S3E9. Lavender? Better Sleep On It!

Check out this conclusion from a 2021 study that had participants inhale lavender essential oil mist while sleeping:

“Our finding suggests that lavender aroma may be used to increase [slow wave] sleep and help prevent neurodegenerative diseases even when total sleep time is limited. As [sleep time] is often limited due to the work constraints in modern society, sleep-time lavender aroma may provide a cheap, safe way to improve sleep quality and prevent diseases like [Alzheimer’s] with minimal alteration of personal schedules and/or sleep/wake cycle.”

Pretty impressive, huh?

Digging a little deeper into the findings, the researchers found that lavender increased the time spent in deep, slow wave sleep which is the time during the sleep cycle that restores your body. But it’s also the time when the brain gives itself a bath in cerebrospinal fluid and washes away harmful detritus from the day’s activities. That’s were the suggestion that it might be protective against dementia comes from.

But they also found that inhaling lavender increases the time spent in REM sleep, which is when memory consolidation takes place. 

But there’s more: fast alpha waves were reduced throughout the night, thus resulting in fewer periods of remembered wakefulness. 

As a result, participants reported that they felt better after a lavender-suffused night’s sleep.

It doesn’t get much better than that!

So are you going to get a diffuser for your bedroom and try lavender essential oil? Or if not a diffuser, will you put a few drops on a piece of cloth and put it under your pillow?

I think it’s worth a shot. The way I see it, sleep is critical to brain health and using aromatherapy in this way boosts the quality and therefore the efficiency of your sleep…without your having to expend any effort at all except to fill your diffuser with water, add the oil drops, and turn it on. It’s the lazy man’s sleep workout!

I’ve been trying it out this week and so far the results are mixed. I’ve had good nights and not-so-good nights. I wake up often, but I fall back to sleep quickly. I’m feeling rested when I wake up most mornings.

But is it fair for me to expect to notice a significant difference? Probably not…even though the participants in the study reported they felt they slept better with the lavender. I expect I’ll still have good nights and bad nights. Will the bad nights be not as bad as before? Will I notice that I only wake up 5 times instead of 7? Will I feel more rested most mornings? Maybe, maybe not.

I went back to the data to try to see if I could find out how big the reported improvements were. It turns out that participants enjoyed about 2.5% more time in deep sleep with the lavender which is about 12 more minutes over the course of an 8-hour sleep. I’m willing to take it on faith that the extra time spent in deep, slow wave sleep will improve my brain health and reduce my risk for dementia by some meaningful if not consciously noticeable degree.

Conceptually, I like the idea of adding something to my brain health regimen that utilizes the olfactory sense. It always bothered me that most brain health exercises and recommendations feature vision and hearing, giving short shrift to olfaction which is, after all, the most ancient of the senses.

Structurally, the nerves from your sniffer go to the olfactory bulb in your brain which has direct connections to the amygdala (emotion) and hippocampus (memory). Is it any wonder that scents from our past can trigger such strong reactions in us?

Recent research has also revealed that a loss of smell can be an early predictor of dementia.

So if we subscribe to the use-it-or-lose it theory of brain maintenance that applies to all the other parts of the brain, then it seems we ought to be engaging in an olfactory workout each day right alongside our time spent in the gym.

I now start my day making sure I pause to enjoy the smell of Sally’s freshly ground coffee brewing and then the earthy smell of my spiced granola when I pour it into the bowl. After that, I crank up the diffuser in the living room for a 4-hour blast of rosemary (for mental sharpness) while I do my morning puzzles. At night, I now enjoy—and more importantly, my brain enjoys—a six hour lavender bath.

That’s 3 out of 5 senses stimulated. I’m looking forward to figuring out what workouts look like for taste and touch. Should be interesting!

(This is the 3rd episode I’ve posted about sleep and sleep hygiene. If you’re interested, you can check out the other two at S2E31 and S2E40)