June may be the best month for California lavender lovers, as festivals that celebrate the fragrant flowering plant abound during the next few weeks. But lavender is celebrated for more than its scent and beauty: Many people believe the plant, a member of the mint family, has therapeutic and medicinal uses.
"Lavender is perhaps best known for its calming and sedative effects," says Dr. Peter Lio, assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
He cites a 2014 study linking lavender to reducing anxiety in dental clinic patients. "Many spas use this same idea to help relax clients and make them feel at ease…. It has also shown some positive effects in depression," says Lio, who adds that lavender, inhaled via aromatherapy, "has even been linked to alleviating menstrual pain."
Lavender is also said to help with nervousness, migraines, toothaches and sprains.
It may be an antimicrobial
"Lavender also appears to have some antimicrobial effects that could explain some of the folk and traditional uses for other conditions," says Lio. "In veterinary medicine, lavender oil has been used to treat donkey lice, suggesting it may have anti-parasitic effects as well."
Lavender grower and distiller Holly Adams-Kauffmann, who practices aromatherapy and holistic healing at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, says, "My 98-year-old mom lives with me, and I use lavender hydrosol on her hair and scalp when she gets itchy." Hydrosols are the herbal and floral distillates that are usually the byproducts of making essential oils.
Says Lio: "Further research is needed, but in dermatology, there is also a very compelling paper that demonstrates how a mix of essential oils including lavender can help with alopecia areata, a form of autoimmune hair loss that can be devastating."
Drinking, eating lavender
You might see lavender pop up as a flavor in artisanal ice cream parlors, but are there health benefits to ingesting it? "Lavender may have some positive digestion and antioxidant effects, but the flavor is very strong, so you'll want to use it in small amounts," says Dr. Andrew Weil, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona.
Read the fine print
Just because lavender smells dreamy and looks beautiful doesn't mean you get a free pass to douse yourself with a lavender essential oil; those oils are typically concentrated and should be diluted before using. And any medicine, even a natural one, can have real side effects.
"Most commonly, allergy to lavender can occur, typically in the setting of aromatherapy and as a message oil," says Lio, who also mentioned a 2007 New England Journal of Medicine study suggesting a possible connection between the use of lavender and gynecomastia in pre-pubescent boys. "While other papers have shown possible mechanisms for such hormonal effects, this seems to be a very rare side effect and probably requires significant amounts of the oil left on the skin over long periods of time."
Experts also urge caution for patients who are already taking sedatives and prescriptions connected to high blood pressure.
California lavender festivals
Can't get enough essential oils, massage oils, bath salts, lotion, sprays, soap, shower gel, honey, baked goods, infused Herbes de Provence, lemonade or live or dried flowers? Check out these lavender festivals in California:
Cache Creek Lavender Festival, June 13 and 14, cachecreeklavender.com/festival.htm
Summers Past Farms Lavender Day and Antique & Craft Fair, June 13, summerspastfarms.com/events.htm
Cherry Valley Lavender Festival, June 13 and 14, 20 and 21, hsresort.com/thelavenderfestival
Bluestone Meadow Lavender Festival, June 27, bluestonemeadow.com/Lavender.html
Matanzas Creek Winery Days of Wine & Lavender, June 27, matanzascreek.com/visit/dowl.html
Ojai Lavender Festival, June 27, ojaivalleylavenderfestival.org
Central Coast Lavender Festival, July 11, cclavenderfestival.com/site/index.php