What if you could always remember where you left your keys? Or the name of that person you met the other day who’s now greeting you (by your name, of course) in the grocery store? These scenarios happen to us all — and when they do we worry about dementia or aging in general. But astounding new research at the University of California, Irvine, shows a way to improve memory, focus and brainpower so we don’t need to worry: inhaling the scent of essential oils!
The UC Irvine neuroscientists exposed healthy subjects, ages 60 to 85, to one of seven essential oils (rose, orange, eucalyptus, lemon, peppermint, rosemary or lavender) for two hours as they slept. Half of subjects used vials containing mostly distilled water, with small amounts of essential oil; the rest received vials with the same essential oils at full-strength. The findings? After six months, the full-strength oil improved subjects cognitive performance by 226% compared to the control group. Cognitive function is a term that encompasses a range of mental functions including memory, perception, reasoning, decision-making and language comprehension.
The science behind aromas and brainpower
How did these seven oils create this powerful result? MRIs revealed a stronger brain pathway known as the left uncinate fasciculus in those who were exposed to the full-strength oil. The investigators say this pathway becomes less active as we age, which is key since it plays a role in functions associated with thinking, emotions and memory formation.
This isn’t the first study to show a link between essential oils and memory, but other findings weren’t as practical in the real world: One required subjects to inhale as many as 40 different odors twice daily! “The reality is that over the age of 60, the olfactory sense and cognition starts to fall off a cliff,” says Michael Leon, PhD, professor of neurobiology & behavior and a fellow at the school’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory. “But it’s not realistic to think people with cognitive impairment could open, sniff and close 80 odorant bottles daily. This would be difficult even for people without dementia.”
Boost your memory while you sleep
“By making it possible for people to experience the odors while sleeping, we eliminated the need to set aside time for this during waking hours every day,” says lead study author Cynthia Woo. But she’s quick to add that the same results would apply simply by turning on a diffuser and inhaling the scents of these oils for two hours during the day.
And while the researchers stress that more study is needed to see if this same technique can help those already diagnosed with early dementia, they say it’s an easy and inexpensive way to protect your brain as you age.
Additional benefits of essential oils
More good news: Essential oils are proven to enhance health in so many ways! We looked at the oils used in the UCI study to see how else they can help you feel your best. Read on for the many perks. (Click through to discover how you can use essential oils to lose as much as 1 pound a week without trying!)
Rosemary essential oil
Tames stress: A Japanese study found taking five deep sniffs of rosemary essential oil lowers cortisol levels 23% within minutes, easing stress and boosting energy and alertness. Don’t want to carry around a vial of the oil? Add 3 drops rosemary essential oil to a cotton ball and place inside a clean, empty lip balm jar, then unscrew the lid and take a whiff anytime, anywhere.
Boosts happiness: Inhaling rosemary’s fresh scent for 30 minutes increases levels of the hormone dopamine by 97%, Japanese research suggests — and the benefit persists all day, with an increase in happiness and motivation. For an easy way to scent the air, simmer a few tablespoons of rosemary in an uncovered slow cooker with water. Or make a DIY room spray by adding 25 drops of rosemary essential oil, 4 oz. of witch hazel and 4 oz. of distilled water to a spritz bottle then lightly mist the air around you.
Supercharges focus: Taking six slow, deep sniffs of rosemary essential oil when you start to feel foggy can leave you clear-headed and focused. British researchers say a compound in rosemary oil can heighten alertness, focus and mental stamina in as little as 30 seconds. (Click through for 12 more ways to end brain fog and boost focus.)
Thickens hair: Research in the journal SKINMed found that rosemary essential oil stops stress hormones from attacking follicles even better than Minoxidil, without side effects. Why that’s key: Damaged follicles stop growing hair. To get the benefits, combine 2 drops of rosemary essential oil diluted in 4 oz. of water, then spritz over the scalp just before bed. (Click through to learn more about how rosemary can help with hair loss.)
Lavender essential oil
Deepens sleep: Not only does inhaling the scent of lavender help us fall asleep (one study published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutical Research found that subjects who did so before bed were 84% less likely to experience insomnia), it also improves the quality of our sleep. In a study at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, subjects who were exposed to the scent of lavender at night were 87% more likely to wake up feeling refreshed than those who followed the same sleep schedule but didn’t get inhale the scent. Plus, lavender-sniffers were also 37% less likely to report sleepiness during the day. To get the perks: Add a few drops of lavender essential oil to an aromatherapy diffuser at night, or lightly mist your sheets with the scent before bed. (Click through to learn how lavender tea can improve sleep.)
Lowers blood pressure: You know lavender calms your mind, but research in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine finds another surprising benefit: it can help stop a blood pressure spike in its tracks. When you’re tense, light a lavender candle or draw a lavender bath. The compound linalool in the scent lowers blood pressure up to four points in 20 minutes. (Click through to learn how breath training can lower blood pressure.)
Stops nausea: Inhaling the scent of lavender can ease a queasy stomach within 15 minutes, suggests research in Complementary Therapies in Medicine. The Turkish scientists credit lavender’s linalool with soothing the enteric nervous system to ease intestinal spasms and encourage the release of digestive enzymes.
Boosts concentration: Research at the U.K.’s Northumbria University found that compounds in lavender sharpen alertness and concentration within 10 minutes. A happy bonus: German research suggests focusing on smelling pleasant scents daily optimizes brain function, reducing your risk of dementia by as much as 50%.
