Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lavender Oil, A Quick Chemical Overview.

Lavender is one of the most popular essential oils in clinical aromatherapy practice. As a plant, lavender has been used medicinally for thousands of years. The various chemical components that go into making up lavender oil define its specific therapeutic properties; scientific research backs up what many aromatherapists already know from everyday use of the oil.  So in this blog post I will attempt to put into easy to read terms some of the boring, wordy, medical studies that have been done on what chemical components are found in lavender, and what good or bad they may do in the body.  I won't attempt to go into the many uses of lavender, as the benefits of lavender are being touted all over both in the natural and medical communities.  If you would like more information on how to use lavender, there are many books available, as well as lots of sources online explaining how to use lavender safely.

There are multiple varieties of lavender used for medicinal essential oils.  True lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the most common species harvested for its essential oil, and has been in use for thousands of years.  True lavender grows at altitudes above two thousand feet, and has been used historically to treat throat infections.

Spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia) was traditionally used for headaches, rheumatic pain, colic and dyspepsia. It grows at lower altitudes than true lavender and has a very high yield. Spike lavender has gray-blue flowers, and is mainly grown in France and Spain for essential oil use.

Lavender as a species, and within the species, varies from plant to plant and from oil to oil due to factors such as climate, environment, altitude grown at and country of origin. However, each type of lavender oil does carry a similar chemical make-up. The main chemical constituents of lavender are as follows:
  • Lavandula angustifolia – predominately esters and alcohols
  • Lavandula stoechas – predominately ketones (the high amounts of ketones is why this type of lavender is usually avoided in aromatherapy.)
  • Lavandula latifolia – predominately oxides, alcohols, followed by ketones and monoterpenes
  • Lavandula x intermedia – predominately alcohols and esters.
    Overview of Essential Oil Constituents:
    In general, pure essential oils can be subdivided into two distinct groups of chemical constituents; the hydrocarbons which are made up almost exclusively of terpenes (monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, and diterpenes), and the oxygenated compounds which are mainly esters, aldehydes, ketones, alcohols, phenols, and oxides.
    Terpenes – inhibit the accumulation of toxins and help discharge existing toxins from the liver and kidneys.
    Sesquiterpenes are antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. They work as a liver and gland stimulant and contain caryophyllene and valencene.  Other sesquiterpenes, like chamazulene and farnesol, are very high in anti-inflammatory and antibacterial activity.
    Esters – are the compounds resulting from the reaction of an alcohol with an acid (known as esterification). Esters are very common and are found in lavender oils. They are anti-fungal, calming and relaxing, thus giving Lavender it's healing, and relational properties.
    Aldehydes – are highly reactive and characterized by the group C-H-O (Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen). In general, they are anti-infectious with a sedative effect on the central nervous system.  Again, giving Lavender some of it's antimicrobial properties, and calming effects.  Also, this may be the chemical responsible for Lavenders anti-histamine like effects.  Lavender is often used to help allergies, or eliminate allergic reactions, and the soothing effect of these Aldehydes on the central nervous system may well be the reason behind this added bonus from Lavender. 
    Ketones – They are helpful with such conditions as dry asthma, colds, flu and dry cough.  But caution should be used if ingesting lavender, as these ketones can cause liver damage in high concentrations.
    Alcohols – are commonly recognized for their antiseptic and anti-viral activities. They create an uplifting quality and are regarded as nontoxic.
    Terpene Alcohols stimulate the immune system, work as a diuretic and a general tonic, and are antibacterial as well, thus giving lavender the reputation for speeding recovery from, or preventing the flu as well as colds.
    Cautions: Lavender in all it's forms contains higher of phytoestrogens, or plant based chemicals that mimic estrogen in the body than many other plants and oils do.  While these phytoestrogens may be helpful when dealing with low estrogen production in women, they can be very harmful when dealing with other hormonal imbalances or many hormonally driven diseases such as: breast cancer, endometriosis, ovarian cancer, cervical cancer, and thyroid disease.  For this reason many experts question the  safety of using lavender oil regularly on pre-pubescent boys as the phytoestrogens can cause an estrogen dominance in young boys.  Caution should be taken when using lavender on a regular basis if you fall under any of the categories above, or if you are pregnant.  Caution should also be taken when using lavender oil "neat" (without dilution in a carrier oil.)  While generally regarded as safe for undiluted topical use, there have been a few cases of documented allergies from lavender, so always apply lavender diluted in a carrier oil when first beginning use.  After you determine your skin's reaction to lavender, you may be able to go on to use it undiluted.  

    I hope this gives you an idea of how lavender works, and some ideas of how it might be beneficial in your arsenal of essential oils!

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