The soothing effects of lavender

Lavendula angustifolia is an important ingredient in the griffin+row Nourish and Enrich antioxidant night cream. Just in case you think its inclusion in these formulations is because of its lovely fragrance, think again….there’s more to this amazing herb than meets the nose! So let’s embark on a short trip that describes lavender and its uses down the ages – from 2500 BC till date.

Introducing Lavendula angustifolia

Lavendula angustifolia is commonly called English lavender simply because of its popular use in that country. The name ‘lavender’ is thought to be derived from old French (in turn derived from Latin) ‘lavendre’ meaning “to wash” 1. Since lavender was used in bath water and to perfume clothes, the Linnaeus classification describes this genus as Lavendula. The “angustifolia” refers to the spiky leaves of the plant. There are 30-odd species of the genus Lavendula, the most popular being Lavendula angustifolia, L. latifolia (spike lavender) and L.intermedia (a hybrid of the other two) 2.

The plant is indigenous to the Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East. Today, lavender is grown in various countries across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North and South America and India. Bulgaria is the leading exporter of lavender oil.

Traditional uses of Lavendula angustifolia

Medicinal uses:

Lavender has a long history of use, both for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. The most ancient use of lavender appears to be in Egypt, where it may have been used for embalming. Lavender containing unguents have been found in jars buried with members of the royal families or priests.

The ancient Greeks referred to lavender as Naardus, after the city Naarda (thought to be in the vicinity of the Fertile Crescent in Iraq). Many scholars acknowledge that the “Nard” used in the Holy Essence mentioned in the Talmud and the biblical “Spikenard” refers to the local species of lavender 3.

The earliest record of use of lavender comes from Greece with its mention as a perfume by the physician Theophrastus. Later, Pliny the Elder recommended the herb for menstrual problems and the grief-stricken. However, it was only Dioscorides- the Greek physician to Emperor Nero of Rome – who described the medicinal uses of lavender in his classic treatise de Materia Medica (circa 77 AD). It was noted that when taken internally, infusions of lavender can relieve indigestion, headaches and sore throats. Infusions were also used to clean wounds and in the treatment of skin ailments 3 4.

Not surprisingly, the Romans used lavender for its antiseptic qualities and to perfume their baths, beds, clothes and hair. Additionally, it was used to treat digestive ailments, kidney and liver disorders.

As the wonder of lavender moved from the Mediterranean to the north, Abbess Hildegarde in 11th century Germany described its use for de-lousing, pulmonary congestion and afflictions of a nervous nature. In fact, the use of lavender oil became so effective, that in the 1870s blotting paper soaked in lavender oil was applied to children’s heads to rid them of lice 5.

In Elizabethan England, the Queen herself used lavender tea to ease the discomfort of her migraines. Several English apothecaries- notably Nicholas Culpepper- advised the use of lavender oil for headaches, apoplexy, epilepsy and colds.

As the middle ages gave rise to the Renaissance, the medicinal value of lavender was noted once again. Glove makers who perfumed their wares with the herb appeared to be immune to the cholera epidemic in France. Subsequently, lavender demand rose to an all-time high during the Great Plague in 1665 5.

Lavender became the perfume for English ladies of repute in Victorian England. The Queen encouraged lavender cultivation and its use in washing clothes and even floors! Lavender was sold in every market, its use symbolising cleanliness and purity. Lavender oil was used as a disinfectant in hospitals during World War I and even found a place in the London pharmacopoeia in the 1930s.

With the chemical synthesis of drugs in the early 1900s and the discovery of antibiotics a couple of decades later, the medicinal use of herbs and natural products began to wane. Lavender then got a fresh lease of life when Rene Gattefosse –one of the founders of aromatherapy- serendipitously re-discovered the healing properties of the oil on his badly burned hand 6.

It is amply evident that lavender infusions have been used from centuries to soothe insect bites, sunburn, small cuts, burns, allergies and even acne. Especially prescribed for nervous disorders, the herb has a calming effect on agitated individuals.

These days, lavender essential oil is used in massage therapy as a relaxant. It is also used extensively in lotions and bath oils to promote de-stressing. Handmade soaps can have both the oil and the petals of the flower incorporated in them.