Tames pain: Massaging lavender oil into tender spots or adding it to your bath can reduce pain by 58%, say researchers at the Cleveland Clinic. To make a massage lotion, mix 25 drops of lavender oil into 2 oz. of any carrier oil or unscented lotion. To add to a bath, mix lavender oil into a dollop of shampoo, first, so it will disperse.
Eases hot flashes: A study in the Journal of the Chinese Medical Association found that the sweet, floral aroma of lavender prompts the brain to release beta-endorphins, calming hormones that also prevent sudden temperature fluxes. Study co-author Roya Nikjou, MSc, says rubbing diluted lavender essential oil into your neck, shoulders and arms three times daily could cut your risk of hot flashes by as much as 50%. To make: Mix 12 drops of the oil into 1 oz of unscented lotion.
Orange essential oil
Supercharges energy: Scientists reporting in the journal Molecules say orange oil boasts 26 aromatic compounds that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, plus increase glucose and fat burn in muscle tissue, doubling energy and stamina for almost two hours per sniff. Plus, you can get the perk even if you don’t have a vial of the oil handy by simply nibbling a few slices of orange or sipping a little OJ.
Tames stress: A study in the journal Advanced Biomedical Research found that smelling orange essential oil drastically reduced anxiety. Their research looked at patients undergoing a simple dental procedure and found that those in the group that had the orange aromatherapy decreased their salivary cortisol by 84%, plus saw an 82% drop in pulse rate.
Eases pain: One study in the Indian Journal of Palliative Care suggests the aroma of orange essential oil can reduce pain. In their study, patients who were in a hospital emergency room for treatment of broken bones who had a pad containing four drops of the oil pinned to their collars experienced significantly lower levels of pain than other patients who weren’t given the oil.
Peppermint essential oil
Speeds weight loss: Research out of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia published in the journal Appetite found that subjects who inhaled the scent of peppermint every two hours for five days ate 2,800 fewer calories over the week (that’s 360 less calories per day) than when they didn’t smell the aroma.
Stops headaches: Aromatic compounds in mint relax spasming neck and scalp muscles, boost oxygen-rich blood flow to the brain, plus calm overactive pain nerves, easing headaches as effectively as painkillers, say researchers in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine. To do: Mix four drops of peppermint oil into a dollop of lotion and firmly massage into your neck, forehead and temples — or mix 10 drops of the oil into 2 cups of warm water and massage into your scalp for two minutes before shampooing.
Eases GI distress: Peppermint oil can help ease the abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhea of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), report researchers in BMC Complementary & Alternative Medicine. In a review of data from 835 IBS patients, those who took peppermint oil capsules were more than twice as likely to see an improvement in IBS symptoms than those who took a placebo, and 78% more likely to have reduced abdominal pain. The researchers say peppermint oil contains antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which help regulate the immune system and prevent muscle spasms.
Lemon essential oil
Calms motion sickness: Brazilian investigators have found that the oil’s active ingredient, limonene, quickly soothes an upset stomach and calms the nausea center in the brain. And the effect is so powerful that experts say just taking slow, deep sniffs of lemon can ease even severe nausea in as little as 60 seconds. Simply keep a vial of lemon essential oil within reach in the car, or inhale the scent by squeezing the juice of half a fresh lemon into your water bottle. (Click through for more natural remedies for motion sickness.)
Eases anxiety: In a small study in the journal Explore, researchers found that when subjects sniffed lemon essential oil for 15 minutes before a test their anxiety dropped by 43.4%. To experience the calming effects, simply rub a few drops of lemon essential between your palms until it feels warm, then inhale slowly and deeply four times.
Enhances mood: Researchers at Ohio State University taped cotton balls with either lemon oil, lavender oil or water between the nose and upper lips of their subjects. Based on a self-reporting survey, those who inhaled the lemon oil experienced a mood boost more than four times greater than subjects in the other two groups.
Eucalyptus essential oil
Cures athlete’s foot: Fungi can grow like wildfire on sweaty feet, triggering athlete’s foot. To keep your feet healthy, wash and dry your feet, then massage them with diluted eucalyptus essential oil (5 drops mixed into 1 Tbs. of your favorite lotion) once daily. Australian scientists say eucalyptol, the active ingredient in the oil, is such a powerful antifungal that it destroys rash-triggering fungi as effectively as prescription athlete’s foot creams.
Boosts immunity: Daily baths are a wonderful way to pamper yourself when you’re under the weather. And if you add 10 drops of eucalyptus essential oil, you’ll cut your recovery time in half, suggests animal research in Frontiers of Pharmacology. Steamy soaks drain sinuses and reduce airway inflammation, says study co-author Bill White, Ph.D, while the oil’s aromatic compounds stimulate your immune system to produce virus-killing cells [CD8 T-cells].
Rose essential oil
Promotes relaxation: In a study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, investigators found that inhaling the scent of rose essential oil for 40 minutes prompted a significant reduction in levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And in a review of 13 clinical trials on the benefits of rose oil published in the Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine, the investigators found that exposing subjects to the scent for just 90 seconds induced physiological and psychological relaxation effects. The scientists in both studies credit the perk with the oil’s ability to decrease activity in the right prefrontal cortex.
Eases pain: Researchers in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that the scent of rose oil significantly lowers pain. In their study of patients experiencing renal colic, or pain associated with a stone in the urinary tract, those who inhaled the oil’s scent saw a dramatic reduction in their pain levels as reported on a scale of one to 10.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
For more on how essential oils can improve your health:
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