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Sweet (scented) dreams: Lavender oil linked to sleep benefits for dementia patients

Of the dozens of essential oils and oil blends in Young Living distributor Traci Leben’s case, lavender is perhaps the most versatile. A new study conducted at Deer Crest assisted living center shows that lavender aromatherapy can increase sleep time for dementia patients. (Republican Eagle photo by Michael Brun)

Lavender aromatherapy can help people suffering from dementia sleep easier — that’s according to a new study conducted at Deer Crest assisted living center in Red Wing.

During a week in which residents with memory loss were exposed to lavender essential oil, they experienced an average increase of 42.5 minutes of sleep a night, said Amanda Cagan, a research assistant with HealthPartners.

The results could help pave the way for use of essential oils in memory care facilities as a safe alternative to sleep medication, Cagan said. “It’s very exciting.”

HealthPartners conducted the six-month study last year in conjunction with Deer Crest and English Rose Suites, a Minnesota-based memory care provider.

A group of 21 Deer Crest residents completed the study, all of whom were experiencing memory loss or dementia, Cagan said.

Each participant went through a weeklong trial in which lavender oil was rubbed onto their neck and shoulders before bed. A diffuser set to automatically shut off after 20 minutes was then used to release lavender into the air while they slept.

To test the results, participants repeated the process with an almond oil placebo, which Cagan said has no particular effect on sleep or behavior.

Cagain said Deer Crest staff also spent a week introducing the procedure to participants by rubbing them with lotion and loading the diffusers with water to get them used to the sound.

“A change in routine for dementia patients can be jolting,” Cagan said.

Participation in the study was voluntary and it was conducted with family consent, she added.

A good night’s sleep

People with Alzhiemer’s disease and other forms of dementia tend to have a hard time sleeping or see their condition worsen at night, a phenomenon known as “sundowning,” according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

As many as 20 percent of Alzheimer’s patients experience increased symptoms of confusion and anxiety beginning at dusk, the organization said. The disruption to the sleep cycle can cause additional agitation throughout the day.

There was evidence pointing to lavender having an effect on nighttime behavior in dementia patients, but clinical research on the subject was lacking, Cagan said.

The key to lavender’s potency are the hundreds of chemical compounds found in its oil, said Traci Lebens, an independent distributor with Young Living — a leading provider of therapeutic-grade essential oils.

When inhaled, lavender oil molecules are small enough to bypass natural barriers and enter the pineal and pituitary glands of the brain, quickly impacting emotion, Lebens said.

“And it’s so diverse in its uses,” Lebens added. Not only has lavender been shown to have a calming effect, but it can be used to treat burns, cuts and other skin conditions as well.

The oil and diffusers used in the study were donated by Young Living, Lebens said.

Care alternatives

The aromatherapy study was inspired by Jayne Clairmont, owner of English Rose Suites, Cagan said.

Clairmont — who has promoted the use of essential oils in assisted living environments for years — suggested the idea to Dr. Leah Hanson, co-director of the HealthPartners Center for Memory and Aging.

“They wanted to see if (lavender aromatherapy) had scientific merit,” Cagan said.

Deer Crest was chosen as a test venue after staff voiced interest in the study while conducting in-service training with English Rose Suites, Cagan added.

Deer Crest, which houses around 80 residents, is operated by Ebenezer, a faith-based, nonprofit division of Fairview Health Services.

Julie Walton, who took over as Deer Crest executive director in September, said the results of the study were surprising.

A nearly 15-year veteran of the assisted living field, Walton said she heard of essential oils being used to help treat certain behaviors, but never saw a controlled study on lavender aromatherapy for sleeping before now.

Walton said she expects Deer Crest and other assisted living facilities to begin using lavender therapy more regularly following the study, especially as a way to cut down on pharmaceuticals.

“Folks with memory loss issues can be on a lot of medication,” Walton said. “So if there are some natural substances out there … instead of introducing another medication, I think that’s something that all types of communities are going to buy into.”

Ebenezer offers a number of alternative therapies to help improve residents’ mood and mental health, including art and learning programs, Walton said. The Deer Crest location uses pet and music therapy, along with culinary and fine arts classes.

“We’re looking outside the box,” Walton said.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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