Eat it or sniff it: The herb with potent powers

Aromatherapy can be a powerful relaxation and healing tool, and the practice is really quite old. Used often in traditional medicine, the natural oils extracted from flowers, plants and herbs can be heated to give off soothing or invigorating aromas, and the scents are often incorporated into body oils and lotions.

My favorite herb has always been rosemary. It adds a wonderfully delicate flavor and aroma to any recipe, but to be completely honest, I keep a planter of it in my kitchen just so I can rub a few sprigs between my fingers each day and enjoy its invigorating scent.

So you can imagine how vindicated I felt when I came across some news about research in England that has shown a certain beneficial essential oil does in fact yield a potent boost. You guessed it – rosemary.

A study at the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre at Northumbria University demonstrates that a natural chemical found in rosemary, a substance with the tongue-tying name 1,8-cineole (1,3,3-trimethyl-2-oxabicyclo[2,2,2]octane), possesses a scent that can increase your mental focus and help you solve problems faster and more accurately.

The researchers explain that 1,8-cineole belongs to a class of chemicals called terpenes. After you breathe in these compounds, they can enter your blood either right through the mucous membranes in your nose or go into your lungs and start circulating in your blood there. Once in the blood, they efficiently cross what is call the blood-brain barrier, membranes that keep a lot of other different substances out of brain tissue.

Aside from being in rosemary, 1,8-cineole is also contained in wormwood, sage, eucalyptus and bay. Other tests of the chemical show it influences the brain’s neurochemistry, helping to preserve neurotransmitters that facilitate mental processes.

And rosemary’s benefits don’t stop with the mental effects of the aroma from its essential oil. Used as an herbal flavoring spice, it may help preserve your eyesight.

A study at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, California, shows that another chemical in rosemary, this one called carnosic acid, is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrient that may help protect the eyes from age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness that is linked to aging.

Lab tests show that cells treated with carnosic acid produce antioxidant enzymes that fight off the free radical damage that leads to macular degeneration. And other tests show the natural chemical can also protect brain cells from damage.

So whether you sniff the aroma from the essential oil — or straight from the plant as I do — or enjoy rosemary as a spice in your food, your eyes and brain will benefit. Popular ways to use it in the kitchen include tossing some rosemary into chicken soup or putting it on fish or poultry.


Carl Lowe

By Carl Lowe

has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.