This article originally appeared in the NAHA Journal (Autumn 2017.3) and is re-published here according to the NAHA Writer Guidelines 2017-2018 copyright statement. This article is excerpted from the original article which contains further information. If you would like to become a member of NAHA and enjoy more articles like this, please visit the NAHA website.
In the words of the great English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), “There’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance” (Hamlet, Act IV, Scene Five). This most unassuming herb of the plant world does, in fact, possesses a great many characteristics but it is its association with memory that we will be looking at more closely in this article. We will discover that rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) essential oil metabolizes into several variations with regard to its essential oil constituents, and understanding each of these variations can help us to use it to its fullest potential.
Cognitive performance can be affected in any stage of life, sometimes reduced by stressful events, or simply by the effect of aging. But although memory loss is a distressing condition that affects a great many people, to varying degrees, it hits most cruelly when our bodies (and minds) age. Synthetic drugs have limited use in this area of study. However, clinical studies in the use of rosemary essential oil is producing some encouraging results in how this plant might be able to help.
Botanical Spotlight on Rosemary
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a member of the Lamiaceae plant family. A perennial woody herb, with highly aromatic leaves, rosemary is an evergreen shrub which produces lavender-blue or pink-lavender flowers. Although it traditionally flowers in the spring, it can be an early bloomer in the garden (as early as December in warmer climates) and may produce flowers outside of its traditional flowering season.
Rosemary is indigenous to the Mediterranean region but it grows in any comparable climate. In my garden in northern Arizona, I have seen this shrub flourish both under hot and wet conditions. Rosemary has spiky, green, needle-shaped leaves which are reminiscent of fir needles in shape. Both the leaves and flowering tops are harvested and distilled for use as an essential oil.
Essential Oil Chemotypes
Rosemary has traditionally produced three main chemotypes: ct. camphor, ct. cineole, and ct. verbenone.1 However, other chemotypes that exist in today’s world include ct. borneol, ct. bornyl acetate, ct. myrcene, and ct. pinene.2,3
A chemotype is the different internal chemical composition of a plant; its external appearance, and the genus and species, appear the same. Essentially a chemotype is a subspecies of a plant.4 This means that some plants, when extracted for essential oil, produce a malady of chemical compositions, producing a variance in therapeutic properties of an essential oil.
These changes may occur naturally in the wild or they may be the result of cross-pollination. Other factors which affect the variance in chemotypes in a plant include the elevation at which the plant was grown, the growing conditions of the plant, climate, and various environmental factors.5 It can even depend on the time of collection of the rosemary plant for distillation.6
A few plants, such as rosemary, seem to have a tendency towards this variance of chemical constituents.
Rosemary as an Essential Oil
Rosemary essential oil has a fresh, camphoraceous aroma (depending on the chemotype) with subtle undertones of mint. It typically contains the following chemical components; the names in bold represent the various chemotypes of rosemary essential oil:
- borneol,linalool, and terpineol
- camphor, thujone, and verbenone
- camphene, pinene, limonene, and myrcene
- bornyl acetate and fenchyl acetate
- caryophyllene and humulene
- cuminic aldehyde.3
Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease
Dementia is an umbrella name applied to a number of symptoms associated with memory loss. The most common type of memory loss is Alzheimer’s disease.7 Symptoms of dementia include:
- increasing memory loss
- increased difficulty in communicating effectively
- inability to focus
- increasing unreasonableness
- increased agitation
- increased anxiety
- lack of judgment
- decreased visual perception.
Although most people suffer with dementia after the age of sixty-five, five percent of the population incur “early onset” dementia.8
Symptoms worsen over time. It may start with forgetting where you placed an object, increasing to inability to remember to pay bills on time, to forgetting how to find your way back home from a previously familiar route. Increased agitation and change in mood (aggressiveness) may follow in the latter stages of the disease and it is a very difficult disease for caregivers to watch how a loved one deteriorates.
Clinical Studies with Rosemary Essential Oil: Memory in General
The use of rosemary essential oil with memory loss and, in particular, Alzheimer’s disease, has produced positive results in various clinical studies. Unfortunately, many of these studies fail to mention which particular chemotype of rosemary essential oil was used.
One study suggested increased alertness and lower anxiety scores when rosemary essential oil was given to the study group.9 The study group also completed math computations more accurately and more quickly than the study group who were given lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil. Another study also showed similar results.10
Clinical Studies with Rosemary Essential Oil: 1,8-cineole
One particular study concluded that “compounds absorbed from rosemary aroma affect cognition and subjective state independently through different neurochemical pathways.”11 Improved cognitive performance was recorded at higher levels of exposure.
Clinical Studies with Rosemary Essential Oil: Alzheimer’s Disease
A positive and encouraging study concluded that there was “some potential” for aromatherapy in helping to improve cognitive function in Alzheimer’s disease patients.12 In the study, rosemary and lemon (Citrus x limon) essential oils were used in the morning, followed by lavender and orange (species not specified) essential oils in the evening. Results showed a “significant improvement in personal orientation related to cognitive function.”
Conclusions and Recommendations
In summary, given the information obtained in these studies, and our understanding of rosemary essential oil and its various chemotypes, it can be seen that rosemary essential oil has potential to assist in a form of a holistic care package for someone suffering with memory loss.
Rosemary essential oil, in general, is a stimulating essential oil and the various chemical components found within it, seem to indicate it is successful in stimulating memory and increasing cognitive function within certain environments. Indeed, one study indicated that ct. 1,8-cineole was successful in affecting cognitive awareness.
