The wafting scent of lavender may put insomniacs to sleep just as well as tranquilizers do, a new study suggests.
The study included four elderly people who had difficulty sleeping, and had been taking tranquilizers for up to three years. Researchers took them off the drugs, then infused the air with the scent of lavender.
At first, the patients had trouble getting to sleep without the tranquilizers. But after the introduction of the lavender scent, they were able to sleep as well as they had when they were taking the drugs, according to the report, published this week in the medical journal Lancet.
The smell of lavender oil has been shown in animal studies to have a light sedative effect, according to the researchers.
"Although our results are preliminary, being based on only four patients, it might be worthwhile to investigate this effect more formally under controlled conditions," said lead author Dr. David Stretch of the Greenwood Institute of Child Health in Leicester, England.
The lavender-oil scent may be an inexpensive way to get elderly patients off medications that can cause serious side effects, Dr. Stretch suggested. Taking tranquilizers sometimes causes dizziness and confusion in elderly people, and can increase their risk of falling, he said.
In the new study, the researchers monitored the patients' sleep for two weeks while they continued taking their tranquilizers, for two weeks while they took no medication and for two more weeks after the lavender-scent therapy was started.
While the patients were on tranquilizers, they slept an average of 8.3 hours a night, the study showed. After the medication was stopped, they slept an average of 7.3 hours a night, and once the lavender scent was introduced they slept an average of 8.5 hours a night -- and reported that they were less restless while sleeping, according to the study.
The lavender smell may help people relax and sleep better because it reminds them of sachets used in bedding, or perfume they wore when they were younger, said Dr. Susan Knasko, an environmental psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
Lavender also may act as a sedative by affecting the reticular activating system (RAS), the region of the brain associated with alertness that is linked to the olfactory nerves of the nose, said Dr. Alan Hirsch, a neurologist and psychiatrist at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago.
"This is a wonderful article that makes a lot of sense," Dr. Hirsch said. "However, their success rate may have been higher if they had used lavender to help treat insomnia in younger people."
The reason? Half of people over age 65, and 75 percent of those over age 80, have a reduced ability to smell, Dr. Hirsch said.