Over the years my sleep pattern has hardly changed. Just as I did in my twenties, I go to bed between 10.30 and 11.00pm and am usually asleep within 15 minutes. Then, at 5.00am – never later than 6.30 – I get up to work – which most often involves writing. My night’s six hours have always had the occasional interruptions; in my twenties and early thirties they were in response to the demands of small children, nowadays it is to meet the traditional needs of older men. For completeness sake I should add that I often doze in the afternoon which at work was a ‘power nap’ and these days is called a siesta.
Knowing my pattern, it was a complete surprise when, a few weeks ago, I woke up one morning at 8.00am after an unbroken night. Most unusually, Rohan did the same. It then took at least a quarter-of-an-hour to be fully awake – normally I am alert when I open my eyes. Both of us were very surprised about our late waking but despite much puzzling, initially we could find no explanation. Then an idea crossed my mind – could it be that we had overdosed on lavender?
Each year in September, Rohan sews envelope-sized bags which she fills with the fragrant lavender buds – some bags for presents, some to keep . Bag-making apart, the process takes days and involves four key steps all of which are led by Rohan helped as and when by me.
The first step is to prune the lavender bushes by cutting the base of the stems that have grown since Spring. The cut stems are about forty centimetres long and at their tips is the ‘spike’ with its cluster of fragrant buds that were once encased by violet petals. This year there were enough cut stems to fill three large baskets. Next the bud-laden spikes are cut from the stems and spread out to dry on trays (see the tray on the left in the illustration). Finally the buds are separated from the spikes and put on other trays ready to be packed (the tray on the right of the illustration is full of loosened buds)
This last separation stage is done by hand, leaning over the trays and gently rubbing the buds from their sprigs with our fingers. For an outside observer, this work must look like a labour of yesteryear.
I had promised Rohan that this time I would take responsibility for doing the separation and for three hours on the evening before my excessively sleepy night I, and for a period Rohan, lent over the tray breathing in waves of lavender fumes as they wafted by. By ten o’clock, with the job done we were ready for bed. If the lavender scent had any effect, I would have had an overdose!
It was not until at least an hour after my eight-o’clock waking that the idea of the lavender came to mind and within minutes I was searching the web. The results left no doubt; the consensus was clear – inhaling the scent of lavender helps people sleep. I next asked two friends their opinion and both had found that lavender improved sleeping, one telling how if she put one of Rohan’s lavender bags on her pillow it made all the difference. Finally, our local chemist told me that she sold bottles of lavender oil to be used expressly for the relief of insomnia. And all this was new to me!
How extraordinary it was that this one-time clinical pharmacologist who for years taught medical students how drugs and medicines work and are used, had no knowledge of lavender’s soporific effect. What’s more, this ignorance spread to most other ‘natural’ medicines in common use. Indeed, I dismissed their efficacy, and that too is odd for one who knows that many conventional medicines and drugs have their origins in plants, amongst them aspirin, atropine, morphine, warfarin, digoxin and caffeine.
While academic knowledge of the sleep-inducing properties of lavender passed me by, there must have been a flicker of insight for me to suddenly realise that lavender might have been a cause of my sleepiness on that oddest of nights. How ingenious it is of the brain to be able to dredge up information from its depths when needed.
And as an afterthought, if lavender is that good at helping people sleep, and if its active component is safe to be used without the risk of side effects, shouldn’t the pharmaceutical industry be finding a way to bottle it?
The illustration shows a photograph of two large trays each about 60cm across. In the tray on the left are lavender buds still attached to the spikes previously at the end of their stems. On the right the buds are loose having been separated from the spikes – these buds are now ready to be put into bags.
For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Jennie, Jeni, Rohan and Vivien.