S3E7. Rosemary, Baby!

When were you going to tell me?

And why is the brain health blogger apparently the last to know?

I’ve been researching this stuff for about two years now and not once can I recall an article extolling the praises of rosemary…and it’s not because my memory is failing me!

Last week, my step-son Chris tagged me on a meme he shared on Facebook that simply read: “Scientists discovered an herb that fights off dementia and enhances memory and focus…” Naturally, I bit, clicking on the link to see what it was referencing. 

I landed on a site claiming that rosemary could improve digestion, avert brain aging, protect from macular degeneration, prevent cancer, enhance memory and focus, and protect neurons from damage. 

Needless to say, I was skeptical, but then my niece Wendy, who is a doctor of naturopathic medicine, commented on Chris’ post saying that when she took her board exams, all of the applicants had sprigs of rosemary on their desks.

So I decided to follow-up on the brain health claims and, lo and behold, there is actually some there there!

The preponderance of research is on animals, so there is reason to hold one’s exuberance in check until more studies can be done on humans, but the animal record is pretty impressive.

In a review of the literature, it was found that rosemary’s effects were consistent across types of administration (eaten in food, drunk in tea, or inhaled in a diffusion) and the effects can be induced with small doses, similar to the amounts you use in cooking. That’s pretty impressive.

It has quite a few chemical compounds in it that are important for brain health, giving it antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective qualities.

It also influences at least 10 different chemical reactions that are important for memory formation and recall.

The human record, though, is thinner. One study showed that students performed better on memory tests when in a room with a rosemary diffusion. Another showed an increase in speed of recall (average age of participants was 75) after receiving a dose of rosemary extract. But these studies were performed more than a dozen years ago, and so one has to wonder why no further results have been reported in the last decade, even as the animal research continues apace. How does such a promising line of research just go dark?

I dug a little deeper and it appears that research on herbs is very difficult to do because it’s nearly impossible to guarantee the same chemical properties from one batch of plants to another. Everything from soil to sunlight to moisture to age of plant at harvest to parts of the plant used to the method of processing the leaves affects the final product. If you can’t standardize the treatment, then your results can’t be challenged or replicated. What’s more, you can’t get approval for and market the product as medicine if you can’t guarantee the batch you are selling has the same properties as the batch that was used in the research…and therein, apparently, lies the rub.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of waiting another decade for large-scale human studies to be conducted. There is some really old ‘research’ that suggests using rosemary might be good for your brain: the ancient Greeks wore it while taking exams to enhance recall and placed it under their pillows to reduce nightmares and better understand the meaning of their dreams. 

Paradoxically, one of the few recent human studies found that inhaling rosemary essential oil decreased sleepiness and increased alertness among night shift nurses. What do you think the ancient Greeks would say about that?

Eager to incorporate anything into my lifestyle that might give my brain a leg up in navigating the next 30 years, I immediately bought powdered rosemary to add to my daily tea infusion. I’ll add some to the spice mix next time I make granola, too.

But the biggest leap of faith I took was to buy an essential oil diffuser for the bedroom. Here’s my thinking: long-term memory formation takes place while you sleep and inhaling rosemary enhances recall, so maybe combining the two will super-charge the process. Makes sense, no?

I’ll be the first to admit that that’s more of a crap shoot than a scientific hypothesis. I don’t understand the chemistry of how rosemary affects one’s brain, so it’s just as likely to interfere with the memory formation process as it is to enhance it. I could easily argue that the stimulating effects that the nurses experienced will result in a lighter sleep for me with fewer hours of the deep sleep needed for memory consolidation.

I’m a betting man, though, and I decided to go with the Greeks on this one.  So I set up the diffuser in the bedroom, added 3 drops of rosemary essential oil to half a cup of water, turned it on, and settled in for a productive night’s slumber.


It usually takes me no time at all to fall asleep, but not that night. My mind refused to drift below the sleep line for what seemed like forever. Then when I did sleep, it felt shallow, like I was just an inch or two below the surface. 

I must have slept some because I had dreams, but they weren’t sharp or colorful. It was like watching them through gauze.

I woke up frequently, tossing and turning. And then I did the worst thing possible: I tried to write a summary in my head of this night’s experience for the blog!

Did I mention that my heart seemed to be beating a little faster than normal? Yeah, there was that, too.

So it appears I experienced the nurses’ arousal and anti-sleepiness effects instead of the Greeks’ insight into the meaning of my dreams effect. Bummer. 

Sally, on the other hand, reported a better than normal night’s sleep.

So I’ll give it another shot next week, just in case there was some extraneous factor that kept me awake during this first trial, but I’m not hopeful. The rosemary diffusion apparently had a stimulative effect on me and that’s not consistent with the kind of deep sleep your brain needs every night to stay healthy. If the second trial fails, I’ll take a shot at using it in the morning in the living room when I do my puzzles.

I’ll keep you posted.