A Rosemary Guide: Could This Herb Be The Secret To Better Brain Health?

mbg Associate Health Editor By Darcy McDonough, M.S.
mbg Associate Health Editor
Darcy McDonough is the associate health editor at mbg. She has a master’s degree in nutrition interventions, communication, and behavior change from the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
A Rosemary Guide: Could This Herb Be The Secret To Better Brain Health?

You probably already know that rosemary has some delicious flavor power—especially when sprinkled in soup, roasted on potatoes, or rubbed on chicken—but did you know it also has some serious health benefits? Rosemary has been used for centuries as a healing herb and essential oil in many different ancient medical systems and cultures. And now, science is backing up many of its purported benefits.

Rosemary for memory.

There's no denying that the fresh scent of rosemary awakens the senses, and that might not be a placebo effect! Science shows that rosemary can give your brain a boost, and its most well-known health property is rosemary's ability to improve memory. Even Shakespeare knew rosemary had some major memory power: In Hamlet, Ophelia says, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance: pray you, love, remember." The scent of rosemary oil has been shown to increase clarity and boost mental performance. In one study, students in a room infused with rosemary oil scored 5 to 7 points better on a memory test. Similar experiments support these findings in healthy adults as well. Researchers believe this is because a compound in rosemary inhibits the breakdown of neurotransmitters responsible for encoding memories in the brain.


Rosemary for neurodegenerative disease.

In fact, low levels of this memory neurotransmitter, called acetylcholine, is one of the characteristic signs of Alzheimer's disease. Current drug treatments for dementia act on the brain in a similar manner as rosemary to increase and preserve the amount of acetylcholine in the brain. Unfortunately, these medications can cause unpleasant side effects, like diarrhea and vomiting. Rosemary, on the other hand, is generally well-tolerated, especially in aromatherapy, and has been proposed as a natural management strategy for Alzheimer's disease. One small study found that exposure to aromatherapy improved cognitive function in dementia patients. While these results are promising, more research is needed to determine the full potential of rosemary for dementia treatment.

Rosemary for mental clarity.

In addition to boosting memory power, rosemary can increase mental clarity and awareness. Rosemary's interaction with the brain and central nervous system can be physically and mentally invigorating. Inhaling rosemary was shown to elevate heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature, as well as mood in a study of young adults. Many of the studied individuals reported feeling stimulated and mentally fresh after inhaling rosemary. The stimulatory effects of rosemary may further improve cognitive function and capabilities.

A Rosemary Guide: Could This Herb Be The Secret To Better Brain Health?

Photo: @Madeleine_Steinbach

Rosemary for healthy digestion.

Traditionally, rosemary has been hailed for its ability to ease digestive discomfort. Researchers believe this is because it has antispasmodic properties, relaxing the muscles of the gastrointestinal system and allowing for proper digestion. When eaten with meals, rosemary's anti-inflammatory properties may also increase blood flow, thereby aiding digestion and absorption. Additionally, many people swear by rubbing rosemary oil directly on their stomach to relieve cramping, but it has not yet been scientifically studied.


Rosemary for the endocannabinoid system.

The endocannabinoid system is a network of neurotransmitter and cannabinoid receptors located throughout the body, many of them concentrated in the central nervous system and immune system. The endocannabinoid system interacts with cannabinoids, which are either produced naturally by our bodies or ingested from plants. This system rules our stress response, anxiety levels, pain signaling, and more. The endocannabinoid system was discovered while researchers were studying the cannabis plant, so naturally the most well-known source of plant-derived cannabinoids, or phytocannabinoids as they are called, are hemp and marijuana.

It has since been discovered that many other plants also contain phytocannabinoids, though, including—you guessed it—rosemary. The specific phytocannabinoid in rosemary is beta-caryophyllene (BCP). BCP has been shown to promote bone formation and mineralization, which may prevent osteoporosis. Also, BCP has anti-inflammatory properties and may confer anti-anxiety benefits. Science is just beginning to understand the complex interactions of the endocannabinoid system, but the emerging research is fascinating.

Rosemary for aging.

Rosemary can improve overall health due to its potent antioxidant properties. Antioxidants act as a defense system in the body, fighting against free radicals that can damage our cells and cause diseases of aging. And rosemary is near the top of the list for herbs with the most antioxidants. In fact, one small village in Italy credits rosemary for its large population of healthy people living past 100.


Rosemary oil for hair growth.

Rosemary oil has been touted for centuries for its ability to stimulate hair growth, and recent studies support this long-held belief. In one study, a mix of essential oils, including rosemary oil, was found to successfully improve hair growth in almost half of study participants with alopecia. In fact, another study found rosemary oil to be as effective as over-the-counter products for stimulating hair regrowth in patients with androgenetic alopecia (pattern baldness).

How to incorporate rosemary into your routine.

Medicinal and culinary rosemary comes in many forms. You probably already know that it can be eaten fresh or as a dried herb. But you might not realize that it is also available as an extract and an essential oil. In fact, if you are looking to reap the brain-boosting medicinal benefits of rosemary, oil is probably your best bet. Science shows that the invigorating chemicals in rosemary can be more efficiently and completely absorbed by the body through the olfactory system. This is because it does not have to be broken down in the gastrointestinal system and is instead directly absorbed. In this form, it easily crosses the blood-brain barrier, immediately taking effect. So the next time you want a quick pick-me-up, try adding a couple of drops of rosemary essential oil to a diffuser or right on your wrists and inhale the stimulating scent.

If you are looking for digestive relief or hair regrowth, topical administration is the way to go. Just be sure to dilute your oil, since essential oils are extremely concentrated and can burn the skin when undiluted. Mix a couple of drops of rosemary essential oil with a carrier oil (like jojoba or grapeseed oil) and massage into skin or hair for benefits. Adding rosemary to your meals is another great way to support the digestive system and avoid discomfort from the inside. You can even burn dried rosemary, which is believed to clear negative energy and make way for new beginnings.

One thing to be aware of: High doses of rosemary can be dangerous for pregnant women. It is always best to check with your doctor before trying new oils or supplements.

New to herbal remedies? Check out these 10 perfect herbs for beginners.

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