Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is an evergreen woody plant native to the Mediterranean region. It’s a member of the mint family but its small needle-like leaves look and smell similar to pine. Rosemary is one of the oldest known medicinal herbs. Both the leaves and flowers have been used medicinally for thousands of years to improve memory.
Students wore crowns of rosemary in ancient Greece to improve their mental performance when taking exams. During the Middle Ages, rosemary was considered a symbol of friendship, loyalty, and remembrance that was used at weddings and funerals. William Shakespeare immortalized the connection between rosemary and memory when Ophelia uttered these words in Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”
Rosemary Improves Memory And Alertness
Some fascinating research has been done on the effects of rosemary on cognition and memory. One cleverly designed study gave healthy adults a battery of cognitive tests. Some participants performed these tests in a room infused with rosemary essential oil, others in a room infused with lavender, which is considered a relaxing essential oil. If anyone asked about the aroma in their room, they were told it was from a previous group and that they were in fact being tested on the cognitive effects of vitamin water! Those in the rosemary group scored significantly better in memory, processing speed, alertness, and attention than both the control group and the lavender group.
Researchers discovered that the most common active compound in rosemary, 1,8-cineole, causes an increase in acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter responsible for memory and learning. Drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease work by blocking the breakdown of acetylcholine. It turns out that rosemary essential oil provides an excellent delivery system for getting 1,8-cineole directly to the brain. After rosemary essential oil is inhaled, 1,8-cineole molecules go directly from the bloodstream into the brain bypassing the liver and digestion.
Blood samples were taken from study participants and, as expected, traces of active rosemary compounds were found in their bloodstreams. And how did the lavender group fare? Lavender essential oil has a relaxing effect and this group did poorly on cognitive tests, significantly worse than either the rosemary group or the control group.
In another study on the cognitive effects on the brain of rosemary essential oil, volunteers received a 3-minute aromatherapy session using either rosemary or lavender essential oil. Researchers then assessed their brain wave activity, alertness, and mood. Compared to the control group or the lavender group, the rosemary group showed increases in alertness, speed and accuracy doing math computations, while simultaneously feeling more relaxed and less anxious.
Rosemary Protects The Brain From Damage And Aging
Some memory loss is considered a normal part of aging. Rosemary protects the brain in a variety of ways to minimize damage and slow down the rate of brain cell aging. It increases blood flow to the brain, which in turn supplies the brain with more oxygen and nutrients. Rosemary contains carnosic acid, a potent antioxidant that protects the brain from free radical damage. Free radicals are unattached oxygen molecules that speed up the aging process and contribute to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
There’s another way rosemary may protect the brain against Alzheimer’s. According to a study published in Cell Journal, carnosic acid reduces damage caused by protein plaques that accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients — specifically in the hippocampus, the area of the brain most strongly associated with memory.
How to Use Rosemary
You can use rosemary in the kitchen as a spice or as a tea. Or you can try supplemental rosemary that comes in capsules or as a liquid extract. These liquid extracts are in either an alcohol or oil base and are meant to be taken internally. Note that rosemary liquid extract is not the same as rosemary essential oil. Essential oils are extremely concentrated and rosemary oil is one of the many essential oils that should not be take internally.
Rosemary essential oil is so powerful that it should also not be applied directly to the skin. According to Mercola.com, it should be diluted with equal parts of a carrier oil like almond oil, jojoba oil, and apricot kernel oil. You can rub this diluted solution on your temples or wrist, or dab it under your nose whenever you need a little mental boost. Alternatively, you can get the benefits of rosemary essential oil by sending its vapors into the air you breathe. This can be done by adding a few drops to a pot of simmering water or using one of the many styles of diffusers, which range from diffuser reeds to ionizing electronic devices.
If you are eager to experience the memory boosting benefits of rosemary, you might consider a rosemary supplement. But this should be your last option. In the University of California Berkeley Wellness newsletter it states that, “there’s no reason to take rosemary supplements.” One reason for this is that getting too much rosemary can be counterproductive. A study in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that smaller doses of rosemary, similar to those used in cooking, had positive effects on memory while higher doses actually worsened mental performance.
Another reason is that rosemary supplements are not right for everyone. According to University of Maryland’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide, you should not take rosemary supplements if you have high blood pressure, ulcers, Crohn’s disease, or are pregnant or nursing. You should avoid rosemary if you take blood-thinning medications, ACE inhibitors or diuretics for high blood pressure, or are on the bipolar medication lithium. Since rosemary tends to lower blood sugar levels, rosemary can alter the need for anti-diabetic medication.
If you are taking any of these medications, you should not add rosemary to your supplement regimen before discussing it with a health care professional. Lastly, it’s not advised to give rosemary supplements to children under age 18, but it is safe to add it to their food. If you aren’t sure of the best way to use rosemary, you can’t go wrong adding more of this tasty herb to your food or using rosemary essential oil as directed.