Whether it's a big project at work, a hectic family or a tumultuous relationship, life is full of little things that wreak major havoc on our nerves and have a real impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. In an age where we're working, socialising and travelling more than ever before, handy products that help us relax and unwind are in high demand.
Such remedies are by no means new on the scene. The use of natural produce for health benefits has been around for centuries, cropping up throughout history and even appearing in biblical times (frankincense and myrrh, anybody?). However, at the forefront of them all, one name reigns supreme: lavender.
Not only can this wonder-herb be highly commended for its services to beauty and cleanliness, but it's also a dab-hand at helping us find some much needed 'chill' in our times of need, whether it be in candle, bubble bath, bag or – as of mid-August 2016 – capsule form. But exactly how does lavender help us tackle anxiety? And does the latest pill-style product from Kalms (available at Amazon.co.uk, RRP £6.49)bring anything new to the table? We spoke to Dr Siegfried Kasper, Professor of Psychiatry and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, about anxiety, lavender and all things inbetween.
Feelings of anxiety in specific situations are a normal human reaction that most of us experience occasionally. However, those with anxiety may notice both physical and psychological symptoms, either in isolation or, more commonly, a combination of each, occurring frequently and potentially without a specific obvious cause.
"Core symptoms of anxiety are feelings of worry, apprehension and uncertainty – this may be indicated through problems such as difficulty making decisions or feeling especially fearful of negative outcomes – such as harm to ourselves or loved ones, or the fear that something awful will happen. More specifically, common psychological symptoms include feelings of tension, dread, agitation, restlessness and spinning thoughts – making it difficult to 'switch off'. This often becomes apparent and most noticeable as you are trying to fall asleep or stay asleep during the night but notice a spinning cycle of thoughts running through the mind, keeping you awake."
Alongside the psychological and emotional signs, there are also physical symptoms, such as stomach upsets or nausea, headaches and excessive muscle tension. In the short term and when feeling acutely anxious, physical symptoms can also encompass a racing heartbeat, sweating and dry mouth.SVGilesGetty Images
Lavender has a long historical use for its calming properties, with various studies suggesting that the inhalation of essential oils extracted from the plant to be stress, depression and anxiety-busting all in one go. However, while this aromatherapy showed increased mood scores and reduced psychological distress, the exact reason for this remains a bit of a mystery. In the case of lavender capsules, though, things seem to be a bit more clear-cut.
"Research into the uniquely prepared lavender oil suggests that it may work by modulating excessive neurotransmitter activity between nerve cells in the brain. Consequently, the same stimulus intensity may lead to the release of fewer excitatory neurotransmitters, ending the overstimulation of the nerve cells and as a consequence reducing anxious moods."
Indeed, Positron Emission Topography (PET) scans of peoples brains did suggest that the unique lavender oil significantly reduced the binding potential of the neurotransmitter Serotonin 1A (5T1A) – which plays a big part in relieving anxiety and depression – in the regions of the brain that are involved in the regulation of anxiety. Furthermore, when taken orally, the active lavender oil ingredient is able to pass the blood-brain barrier to have a more potent effect.
The strength of the calming effects of lavender differs between products. While scented soaps, shampoos and other bathing products are often reported as having a slight de-stressing effect, more often then not the amount of lavender actually used is only enough to provide a placebo effect. Indeed, sometimes the scent of lavender is only artificial and no essential oil actually used.
However, other products that include higher concentrations of lavender oil – such as massage oil and lavender tea (RRP £5.75, Amazon.co.uk) – do seem to have a much greater impact. For example one 2012 study, which investigated the effects that inhaling lavender oil had on the central nervous system, found that participants showed significant decreases in blood pressure, heart rate and skin temperature, indicating a decrease of autonomic arousal and meaning that they generally felt less anxious.
Similarly, in a study of people diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), 52% of those taking lavender oil capsules had at least a 50% reduction in anxiety symptoms. In addition, in a study of people with 'subthreshold' anxiety, 76% of those taking the uniquely prepared, pharmaceutical quality lavender oil capsules had at least a 50% reduction in anxiety or sleep quality scores.
"Studies comparing effects from the unique lavender oil capsules and commonly prescribed anti-anxiety drugs suggest the anxiety relieving effects of the uniquely prepared, pharmaceutical quality lavender oil are comparable to the effects seen from commonly used synthetic anxiolytic medications, including the benzodiazepine lorazepam and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) paroxetine prescribed in generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)."
Lavender products are also shown to have a favourable safety profile when compared to some other anti-anxiety methods, as they are well tolerated with no dependency potential, no sedation and no interactions with other drugs.