In the last few years I’ve noticed a growing number of lavender products in shops: oils, sprays, teas, candles, body creams – it seems to crop up everywhere.
It often comes with the promise of promoting relaxation and better sleep. But does lavender really help you sleep, or is it merely a beautifully packaged myth?
In this article, I’ll be looking at the scientific evidence that lavender helps with relaxation and sleep. And I’ve spent the last week using a lavender bedroom spray, so I’ll also be talking about my personal experience of drifting off to sleep with the scent of lavender in the air.
The research evidence for lavender and sleep
A review of previous experiments
A useful piece of research into the effectiveness of lavender comes from British researchers Karen Pilkington and Kate Louise Fismer in 2012.
They conducted a review of eight previous scientific experiments in which lavender was inhaled, rather than ingested or applied to the skin.
And they did find evidence in several of those studies that lavender can improve sleep, stating:
Reporting of a small to moderate benefit favouring lavender oil across a cross-section of study populations was found…findings were suggestive of a small benefit for lavender oil compared to control.
Interestingly, two of the studies they looked at used polysomnogram tests in a sleep lab, considered the gold standard of sleep assessment.
One of those, conducted in 2005 at Wesleyan University, found an increase in deep sleep and reduced awakenings in both men and women. It’s an experiment that’s often quoted as evidence that lavender works.
However, the authors of the review did find some issues with the overall quality of the eight research studies, saying:
Methodological inadequacies, small sample sizes, short duration, and challenges related to blinding, mean that results should be viewed with caution…As a result no definitive conclusions can be made regarding the efficacy of lavender oil aroma for sleep.
Despite that rather pessimistic conclusion, they do go on to say that the mounting evidence in favor of lavender’s sleep promoting qualities warranted further research.
Lavender oil improves the sleep of postpartum women
Since the above review in 2012, there has been some more research done. In 2015, researchers in Iran conduced an experiment involving 158 women following childbirth.
In the study, the women inhaled either lavender or a placebo every night for a total of 8 weeks. And the results showed that the women inhaling lavender had improved sleep after 8 weeks:
The authors concluded that:
Comparing sleep quality between control and intervention groups after 8 weeks from the beginning of the intervention indicated that aromatherapy was effective in the improvement of mothers’ sleep quality
Evidence for aromatherapy in general
Considering how often lavender is used in the form of aromatherapy, it’s also worth looking at the research evidence for aromatherapy in general.
Like the specific studies with lavender, there have been many experiments done with a range of different plant oils. However, despite positive results coming from specific studies, reviews of the way the experiments were done once again point to inconclusive evidence.
For example, Dr. Edzard Ernst at the University of Exeter conducted a large review in 2012. He identified 201 published studies of aromatherapy, of which only 10 met the standards to include in the review.
And the overall view was once again that the evidence was lacking:
The clinical subject areas were hypertension, depression, anxiety, pain relief, and dementia… Due to a number of caveats, the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.
How does lavender oil work? New research sheds some light
Lavender oil contains monoterpenes like linalool and linalyl acetate, chemicals that are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. Studies on mice have shown that these compounds inhibit several neurotransmitters and have a sedative and pain-relieving effect.
In 2017, research published by Victor Lopez and colleagues at the University of San Jorge in Spain shed new light on how lavender works in the human body:
Our study reveals for the first time that lavender exerts receptor binding affinities with a relevant activity on the NMDA receptor. According to our data, we can state that the anti-agitation and antidepressant activities of lavender may be attributed at least in part to the NMDA receptor modulation as well as an inhibition of the SERT
So despite some of the pessimistic views of previous research, scientists do seem to be able to demonstate that lavender oil can indeed have an observable, positive effect on people.
My personal week long lavender spray test
Using lavender for sleep isn’t something I’ve tried much in the past. So I was interested to give it a go, and see what effect I may or may not notice, either in my sleep tracker data or simply with personal observations.
I picked up a bottle of ‘Sleepeaze’ lavender pillow spray from Boots pharmacy and followed the instructions every night for a week. That basically meant spraying however much I wanted to above the bed and around the bedroom before getting into bed (a couple of sprays was enough!).
My sleep tracker data remained quite similar to the week before, with no noticeable changes to the quantity of sleep on the better nights. However, I did sleep quite well every night that week, which isn’t always the case for me.
Whether the lavender had anything to do with that is of course impossible to say based on my rather un-scientific personal test. But I’m happy with that fact that I had a pretty good week’s sleep, whatever the reason(s) might have been.
What I can say for certain is that I liked the scent of the lavender in the bedroom. If nothing else, it’s nice to get into bed with a pleasant smell in the air. And perhaps the act of spraying it in itself helped me feel that I was doing something positive to help my sleep.
Have you used lavender oil or any other essential oil to help you sleep? Did it work for you? Feel free to share your experience in the comments below.