Disinfectant uses:

Dried lavender flowers are an essential component of potpourri sachets. Like cedar chips, they are moth-repellent and keep clothes smelling fresh.

Culinary uses:

Used in Mediterranean cooking, dried lavender is one of the ingredients of a mix of herbs called herbs de Provence. It imparts a slightly sweet and floral flavour to dishes ranging from soups and salads to cheeses, desserts, confectionary and baked items.

Ecological uses:

Despite its high terpene content, the lavender plant has been found to have low flammability and recommended to be grown within the protection areas in buildings 7. Lavender is also grown on hillsides to prevent soil erosion since it has a deep tap root system 2.

Bioactivity and associated components of the plant

As with all essential oils, lavender oil contains more than one hundred compounds. The composition of the essential oil may vary from species to species. However, the predominant compounds are monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes and their esters 8 (see glossary below).

The active components are linalool (>35 %) and linalyl acetate (>32.3%). Eucalyptol and camphor are present in smaller amounts. The detailed composition of detectable compounds is given below-

Monoterpenols: Linalool, terpeneol, borneol, iso-borneol, nerol and lavenduol.

Monoterpene esters: Linalyl acetate, lavanduyl acetate, neryl acetate, geranyl acetate and octane 3-yl acetate.

Monoterpenes: Myrcene, pinene, ocimene, camphene and phellandrene.

Terpenoid oxides: Eucalyptol.

Sesquiterpenes: β-caryophyllene, β- Farnesene, Germacrene, α- Humulene.

Ketones: Camphor.

Linalool and linalyl acetate: a spotlight on the main bioactive components

  • Linalool is a terpene alcohol.

This compound has been found to bind to the serotonin receptor and bring about the sedative and mood elevation effects of lavender oil. It also has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial activity.

  • Linalyl acetate is a terpenyl ester.

Linalyl acetate is hydrolysed to linalool by enzymatic action in the skin or the gastrointestinal tract. It therefore has the same mode of action as linalool.

Both linalool and linalyl acetate are certified as non-toxic, hypoallergenic, non-irritating, non-phototoxic and non-sensitising even when used at a concentration of 20%. A safe limit of 0.3mg/kg/day for both compounds is recommended for use in cosmetics and medicines 9.

General health benefits and uses of lavender oil:

Steam distillation of the flowers yields a clear and highly aromatic oil. The fragrance of lavender is attributed to the volatile compounds contained in this essential oil. In the last few decades, the systematic study of lavender oil has shed some light on the effect of its components on the human body.

Lavender oil can be applied topically, inhaled or ingested. Topically applied oil is absorbed easily into the skin and its primary components – linalool and linalyl acetate- can be detected in the blood stream within 5 minutes. It is also rapidly cleared form the blood within 90 minutes 10.

The oil contains a sufficiently high percentage of volatile substances which when inhaled, can bring about the same calming effect as topical application.

Pharmacological uses of lavender oil:

  • Anti-oxidant and anti-ageing activity: A metabolic intermediate of lavender oil has been shown to have the ability of free radical quenching 11. Free radicals cause peroxidation of lipids leading to cellular damage which is a major cause of premature aging.
  • Wound healing: Lavender oil has been used to reduce scarring and speed up healing in episiotomies performed during childbirth 12.
  • Antimicrobial effects: Lavender oil has been shown to have a bactericidal action against the tubercle bacillus as well as methicillin- resistant Staphylococcus aureus and vancomycin- resistant enterococcus bacilli. Linalool has been shown to be effective against the yeast Candida albicans 13 and Trichophyton rubrum 14.
  • Tranquilising effects: Research has shown that lavender oil has a direct effect on the central nervous system 15. Results of these studies are so convincing that in Germany, a patented form of encapsulated steam-distilled lavender oil called Silexan is available as a drug 16. Silexan appears to have the same mode of action as tranquilisers such as benzodiazepines, the drugs of choice prescribed for anxiety- related disorders. Briefly, these drugs inhibit serotonin re-uptake by blocking the serotonin receptor. This brings down the excitation of neurons leading to a more restful state. Silexan has been found to have the same effect, without the resultant addiction to the drug 17.
  • Analgesic: Lavender oil may have analgesic effects due to the presence of camphor and eucalyptol 18.
  • Anti-cancer activity: Experimental evidence in laboratory animals and cell cultures has shown a possible anti-tumour activity of linalool which gets converted to perillyl alcohol and dihydro-perillyl alcohol in the liver 19.
  • Sedative effects: Aromatherapy using lavender essential oil has shown an increase in deep (slow wave) and light sleep in healthy man and women. This was accompanied by a decrease in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Sucking on lozenges containing lemon balm, hops, beta-glucan and lavender oil showed changes in brain activity towards a relaxed and attentive state 20.
  • Use in the cosmetic industry

