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If you asked a dozen people to list their top three favorite herbs, you’d probably see lavender cited on all twelve lists. If there’s such a thing as an herbal archetype, it has to be lavender. Nearly everyone is familiar with lavender’s tall, stately flower spikes and its unique, calming aroma. However, not everyone is aware of lavender’s medicinal properties or its contribution to herbal lore.

Lavender’s virtues have been recorded by various peoples for at least three millennia. The ancient Greeks, who called lavender nardus after the Syrian city of Naarda, used liberal quantities of the plant in their purifying baths. (Indeed, lavender’s generic name is believed to have stemmed from the Latin root lavare, which means “to wash.”) Lavender was employed in Egyptian mummification rituals and was prized by the Phoenicians and Arabians for its perfume. As one of the herbs used to prepare the holy essence in biblical temples, lavender figures prominently in the Song of Solomon: “nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all the trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, along with all the finest spices…”

The medicinal properties attributed to lavender are so diverse as to tempt the urban herbalist to plant only a few clumps of Lavandula to meet any possible contingency. As an aromatherapeutic agent, lavender is reputed to relieve stress, abort migraines, allay anxiety, reduce agitation in demented persons, and cure insomnia. Lavender flower tea is used for treating insomnia, restlessness, and stomach irritation. When applied topically, lavender has been used to eradicate bacteria and fungi, re-grow lost hair, heal rashes, clear away acne, and assuage burns. (One well-worn tale relates the early twentieth-century travails of René-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist who plunged his burned hand into a vat of lavender oil following a laboratory accident. The remarkable pain relief and rapid healing that resulted from this seemingly rash act led the scientist to further inquiry, which eventually launched the modern discipline of aromatherapy.)

Although most herbalists will attest to the safety of lavender oil—many say it’s the only essential oil you should apply full-strength to your skin—lavender oil can cause irritation, contact dermatitis, and photosensitivity when used at any concentration by allergic or sensitive individuals, and the likelihood for such problems increases even in non-sensitive people when the oil isn’t diluted. The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends adding 2 to 4 drops of lavender essential oil to a couple cups of boiling water for inhalation therapy, and mixing 1 to 4 drops of lavender oil with a tablespoon of base oil (almond, olive, sunflower, jojoba, etc.) for topical use. However, you can place a few drops of lavender essential oil directly on an infuser, pillow, handkerchief, sachet, or even a shirt sleeve if you’d like to employ it as an aromatherapeutic agent. And lavender is available in a wide array of ready-made products, including soaps, bath gels, perfumes, lotions, wands, shampoos, mists, teas, tinctures, and extracts.

Many authorities advise against the internal use of lavender essential oil, reporting that it is potentially toxic at any dose. In contrast, The Complete German Commission E Monograph cites several “approved” uses for lavender oil, including those that entail internal doses of 1 to 4 drops (up to 80 mg) daily. Similarly, lavender’s safety during pregnancy and lactation is a matter of controversy: some sources cite concerns about lavender's propensity for triggering uterine contractions (particularly during the first trimester) while others claim lavender actually relaxes uterine muscles.   

As with all herbs, a few commonsense precautions should be observed when using lavender. Obviously, if you’re allergic to lavender, you shouldn’t use any preparation that contains its flowers or oils. To avoid sensitization, don’t apply undiluted lavender oil to an open wound or broken skin. If you use other supplements or take prescription medications—particularly those that are sedating—use lavender with caution. Finally, if you’re pregnant, consult your obstetrician or midwife before adding lavender to your daily routine.

Sources

  1. University of Maryland Medical Center: Lavender
  2. Aromatherapy Workbook. Marcel Lavabre, 1990. Healing Arts Press
  3. Blumenthal, M (Ed.): The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council. Austin, TX. 1998


 
 
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Red clover (Trifolium pratense) is a source of many nutrients, including calcium, magnesium, chromium, phosphorus, potassium, thiamin, vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and niacin—which explains why this legume enjoys wide use as livestock fodder.

Humans, too, find red clover a tasty and nutritious addition to their menus (after all, it’s a member of the pea family). Red clover blossoms can be scattered, crouton-like, over a salad, and its leaves can be lightly steamed and served as a side dish. (Red clover is also the source of a popular and flavorful honey.)

And, if its dietary attributes don’t provide an adequate excuse to grow a clump or two of red clover in your yard, keep in mind that generations of physicians and native healers have used this herb for treating whooping cough, bronchitis, asthma, menopausal symptoms, premenstrual syndrome, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, prostate enlargement, and even cancer.