It would appear to me that all chemotypes of rosemary essential oil would produce a stimulating effect, although some to a greater degree than other depending upon individual chemical components. The decision between each chemotype may depend upon if there are other issues to address with a patient as well; for example, respiratory issues. The time of day at which the rosemary essential oil is used may also affect the choice of chemotype used; for example, ct. verbenone may be more useful at bed time than in the morning.
I would also consider alternating rosemary essential oil with an “opposite” blend of essential oils, i.e. a calming blend. This method was used in the study Effect of aromatherapy on patients with Alzheimer’s disease11and produced promising results.
It may be difficult to get a patient with memory loss to apply an aromatherapy blend on a regular basis, due to change in mood and memory, so a caregiver may wish to try diffusing the essential oil blend as an alternative.
Having watched my grandfather slip slowly away into the world of Alzheimer’s disease when I was in my early 20’s and taking my finals at college, I only wish I had known then what I know now about the use of aromatherapy. Although research is in its infancy with how aromatherapy can be used with debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, the potential for using rosemary essential oil in this capacity is promising.
Memory Booster Diffusion Blend
Add the following essential oils to a 5 mL glass bottle:
- 25 drops rosemary ct. camphor (Rosmarinus officinalis)
- 30 drops lemon (Citrus x limon)
- 20 drops sage* (Salvia officinalis)
- 20 drops basil (Ocimum basilicum)
*Sage has also been shown to be effective to boost memory performance.13
Instructions for Use: Add an orifice reducer to the bottle, cap, and shake well. Add approximately five drops of the blend to an aromatherapy diffuser, following the manufacturer’s guidelines for use. Diffuse for twenty minutes in the morning.
Cautions for Use: This is an extremely potent blend. Avoid use around babies and young children under the age of five years, around pets, in pregnancy, or around those with specific health conditions such as high blood pressure and epilepsy. Do not diffuse longer than the specified time, and reduce if necessary. Consult a certified aromatherapist for further advice.
Breathe Calmly Bed Time Spray
Combine the following essential oils with 2-oz. of distilled water and one tsp. grain-free alcohol, in a spray bottle:
- 8 drops lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
- 6 drops rosemary ct. verbenone (Rosamarinus officinalis)
- 5 drops Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
- 5 drops valerian (Valeriana faurieri)
Instructions for Use: Combine all of the ingredients, cap, and shake well. Spray the pillow lightly before going to bed to promote easy breathing and restful sleep.
Cautions for Use: Avoid use around babies and young children under the age of five years, around pets, in pregnancy, or around those with specific health conditions such as high blood pressure and epilepsy. Discontinue use if agitation occurs and seek professional medical advice.
- Price S and Price L. (2012). Aromatherapy for Health Professionals, 4th ed. UK: Elsevier Ltd. P10-11.
- Tisserand R and Young R. (2014). Essential Oil Safety, 2nd ed. UK: Elsevier Ltd. P407-409.
- Elhassan I A and Osman N M. (2014). New Chemotype Rosmarinus officinalis L. (Rosemary) “R. officinalis ct. bornyl acetate.” American Journal of Research Communication. 2 (4), p232-240. Available from: http://www.usa-journals.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Elhassan_Vol24.pdf Last accessed August 11, 2017.
- Clarke S. (2008). Essential Chemistry for Aromatherapy, 2nd ed. UK: Elsevier Ltd. p134, p145.
- Falsetto S. (2016). What is an Essential Oil Chemotype? Sedona Aromatherapie blog. Available: http://sedonaaromatherapie.com/blog/2016/07/11/what-is-an-essential-oil-chemotype/ Last accessed August 11, 2017.
- Lakusi D, Risti M, Slavkovska V, Lakusi B. (2013). Composition of the Essential Oils of Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis, Lamiaceae). Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23472478. Last accessed August 11, 2017.
- Alzheimer’s Association. (2016), Dementia. Available: http://www.alz.org/what-is-dementia.asp. Last accessed August 11, 2017.
- Mayo Clinic. (2016). Early-onset Alzheimer’s. Available: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/in-depth/alzheimers/art-20048356 Last accessed August 11, 2017.
- Diego M A, Jones N A, Field T, Hernandez-Reif M, Schanberg S, Kuhn C, McAdam V, Galamaga R, Galamaga M., (2016). Aromatherapy positively affects mood, EEG patterns of alertness and math computations. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10069621/ Last accessed August 11, 2017.
- Moss M, Cook J, Wesnes K, Duckett P, Aromas of Rosemary and Lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12690999 Last accessed August 11, 2017.
- Moss M and Oliver L. (2012). Plasma 1,8-cineole correlates with cognitive performance following exposure to Rosemary essential oil aroma. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3736918/ Last accessed August 11, 2017.
- Jimbo D, Kimura Y, Taniquchi M, Inoue M, Urakami K. (2016). Effect of aromatherapy on patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20377818 Last accessed August 11, 2017.
- Falsetto, Sharon, 2012, Sage Aromatherapy Short Course, Sedona Aromatherapie LLC.
About Sharon Falsetto
Sharon Falsetto is a UK-certified aromatherapist. She has been living in the United States since 2006 and is the founder of Sedona Aromatherapie LLC and the forthcoming Sedona Aromatics School and Garden. Sharon offers a home study aromatherapy education program: The NAHA approved Linguistics of AromaticsTM Program. Sharon is both a published author and editor in aromatherapy. She is also an aromatherapy consultant, a custom blend formulator, and a herbal studies student. She works from her garden studio in Sedona, Arizona, where she is in the process of creating her own aromatic stillroom on her one acre homestead and aromatic gardens. Sharon is the author of Authentic Aromatherapy, the current chief editor of the NAHA Aromatherapy Journal, and the NAHA regional director for Arizona. You can visit Sharon’s website at: www.sedonaaromatherapie.com.