Lavender is a plant that seems to be both overlooked in favor of "sexier" herbs and simultaneously still serves as a go-to for so many issues from stress and depression, burns, wounds, and skin conditions to fevers and digestive difficulties.
It's has been widely used for thousands of years from the ancient Romans luxuriating in lavender baths and early apothecaries preparing freshly distilled lavender for their eau de Cologne, until now, when most of us have a bottle of lavender essential oil in our medicine cabinet or a lavender massage oil to use at the end of a long day.
To me, that says there's something not only timeless about Lavender, but something that speaks to us as humans on a primal, physiological, and psychological level. There's something about this ancient plant that heals us in ways we perhaps don't understand, but still feel drawn to. As if we know there's something there for us without knowing what that thing is.
After spending time researching Lavender from a standpoint of aromatherapy, western herbal energetics, and Chinese medicine meridian theory, I still don't know what that thing is.
But I do know a bit more about Lavender, named "The Oil of Paradox and Renewal," in Aroma Acupoint Therapy.
And I love paradoxes. Seeming opposites are bridged by something often subtle yet powerful. Paradoxes invite us to wonder how two things can co-exist in one space that are so vastly and completely different.
This reconciliation of opposites seems to me to be a place of profound medicine. Lavender guides us into those places of profound medicine.
Many people use Lavender for stress, so let's begin there and use it as an example of this paradoxical nature.
There's such thing as productive stress and unproductive stress. Productive stress is a normal part of life when your sympathetic nervous system is a useful tool. You need to be alert and on-watch when you're driving. If you were feeling completely and utterly relaxed, it probably wouldn't be safe for you or those around you.
However, you know the stress you feel when you can't sleep because you're thinking about all the things you need to do and your mind jumps from one catastrophe to another, and then you get stressed out that you're stressed out and can't sleep, which only serves to keep you from sleeping even more?
That's unproductive stress. That's what we call your nervous system being in "sympathetic dominance." That kind of stress leads to, among other things, nervous tension, pain, irritability, feeling mentally distracted or unfocused, muscle spasms and cramps, heart palpitations, insomnia, etc. In short, this kind of stress leads to symptoms associated with being chronically in fight-or-flight.
Lavender selectively inhibits certain sympathetic OR parasympathetic nervous system functions that cause those symptoms because it works with the individual's constitution.
Pretty cool, huh?
Your body and nature, in this case Lavender, speak the same language. So your body responds to the plant according to what it needs. Because Lavender works adaptively like this to modulate the nervous system, it doesn't interfere with the good/productive stress, which is a necessary and normal part of functioning in life.
Lavender has invited me to think and experience a lot around how our nervous systems process stress. How our bodies, minds, and spirits variously interpret and move through stress. The ways we deal with the energy that is stress. The things we turn to and the ways we try to escape.
After studying yoga therapeutics and learning about how we hold stress and tension in our viscera, and how that in turn affects our bodies structurally and how the structure of our bodies then affects our minds, I realized something.
Often we look to catharsis to release tension in our bodies and minds. We tend to think a big emotional release will move that stuck energy because the release feels so big and leaves us feeling like we've let something go afterward.
BUT, what if the "release" actually forces the stress deeper into our bodies? What if this big release removes the structure that was holding us together because now our bodies have let go? In the words of Gwynnie Hale, we've now lost our "castle" , the thing/structure/tension pattern that kept us feeling safe. Essentially, you're asking the nervous system to perceive the world in a new way and you haven't yet cultivated the resilience to do so.
In this situation, Lavender is a beautiful plant to turn to for support in relaxing tension while retaining that structure so necessary for your nervous system's functioning.
HERE'S ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF LAVENDER'S PARADOXICAL POWER:
Let's say that habitual behavior or addictions, feeling stuck in a rut, and repeating unhealthy or unproductive patterns is on one end of the spectrum of trauma. On the other end of that spectrum is an acute crisis or spontaneous, sudden change such as an accident or trauma, surgery, family crisis, or the stress that comes with giving up an addiction. These are completely new patterns and behaviors that seem to us to come on suddenly.
Lavender can help us both to move OUT of old, stuck patterns, promoting renewal and opening us to new possibilities, while also helping us to process the fear that comes along with sudden change and crisis.
Another place we see Lavender's paradoxical and harmonizing effects is how it can exert either a heating or a cooling effect on the body according to the needs of the person. For a person with a specific hot condition (fever, inflammation, acne), Lavender would have a cooling, sedating, and anti-inflammatory effect. On the other hand, for someone with a more chronic cold condition (chills, exhaustion, cold hands and feet), Lavender would act as a stimulant, generating heat and activity in their system.
Lavender is temperature-modulating for both hot and cold tissues.
Lastly, let's look at the energetics and habitat of Lavender for a few more clues to understanding its nature and effects.
The Lavender shrub grows best in a hot, dry climate with a thin layer of rocky, well-draining topsoil. Lavender, tempered by these elements of Earth and Fire, expresses this rugged strength by reconciling contradictions. Just like we touched on above. Unproductive and productive stress. Habitual patterns and acute crisis. Hot and cold.
However, here we go with another contradiction…
As far as fragrance classification goes, the scent of Lavender is largely considered to be the Water Element - cool, soft, fluid, sweet-floral - all characteristics of Water Element scent profiles. It has harmonizing, calming, and refreshing properties, making it a plant of renewal through water as well as strength through fire.
If we look at the name, 'Lavender' derives from the Latin lavare, meaning to wash. So, yes while Lavender was used in and associated with bath houses in ancient Rome, the "washing" it truly refers to takes place on the mind/body/spirit level, allowing the psyche to open up, and the heart to soften, washing away stuck patterns of tension, feeling closed-off and shut down.
For all these reasons, I find myself in an ever-deepening relationship with Lavender and its medicine. It truly is a plant of the soul that can speak to all of our layers of humanness.
What does all of this boil down to when it comes to actually using Lavender as a medicine?
Lavender treats damp, cold, and tension (or constriction) tissue states. Its energetics are relaxing and warming, so it will gently move stagnant cold while also relaxing tissue to further aid that movement.
Some herbalists, however, consider Lavender to be cooling. Could it be both warming and cooling?
Because it's bitter and aromatic, Lavender works to both stimulate the liver to secrete bile that breaks down food as well as a carminative to warm the digestive system. Here again we see opposites working together: bitter tends to be cooling and carminative tends to be warming - Lavender harnesses both of these energetic qualities to support digestion.
According to Thomas Easley, "Indications for lavender include when the head droops from fatigue, nervous exhaustion, picky, detailed oriented people with insomnia or IBS, nervous high strung people who are too much “up in their heads,” and for asthma where nervousness is a factor."
I tend to pair Lavender with other aromatics like Rosemary, Thyme, and Holy Basil to support the nervous system, move stagnant energy, warm cold tissues to encourage circulation while relaxing tension.
Lavender, both the essential oil as well as the whole plant extract, is anti-inflammatory, calming, and cooling to the skin. It promotes healthy cell functioning, new cell growth, and has a balancing action on both sebum production and the skin’s microbiome. You'll find it in most of our formulas because of its benefits to the skin as well as to the nervous system.
If you need some Lavender in your life, here are a few of our favorite formulas that feature its magic and medicine: