The Whitworths of Arizona, bringing science to you in everyday language.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Lavender and the Holidays

Holidays were always times of joy and excitement and fun when our kids were growing up, and then when they had kids of their own, it got even better. But now, not so much. We still look forward to seeing family but Dave can't stand much excitement anymore. I've wondered about using something like lavender in our essential oil diffuser. Could it make a difference? Would he be able to spend more time with our normally active grandchildren or enjoy a family dinner filled with happy chatter? Marie

Well, Marie, I doubt that anything will stop Dave from being overly sensitive to all those things that go together to make what used to be a fun holiday gathering but now trigger anxiety and other unwelcome LBD symptoms. But yes, lavender may decrease these. It is definitely worth a try, but do use it carefully. The active ingredients in lavender may be "natural" but they are still chemicals. Like drugs, they may have adverse effects--opposite of what you wanted. That is especially true for lavender if you use too much. And so learn about those and use it carefully.

A recent article in the New York Times suggests the idea that lavender has the same effects on mood that Valuim does...without the side effects! Of course those of us who use essential oils have known that for years, but it is nice to get our feet-on-the-ground knowledge validated with science. Now, this scientist is talking about how it works on a mouse's brain, not a human's, but like it or not, our brains aren't all that different! When they finally get around to testing it on humans, I suspect their findings won't change a whole lot. This is what they've found so far:

Lavender doesn't have the dizzying side effects of a sedative, but it works on the same part of the brain that Valium does. It seems to make the mice less anxious and therefore more open to exploring. This doesn't mean you can't overdose. More than one care partner has stopped using lavender because their loved one became more anxious, rather than less so. Like any chemical, the proper dose is important. It is even more important for those living with LBD because they are often super sensitive. A little can be helpful, a little more may be even more helpful but more than that can cause the "adverse" symptoms...the opposite of what you want. It is usually safe to increase the amount until you get a bad reaction. It will end when the chemical leaves the body--within a few hours at the most and usually much quicker.

Lavender enters the brain via the olfactory system (the smell receptors) rather than via the blood stream. (Since it isn't in the blood stream, it will probably be very short acting. This is good as far as sensitivity and adverse reactions go, but it also means that it will need to be continually replenished.) When the scientists blocked the mice's ability to smell, the lavender didn't work. However, we know that with humans, this isn't always true. Alternative therapists say that aromatherapy often works even when a person's sense of smell is damaged because the receptors are still apparently active for the chemical components of the oil, such as lavender, that provide the relief.

Therefore, Marie, just like we've known for centuries, lavender works. But to know if it will work for you, or Dave, is still a trial and error situation. Don't wait for a family gathering to try it out. Take some time with just you and Dave to experiment. But first,
it's also a good idea to discuss the use of lavender or any other essential oils with the physician first as well. Some can conflict with already prescribed drugs. It's also a good idea to discuss how much to use with someone in your community who is knowledgeable about essential oils.

Once you have the doctor's OK, and you have a good idea of how much is "too much," try a small amount and see if it works. If it does, make use of it as a anxiety-reducer and even a pain reliever without the multitude of side effects that drugs have.  If it doesn't, increase the amount in the diffuser, until you do get a benefit, a negative reaction or you've reached the recommended limit to use.

The amount of lavender needed for calming will likely increase in the presence of anxiety triggers such as exciting family gatherings. However, you upper limit may not, so be careful not to go over that limit or Dave could feel worse than he did before!

We wish you, and everyone dealing with dementia happy, calm, comfortable holidays!

For more information about Lewy body disorders, read our books: A Caregivers’ Guide to Lewy Body Dementia
Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson's and Lewy Body Dementia

Helen and James Whitworth are not doctors, lawyers or social workers. As informed caregivers, they share the information here for educational purposes only. It should never be used instead of a professional's advice.

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