Aromatherapy For Improving Cognitive Function

Essential oils are well known for a great variety of healing actions: antibacterial, antiviral, ant-inflammatory — even anticancer. But did you know they’re proven to make you smarter as well? There’s actually a growing body of evidence confirming the use of certain essential oils can improve mental performance in a variety of ways. Some studies have even indicated they improve mood at the same time. So what are these oils and how can you use them?

In aromatherapy, there are several oils that are loosely classed as “stimulants”. They’re generally sharper, herbaceous aromatics: sage and rosemary are examples. Others are not quite as spicy, but are still stimulating, like lemon. One can browse research databases like “pubmed.gov”, and find many studies published in peer-reviewed science journals confirming the ability of these oils to make us smarter, or help our brains work better in some way.

In the October 11th, 2010 online version of the Journal of Psychopharmacology, a study was published evaluating the use of sage essential oil for cognitive and mood enhancement. Using rigorous control methods, researchers set out to test if a single dose of the essential oil would produce statistically significant changes in their subjects performance of tasks involving mental acuity. The researchers begin their abstract by noting that essential oil of sage has “previously been shown to…improve cognitive function”, this being the impetus for further investigation.

The results are very enlightening for the aromatherapy practitioner. With just one single drop, measurable, statically significant improvements in both mood and memory-related tasks were found (most notably at one-hour post ingestion). At four hours after ingestion, measurable reduction of mental fatigue was found. This seems that a really small amount of essential oil produced these results! And because the drop was ingested, it’s all about getting the oil in the bloodstream any way you can — which actually happens via inhalation and topical application as well. So what’s going on here?

The reason for these cognitive and mood improvements are not completely clear — however, the researchers point to the observation that sage, and in fact many other spicy/herbal essential oils, inhibit an enzyme in the body that breaks down acetylcholine. This is our primary “information processing” neurotransmitter, and when these essential oils are in the bloodstream, they allow more of this neuro-chemical to be available. This is the same activity of an herbal supplement called “Huperzine A”, also taken to improve brain function.

Also of interest is that it seems to be an entire class of chemicals, called “monoterpenes” that have this action. They contribute to bright, high notes in aromas. They’re found in citrus oils as well, particularly in lemon essential oil. And lemon has been the subject of similar research (as that done with sage), with similar results. And as the sage study noted, these natural chemicals that act as aromatic stimulants when inhaled act as mental stimulants when ingested as well. (It’s unclear whether peppermint, for example, enhances cognitive function through ingestion, though it has been shown to do this through inhalation).

Using these essential oils for enhancing mental acuity is one of the more simple aromatherapy procedures. Inhaling using any diffuser will do — it’s likely that if you find one of these bright aromatics you enjoy the smell of, and an inhale it to the point of enjoyment (not too much, not too little) you’ll reproduce these effects. As the study on sage noted that the ingestion of one drop was well-tolerated, you might also experiment with a low dose like this. Note that sage does contain a type of “ketone” molecule that’s recommended to be used with caution by some therapists, and not by pregnant or nursing mothers, or young children. However, there are many, many oils with similar character to choose from. Find one or more you like the aroma of (you’ll use it more) and enjoy!

The author is a frequent user of helichrysum essential oil and other natural botanicals for healing.

categories: aromatherapy,essential oils,mind,mood,brain,supplements,alternative health,health

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