Supporting Cognitive Function And Mood With Essential Oils

Posted on Monday 27 December 2010

The essential oils commonly used in aromatherapy actually have a significant base of data supporting their use in many medical applications. They have proven antibacterial, antiviral, even anticancer effects. Recent research is building on their ability to improve cognitive function as well. While not directly the aim of these studies, it seems some oils have been shown to be able to improve mood as well in “controlled” research. So how can you take this data out of the lab and into your life? It’s pretty easy really — here’s a look at the research, and some ideas on taking it home with you.

One can imagine it would be a more stimulating essential oil that might enhance mental acuity. Sort of like a cup of coffee in an aroma. Deeply inhale a brighter, not-too-sweet scent and it sort of lights up your brain. Well, it turns out this isn’t just a reaction to the scent alone, but something more is going on.

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 study’s results are really impressive. It was found that just 50 microliters (one drop) of sage oil, ingested, produced improvements in cognitive function, mood and mental energy. According to the researchers: “Oral consumption lead to improved performance of secondary memory and attention tasks…and reduced mental fatigue and increased alertness”. And: “These results extend previous observations of improved cognitive performance and mood following (use of) sage extracts”.

The real biochemical mechanisms for the positive effects on mood and cognitive function have not been made clear as of yet. A number of studies have found that many essential oils (including sage) inhibit a specific enzyme in the human body, which has the result of increasing the amount of acetylcholine in the brain. In natural medicine, there are herbs taken for this same purpose, for the result of improving mental acuity. It may be too that increased levels of this important neurotransmitter result in less fatigue, which naturally improves mood — but this is just a guess.

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 has made available reports on specific anti-microbials such as eucalyptus essential oil, and using essential oils.

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