The surprising way rosemary helps your memory
Rosemary is a perennial herb with needle-like leaves that has been used not only to flavour food but as a herbal remedy for many centuries. Whilst it originally comes from the Mediterranean, it can be grown in colder climates and today it's commonly used in aromatherapy. Rosemary has long been linked to memory, but does this herb really have the power to boost your brain health?
Past, present and future
In order to understand the power rosemary can have on your memory, you first need to know that there are three different types of memory:
- Past memory - This relates to memories from experiences as a child, what you learned at school etc.
- Present memory - Your minute-to-minute or short-term memory
- Future memory - Also called 'remembering to remember', such as remembering to go to the gym on Friday
Future memory is often the most difficult type of memory for many people, and when your future memory fails you, the results can be serious - such as forgetting to take heart medication or to pay a household bill. Improving your future memory can be tricky; whilst we're always hearing anout people who have improved their past memory and learned a whole new language, medicine doesn't (yet) seem to hold the answers to boosting future memory. Drugs used to treat dementia can lead to improvements for sufferers but their results are still uncertain, and they're definitely not a solution to improve the average person's memory.
Now a study by Professor Mark Moss and his team at Northumbria University (1) aims to look at whether rosemary could be used to benefit future memory. The experiment at Northumbria involved the participarion of 60 older volunteers, and aimed to test the effects of rosemary essential oil and lavender essential oil on the brain. Participants were asked to sit in a room infused with either lavender oil, rosemary oil or no aroma, and they were told they were there to test a new vitamin water drink.
After the experiment had ended, the volunteers all sat a test designed to test their future memory. Objects were hidden around the room in various places and volunteers had to remember their location at the end of the test. Then they were asked to perform a series of word puzzles whilst tester made complex demands of them such as, "When you find a question about the weather in your puzzle, can you remind me to call the dentist?" These questions, designed to test future memory, threw up some surprising results at the end of the study.
Your brain on rosemary
Participants who sat in the rosemary-infused room performed significantly better than those in the room with no aroma, whilst those in the lavender-infused room demonstrated a decrease in performance. Lavender essential oil is linked to relaxation and improved sleep, which ties in with the results of the study. So by inhaling rosemary, you could be more likely to remember things you need to do - without the need for a to-do list! But what has caused these results - what does your brain really look like on rosemary?
Compounds found in rosemary oil could cause a significant improvement in memory. The compound 1,8-cineole could act in a similar way to dementia drugs, increasing the levels of a neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine in the brain. It's thought that the compounds prevent enzymes in the brain from breaking down the neurotrasmitter. We already know that inhalation is one of the best ways to get drugs into the brain; when we inhale a substance it allows for small molecules to pass from the bloodstream into the brain, without the risk of being broken down by the liver. Following the study, the team analysed blood samples from the participants and found trace amounts of the chemicals in rosemary oil present in the blood.
What does this mean for memory?
Hold up; you don't need to start wearing rosemary oil as your new scent or carrying a bottle of it with you wherever you go. The results of this study show a modest improvement in memory and could help to benefit future research into the effect of compounds in essential oil on the brain, as well as helping us to understand brain function and memory better. Bear in mind that there could be side-effects from the inhalation of even something as pure as an essential oil, and only further research in future will reveal whether this is the case. Studies like the one at Northumbria go some way to restoring credibility to the alternative health sector and treatments such as aromatherapy, and could eventually contribute to the development of new dementia and memory loss drugs.
Boost your brain with rosemary
Rosemary can definitely help you to clear your mind and focus on the task at hand, so if you have an exam, important work meeting or deadline coming up, a few drops of pure rosemary essential oil in a burner can help, or add a few drops to a tissue and breathe in the aroma prior to the big event. Rosemary oil can also be added to a warm bath (just a few drops) to help boost brain power. In fact, any essential oil can be used in this way - lavender is a particularly good choice if you're suffering from anxiety or sleepless nights.
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