Lavender oil, distilled from lavender flowers, is “most often used in aromatherapy and massage. Despite its popularity…only recently [have] scientifically-based investigations [been undertaken] into its biological activity,” however. There have been “small-scale studies” suggesting benefit from lavender massage; but, maybe it’s the massage, not the lavender.

There was a study on patients in intensive care, comparing massage with odorless oil to lavender oil, and though patients massaged with lavender oil did say they “felt less anxious and more positive,” there were no objective differences found in terms of blood pressure, breathing, or heart rate. Frankly, maybe the lavender was just covering up the nasty hospital smells.

Subsequent studies using more sensitive tests did find physiological changes, though. We know, for example, the smell of lavender changes brain wave patterns. But, what effect does this have? Well, evidently it makes people feel better, perform math better (faster and more accurately), whereas the smell of rosemary, for example, seemed to enable folks only to do math faster—not necessarily with greater accuracy.

What if you actually eat lavender flowers, or, in this case, take capsules of lavender-infused oil, so you could double-blind the study to compare lavender head-to-head to a drug like Valium (lorazepam, known as Ativan), for generalized anxiety disorder.

Generalized and persistent anxiety is a frequent problem, and is treated with benzodiazepines—benzos or downers, like Valium. “Unfortunately, these substances” can not only make you feel like you have a hangover, but “have a high potential for drug abuse” and addiction.

So, they decided to give lavender a try. The drug Ativan certainly reduces anxiety, but, so does lavender. By the end, you couldn’t tell which was which. And, in fact, among those that responded to either, the lavender actually seemed to work better.

“Since lavender oil has no potential for drug abuse and causes no hangover effects [it] appears to be an effective and well-tolerated alternative to benzodiazepine [drugs] for [the] amelioration of generalised anxiety.”

One cautionary note, however; there was a case series published in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Prepuberty Gynecomastia Linked to Lavender.” Reports of young boys exposed to lavender-containing lotions, soaps, hair gel, and shampoo starting to develop breasts, which disappeared after these products were discontinued—suggesting that lavender oil may possess hormone-disrupting activity.

And, indeed, when dripped on estrogen receptor-positive human breast cancer cells, lavender does show estrogenic effects, and a decline in male hormone activity, though it’s unknown if similar reactions occur inside the body when lavender flowers or lavender oil is ingested.

“Lavender…has been studied recently for several purposes including treatment of mood and anxiety disorders,” as well as a number of other things. Its “analgesic effect,” however—its painkiller effect—is one of its most “widely studied properties.”

Surprising, then, that there hasn’t been a single “documented clinical trial to study lavender for the treatment of migraine” headaches, that affect tens of millions of Americans every year—until now: “Lavender Essential Oil in the Treatment of Migraine Headache: A Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial.”

Migraine sufferers “were asked to, at the early signs of a headache—rub 2-3 drops of the lavender essential oil onto their upper lip and inhale its vapor for a 15-min period” of time, and score the severity of their headache for the next two hours. In the control group, they did the same thing, except they used drops of basically unscented liquid wax. And neither group was allowed to use any painkillers. In the lavender group, 74% of patients had an improvement in their symptoms—significantly better than placebo.

Though in the study lavender wasn’t directly compared to more conventional treatments, lavender appears to stack up pretty well, compared to typical drugs. Lavender helped about three-quarters of the time; high-dose Tylenol only works about half the time; and ibuprofen, 57% of the time. The #1 prescribed drug, generic imitrex—effective 59% of the time. And then, the hardcore treatment they use in emergency rooms, where they inject you under the skin: 70%.

And all these work better than the original migraine therapy, known as trepanning, where doctors drill a hole in your head to let the evil spirits escape.

“Conclusion: The present study suggests that inhalation of lavender essential oil may be an effective and safe treatment modality in acute management of migraine headaches.”

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Lavender for Migraine Headaches

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Lavender for Migraine Headaches

Michael Greger M.D. FACLM June 5th, 2013 Volume 13

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A placebo-controlled clinical trial of lavender essential oil aromatherapy shows it to be an effective migraine therapy.

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Curr Opin Neurol. 2011 Jun;24(3):203-10. doi: 10.1097/WCO.0b013e3283462c3f.

Treatment of migraine: update on new therapies.

Magis D1, Schoenen J.

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This review provides a comprehensive selection of the latest clinical trial results in antimigraine treatment.


The oral calcitonine gene-related peptide antagonist telcagepant is efficacious in acute treatment. Compared to triptans, its efficacy is almost comparable but its tolerance is superior. The same is true for the 5HT-1F agonist lasmiditan, another agent devoid of vascular effects. Triptans, as other drugs, are more efficient if taken early but nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and analgesics remain useful for acute treatment, according to several meta-analyses. Single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation during the aura rendered more patients pain-free (39%) than sham stimulation (22%) in one study. Topiramate could be effective for migrainous vertigo, but it did not prevent transformation to chronic migraine in patients with high attack frequency. Onabotulinumtoxin A was effective for chronic migraine and well tolerated, but the therapeutic gain over placebo was modest; the clinical profile of responders remains to be determined before widespread use. Occipital nerve stimulation was effective in intractable chronic migraine with 39% of responders compared to 6% after sham stimulation. This and other neuromodulation techniques, such as sphenopalatine ganglion stimulation, are promising treatments for medically refractory patients but large controlled trials are necessary. One study suggests that outcome of patent foramen ovale closure in migraine might depend on anatomic and functional characteristics.


Drugs with a better efficacy or side-effect profile than triptans may soon become available for acute treatment. The future may also look brighter for some of the very disabled chronic migraineurs thanks to novel drug and neuromodulation therapies.

PMID: 21464715 DOI: 10.1097/WCO.0b013e328


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