Learn about essential oils for focus and memory, and the growing body of scientific research on these ‘cognitive plants’. I will highlight three essential oils you can easily integrate into your daily routine to improve brain function.

Our Western lifestyle is increasingly busy and information-dense. A focused mind and optimal memory function are needed, and taking care of our brains now also helps us maintain better cognitive function in our later years of life. For those starting to notice some changes in memory, from the age of 50 and up, it is beneficial to start boosting memory and protect the brain. There are plenty of natural remedies to support focus and memory, other than a delicious cup of Coffea arabica. And these remedies can also help with conditions of the brain like dementia or specifically Alzheimer’s disease. A growing body of scientific research is available on these so-called ‘cognitive plants’.

Cognitive plants

Research into ‘cognitive plants’ has increased a lot in the last decennia. Two of the treatments for Alzheimer’s today are already derived from plants (however with side effects of nausea). Plants that increase memory affect the brain’s memory and attention signal, the neurotransmitter ‘acetylcholine’. This is the most studied neurotransmitter for memory and dementia. Plants boosting and holding this neurotransmitter in the brain by preventing breakdown are called ‘cognitive plants’. Another key to keeping the brain in optimal health are plants that contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, such as rosemary and sage. There are many interesting plants that can be used as a herbal supplement, but first I am going to particularly highlight three powerful essential oils.

Three Essential Oils

Below are three essential oils that are particularly beneficial when it comes to improving focus and memory.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary essential oil for memory

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Since time memorial Rosemary has been used as a brain tonic and specifically to improve memory. Rosemary is very effective when you suffer from poor concentration and mental and physical fatigue. It has been my go-to essential oil during study hours and even decreased my coffee cravings quite instantly.

Rosemary stimulates the mind as has always been known as a symbol for remembrance. The most famous literary reference found in Hamlet when Ophelia declares;

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance: pray, love, remember.
Ophelia in Hamlet

Culpeper recommended it for disease of head and brain, drowsiness and dullness amongst other things. It has been used since ancient times in Europe as a tonic and stimulant, also aiding with headaches, head colds and nervous tension. The Greeks and Romans considered it a sacred plant, and it is known as a psychic protector, associated with the third eye and seeing clearly (Battaglia, 2018).

Rosmarinus is derived from ros meaning dew, and marinus meaning sea, since it often grows near the coast. Rosemary is a small evergreen shrub, growing in abundance in the Mediterranean, mostly Spain, France, and Tunisia. Rosemary essential oil is steam distilled from leaves, flowers, and twigs of the plant. There are many species of Rosemary, varying widely in percentage of 1,8-cineole content, which causes an increase in the neurotransmitter acetylcholine mentioned before.

Today’s research confirms the powerful benefits for remembrance. Research at Northumbria University in 2013 indicated as much as 75% increase in memory for future tasks! In a 2003 study, Rosemary produced a significant enhancement of performance for overall quality of memory and secondary memory factors but also produced an impairment of speed of memory compared to controls (Moss et al., 2003). Other studies have shown the oil increases alertness and enhances long-term memory. Studies have also known that rosemary essential oil may help treat and prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Sage (Salvia officinalis L.) and Spanish Sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia)

Sage essential oil for memory and focus

Sage has a long-standing reputation for helping with memory function. More than 400 years ago English medical herbalist John Gerard already wrote sage is “singularly good for the head and brain” improving the sense and memory. The word Salvia is derived from salvare, referring to its many medicinal properties, it is considered a ‘cure-all’ (Battaglia, 2018).

Sage is an evergreen shrub, native to the Mediterranean yet cultivated worldwide. There are over 900 species of sage, but only a few can be used in aromatherapy. We are not referring to Clary sage (Salvia sclarea) which is also used in aromatherapy. These two sages have purple-blue flowers and silvery green leaves. Sage oil is distilled from the dried leaves of the plant.

Like Rosemary, sage contains 1,8-cineole activating the brain memory signals. Sage as a herb has antioxidant properties. Research refers to alcohol and water extracts, but it has been found that many effects have been similar in the use of essential oils. One study found that inhalation of Salvia officinalis significantly improved memory and secondary memory. And it has been concluded in a review of a clinical trial in 2014 that sage and Spanish sage herbs and essential oils improve cognitive function in healthy subjects and patients with dementia. (Battaglia, 2018)

Sage, not defined whether as extract or oil, improves memory in lab studies by blocking enzymes that break down, here it is again, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Both species contain compounds that are neuroprotective and reduce inflammation and oxidation. Clinical research shows its effect on focus and memory for healthy minds but also for Alzheimer patients. Salvia officinalis contains thujone and is therefore not safe for children, pregnant women, or those suffering from epilepsy.

Sweet or Common Basil (Ocimum Basilicum L.)

Basil essential oil for focus

Sweet or Common Basil (Ocimum Basilicum L.)

Herbaceous basil with its beautiful gentle and rounded leaves is an essential oil very effective for retaining focus and concentration.

The name basil comes from basileus, meaning like a king, due to the fragrance of the herb.
Basil has long been used as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic (Battaglia, 2018).

Basil is an annual herb, and you may not expect this but it grows up to 0,5m in height. Native to tropical Asia and Africa but growing in herb gardens worldwide. Basil oil is steam-distilled from the leaves and flowering tops.

Research in mice found anti-inflammatory effects in Basil oil (Battaglia, 2018). Basil clears the head, relieves mental fatigue, giving strength and clarity. It is also very relaxing reducing stress.

How to use

My preferred way to benefit from the qualities of these essential oils is by making an inhaler with a few drops of a blend of 2 to 3 of the essential oils. The beauty is that you can carry the potential of these aromas with you at all times in such a handy inhaler, and give yourself an instant and enjoyable focus boost.

If you have a diffuser you can also add your blend to your diffuser and use this for an hour or so at a time (so your receptors don’t get too accustomed to it).

The most simple way to benefit from these essential oils can be by simply adding a drop of 1-3 oils on a tissue, and either inhale from there every once in a while or leave it on the table next to you.

A note on blending
You can brighten up your blend with a fresh citrus essential oil, such as lemon or grapefruit. The refreshing and uplifting scent of lemon (Citrus limon) is like a breath of fresh air that helps to attain an awakened and positive mindset. Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi) is also delicious and refreshing and it is known as a scent that induces feelings of joy. It so happens that learning happens much faster when it is playful, so positivity and play are definitely invited in a blend for memory!