Red Clover’s Distinguished History

Way back in 1890, before the age of high-powered drugs and similarly potent patent attorneys, Parke-Davis (now a subsidiary of Pfizer) introduced Syrup Trifolium, a formulation of red clover, prickly ash, burdock root, poke root, Oregon grape, and potassium iodide. Syrup Trifolium was marketed as a blood purifier and—for a brief time—found some utility in cancer therapy.

 In 1898, red clover was listed in King’s American Dispensatory, the bible of Eclectic Physicians. Even before then, the Eclectics used red clover blossoms as an alterative and blood purifier, and its inclusion in their Trifolium Compound was the basis for another anti-cancer preparation, the Hoxsey Formula.

In his book, The Green Pharmacy, Dr. James Duke (one of the world’s leading authorities on herbal healing traditions) touted red clover as a cancer preventative and a treatment for menopausal symptoms, menstrual cramps, and even as an aid to smoking cessation.

Evidence of Red Clover’s Benefits Is Controversial…but Intriguing

Research has revealed that red clover is a rich source of isoflavones, or “phytoestrogens,” a class of organic compounds with antioxidant and estrogenic properties. These compounds hold promise for a variety of reasons, but, as of 2008, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine maintained there was insufficient evidence to show that red clover is effective for treating any health condition.

Be that as it may, studies suggest that red clover could be of use in several situations:    

Cardiovascular: Red clover’s isoflavones have evoked an increase in HDL cholesterol—the good cholesterol—in some clinical trials, but not in others. In addition, red clover may improve arterial compliance, or elasticity, and its coumarin acts as a mild anticoagulant, or “blood thinner.”  All of these properties could prove beneficial for people at risk for heart disease.

PMS and Menopause: Isoflavones bind to estrogen receptors on human cells, providing a weak estrogenic effect in situations where natural estrogen levels have fallen. This has obvious implications for women who suffer from menopausal symptoms (hot flashes, vaginal dryness, moodiness, etc.). Even more compelling is the evidence that phytoestrogens—by blocking the effects of circulating estrogens—exert a protective effect in individuals with estrogen-sensitive tumors (breast, ovarian, prostate, uterine, etc.) However, there is insufficient data to recommend the use of red clover or any phytoestrogen-containing plant in these patients.

Osteoporosis: Estrogen stimulation is important for maintaining bone mass in elderly women. With the decline in estrogen levels that occurs during menopause, isoflavones could slow bone loss by attaching to cellular receptors in bone. Preliminary evidence shows potential benefit, but, again, the data is insufficient.

Cancer: Some studies have suggested that red clover isoflavones inhibit cancer cell growth and/or interfere with angiogenesis (a tumor’s ability to establish a blood supply). However, since isoflavones also exert a weak estrogenic effect, some scientists fear they might actually contribute to the development and growth of estrogen-sensitive cancers. Given the recent evidence of phytoestrogens’ protective effect in estrogen-dependent malignancies, this issue is far from settled.

Red clover appears to be safe for most adults. Individuals who are at risk for or who have been diagnosed with estrogen-sensitive cancers should avoid red clover until more is known about its effects in these settings. In addition, people who take warfarin or other blood thinners should consult their physicians before taking red clover.

  1. Treating Cancer with Herbs, an Integrative Approach. Michael Tierra.Lotus Press, 2003. Pg 240
  2. The Green Pharmacy. James A. Duke. Rodale Press, 1997. Pp 325, 328, 399-400
  3. Tice J, et al. Phytoestrogen supplements for the treatment of hot flashes: the Isoflavone Clover Extract (ICE) study. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2003;290(2):207–214)
  4. Chedraui P, et al. Effect of Trifolium pratense-derived isoflavones on the lipid profile of postmenopausal women with increased body mass index. Gynecol Endocrinol. 2008;24(11):620-4
  5. Mueller M, Jungbauer A. Red clover extract: a putative source for simultaneous treatment of menopausal disorders and the metabolic syndrome. Menopause. 2008;15(6):1120-31
  6. Occhiuto F, et al. Effects of phytoestrogenic isoflavones from red clover (Trifolium pratense L.) on experimental osteoporosis. Phytother Res. 2007;21(2):130-4
  7. Powles T, et al. Red clover isoflavones are safe and well tolerated in women with a family history of breast cancer. Menopause Int. 2008;14(1):6-12