How Rosemary Can Improve Your Memory

Rosemary essential oil doesn't just smell amazing – studies show it can actually improve your memory

Whether it's fresh or dried, sprinkled on potatoes or in a soup, rosemary is one of those superstar ingredients that has a knack for making anything taste delicious. But aside from imparting flavour to food, this fragrant Mediterranean herb also has a powerful effect on the brain, in particular, on memory.

Rosemary's ability to sharpen memory is something that has been recognised for millennia across Europe.

Students in Ancient Greece wore sprigs of the perennial herb in their hair as they studied for exams while Ophelia, a character in William Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, even remarked, “There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.”

Rosemary's link to memory is also highlighted through traditions in Australia, particularly on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day, when sprigs of the aromatic herb are pinned to coat lapels in honour of fallen soldiers.

What Is It About Rosemary That Enhances Memory? It's 1,8-Cineole

While rosemary is nutritious enough when eaten, the herb's superpower has been traced to a particular compound found in the essential oil (Rosmarinus officinalis) called 1,8-cineole.

This naturally occurring component – which is also found in other fresh, camphoraceous plants, like eucalyptus and basil – has been shown to prevent the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, acting in a similar manner to cholinergic medication prescribed for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's.

"A component in rosemary acts in a similar manner to medication prescribed for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's"

Acetylcholine is widely known to help us feel mentally alert, and also enhances neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to change and consolidate learning.

Simply By Inhalation, Rosemary Improves Cognition

There have been several studies over the past few years that have focused on the brain-boosting effects of rosemary essential oil.

One study in published in the Egyptian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences found that inhaling rosemary was shown to improve short-term memory in 53 students aged between 13 and 15.

Several more studies were led by Dr Mark Moss, the Head of Psychology at Northumbria University in the UK. The first in 2012 exposed 20 adults to the scent of rosemary essential oil before assessing their speed and accuracy in mathematical tasks. 

As well as completing tasks and answering a questionnaire, each participant had a blood sample analysed. Interestingly, the participants who inhaled rosemary had varying levels of 1,8-cineole in their plasma, with researchers concluding that a higher concentration of 1,8-cineole was linked with improved cognitive  performance.

Eager to discover whether rosemary could have a similar effect on school-aged children in a classroom setting, Dr Moss led another study on 40 children aged 10 to 11 and discovered that pupils who inhaled rosemary essential oil scored "significantly higher" in a series of memory tests than those in a room without the aroma.

"Pupils who inhaled rosemary essential oil scored "significantly higher" in a series of memory tests"

The findings pointed to a "possible cost effective and simple intervention to improve academic performance in children," he said, adding, "The time is ripe for large-scale trials of aroma application in education settings." 

Rosemary And Your To-Do List

Dr Moss's subsequent study with researcher Jemma McCready also found rosemary inhalation led to an improvement in "prospective" memory, which refers to the ability to remember events that will occur in the future or to complete tasks at particular times – such as remembering to call your aunt on her birthday or take medication at a certain time of the day. 

Sixty-six people took part in this study, their mood and memory assessed after they were exposed to either a rosemary-scented room or another room with no scent.

In the room that was scented, rosemary essential oil was dispersed through a diffuser, which was switched on five minutes before the participants entered.

Much like the previous study, the participants' blood was analysed with 1,8-cineole detected in the plasma of those exposed to rosemary aroma.

The findings? Those who spent time in the rosemary-scented room performed better on prospective memory tasks than the participants in the room with no scent.

"Participants in the rosemary-scented room performed better on prospective memory tasks than the participants in the room with no scent."

According to the duo, the findings, which were presented at the 2013 Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society – could inform future therapy for memory impairment conditions, such as Alzheimer's. 

"Remembering when and where to go and for what reasons underpins everything we do," noted McCready. "We all suffer minor failings that can be frustrating and sometimes dangerous. Further research is needed to investigate if this treatment is useful for older adults who have experienced memory decline."

Whether you're a skeptic or not, rosemary essential oil clearly has measurable effects on memory. It's food – or herb – for thought.

The brain-boosting properties of rosemary are included in two essential oil blends in The Focus Series by Appellation.

The Impetus and The Salutation are formulated with Rosemary ct Cineole (Rosmarinus officinalis ct cineole) – a subspecies of the herb that is especially high in 1.8 cineole – the same chemotype used in the Northumbria University studies.