    The best quality oils contain 50% esters and are used in the perfumery industry to make high-grade perfumes. Second quality oil that contains 38-42% esters is used in lavender water -an alcoholic mixture of the oil- which has been in use as an eau de toilette in England. Low grade oil contains 30-35 % esters and is used in soap making and talcum powder 2.

    Botany and grow it yourself

    Lavendula is a genus of perennial aromatic herbs. The shrubs belong to the Lamiaceae family which has several species. Of these Lavendula angustifolia, Lavendula latifolia and Lavendula intermedia are the most common species. Lavendula angustifolia is called true lavender and is the most important source of essential oil for the perfumery industry.

    Lavender is a shrub that grows up to a height of 1m. The woody stems are quadrangular and grey in colour. The long and narrow lanceolate leaves appear downy and are greyish- green in colour. While the opposing leaves line the stem, the inflorescence (flowers) bloom at the tips of the slender stems. The tubular flowers have 2-3 lobes with mauve to violet shade. Flowers are usually plucked when they acquire a greyish-blue tinge. The highest concentration of oil is found in the flowers and the downy hairs on the leaves/stem.

    Lavender grows best in well-drained, neutral to alkaline soil. The Mediterranean type of climate with wet winters and dry summers allows it to grow perennially. In other climates, lavender may grow and flower, but the shrub is short-lived 2.

    The shrub can be grown from seedlings or by vegetative propagation from 10-12 inch shoots with the vegetative tops intact. Well-drained calcareous soil is required for healthy growth. Gravel and sand must be used liberally to ensure that there is no stagnation of water. Frequent irrigation during the dry periods and moderate use of fertiliser is recommended. The plants take almost 3 years to flower to the maximum extent. Potted lavender needs depth since the roots reach well beyond twelve inches below the surface.

    Glossary

    Terpene: A class of volatile aromatic compound characterised by the presence of two isoprene units (4-carbon units with alternating double bonds). Pinene (from pine), myrcene (from hops), limonene (from citrus fruits) and linalool (from lavender) are monoterpenes. α-Humulene and β-caryophyllene contain 3 isoprene units and are called sesquiterpenes.

    Terpenoid esters: When terpenes react with a weak acid such as acetic acid, terpenoid esters are formed. Linalyl acetate is a terpenoid ester.

    Terpenoid oxides: These compounds have the terpene backbone and an ether linkage. Eucalyptol is a terpenoid oxide. 

    Serotonin: 5-hydroxytryptamine is the chemical name for the neurotransmitter serotonin. Formed from the amino acid tryptophan, it binds to its specific receptor and controls the elevation of moods and emotions and gut movement. Serotonin is secreted by enterochromaffin cells of the gut and specific regions of the brain. Its receptors are located on the cell membrane of nerve cells.


    References

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    3. Top uses of lavender oil. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.jerseylavender.co.uk/content/487/Top-Uses-of-Lavender-Oil/ (June 17th , 2017)
    4. History of lavender. Undated. Retrieved from https://www.celialindsell.com/articles-lavender-history.php (June 17th , 2017)
    5. History of usage of Lavendula species (2002). Jo Castle and Maria Lis-Balchin in “Lavender: The genus Lavendula”(Marie Lis-Balchin. ed.), Taylor and Francis e-library 2004. ISBN 0-203-21652-0 Master e-book, pp 35-43.
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