors in the brain. This suggested that to work, linalool tickled odour-sensitive neurons in the nose that send signals to just the right spots in the brain — the same ones triggered by Valium.
Though he hasn’t tested it in humans, Dr. Kashiwadani suspects that linalool may also work on the brains of humans and other mammals, which have similar emotional circuitry. This matters, because anxiety disorders affect nearly a fifth of all adults in the United States, and a lot of the drugs used to treat them come with side effects, sometimes less tolerable than the anxiety itself. Who wouldn’t prefer to simply take a whiff of lavender and feel at peace with no impairment?
Of course, we are far from this, said Dr. Kashiwadani. Linalool is also just one part of lavender scent, like cumin is one part of curry. It’s also unclear how linalool would work in humans. For example, what’s the dose? And how would you take it?
Until then, don’t go crazy with the lavender, folks. Dr. Kashiwadani said that with continuous exposure, the olfactory system gets used to the odor and responds less. Permeating your room with purple peace potion, unfortunately, may not displace your anxieties forever.