Walk down the aisles of any health food store or apothecary and you’re likely to see lavender-scented or lavender-containing products touting benefits like improved sleep, mood enhancement, and reduced stress. With its fresh, floral scent and associations with aromatherapy, lavender has long been regarded as a natural way to invite calmness and tranquility.
In recent years as more people seek alternatives to traditional anti-anxiety medications, some have wondered if lavender may offer similar anxiety-relieving effects as prescription drugs like Xanax. Xanax (generic name alprazolam) belongs to a class of medications called benzodiazepines, which work by enhancing the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that puts the brakes on excessive brain activity and promotes relaxation. With numbers continuing to rise, anxiety disorders remain the most common mental illness in the U.S. – leaving many to explore just how effective natural remedies like lavender are against this burgeoning issue.
Examining the Evidence
While lavender oil and various lavender-containing products are generally recognized as safe, well-researched data on their anti-anxiety effects in humans remain fairly limited. Most existing research has involved small samples over short time periods, and studied lavender’s effects against relatively mild anxiety versus more acute or severe forms. The majority of evidence points to lavender showing some benefit, but its effects tend to be mild and results can vary widely.
For example, in one study involving dental patients who inhaled lavender oil, researchers found it showed borderline effectiveness at reducing anxiety compared to placebo controls. Meanwhile another study found lavender oil aromatherapy reduced anxiety in patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery equal to routine nursing care.
However, research on GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) has yielded less promising results. In a study of GAD patients inhaling diffused lavender oil for 10 consecutive days during aromatherapy sessions, anxiety symptom scores improved only slightly with no significant differences from the control group.
Clearly more research is needed, but current evidence best supports lavender as a helpful complementary or adjunct aid versus a stand-alone anxiety treatment on par with medications like Xanax – especially regarding intense or clinical anxiety.
Xanax: A Potent Anti-Anxiety Medication
As a pharmaceutical anti-anxiety medication, Xanax sets a high bar for comparison. The drug alprazolam exerts a rapid, powerful anxiolytic effect by not only enhancing GABA activity but also by directly binding to GABA receptors in the brain. Within an hour of taking a dose, sensations of panic and anxiety tend to decrease substantially. In cases of panic disorder characterized by overwhelming panic attacks, Xanax can terminate symptoms in 10 to 20 minutes.
But while fast-acting and highly effective, Xanax does carry risks of dependence, abuse, and adverse effects that natural options like lavender generally do not. Drowsiness, dizziness, blurred vision, nausea, and headaches all commonly occur with Xanax use. More severely, combining it with other substances like alcohol or opioids can slow breathing to dangerous levels. Xanax also carries DEA Schedule IV controlled substance restrictions due to its high addiction and dependence potential with prolonged use.
After only a couple weeks on the medication, users can experience tolerance along with withdrawal symptoms like increased anxiety, confusion, and sensory disturbances if doses are missed. These risks require finding an appropriate balance with close medical supervision.
A Multifaceted Approach May Offer the Best Results
For moderate anxiety, research suggests lavender can help take the edge off and induce feelings of relaxation. But for generalized anxiety or panic disorders, lavender should not be viewed as an equivalent natural substitute for potent anti-anxiety medications.
This doesn’t mean lavender lacks merit. An emerging concept among many treatment providers emphasizes a multifaceted approach that integrates both traditional and complementary techniques tailored to the individual. Medications may effectively treat the biochemical aspects of anxiety, while complementary therapies like lavender aromatherapy may benefit the psychological experience — together providing greater overall relief.
The soothing floral scent of lavender may not exert as powerful an anti-anxiety effect as a benzodiazepine, but it can still be an invaluable part of an integrated treatment plan. By incorporating lavender oil, dried buds, or Epsom salt baths into lifestyle habits along with other stress reduction practices like meditation, exercise, and psychotherapy, the goal is to manage anxiety holistically without an overreliance on any single solution.
Perhaps in the future as research on lavender continues to accumulate, science will unlock more potent anxiolytic effects from this aromatic purple plant. But for now, view lavender as a helpful ally on your side rather than a one-to-one Xanax substitute, and integrate it thoughtfully into a multifaceted plan tailored to help you reclaim calmness from distress.