Topical Lemon Balm Lotion for Alzheimer’s

Improving cognitive performance with aromatherapy in young, healthy volunteers is one thing, but how about where it really matters? As I discuss in my video Best Aromatherapy Herb for Alzheimer’s, a group of Japanese researchers had a pie-in-the-sky notion that certain smells could lead to “nerve rebirth” in Alzheimer’s patients. Twenty years ago, even simply raising such a possibility as a hypothetical was heretical. Everybody knew that the loss of neurons is irreversible. In other words, dead nerve cells are not replaced, an important factor in neurodegenerative diseases. That’s what I was taught and what everyone was taught, until 1998.

Patients with advanced cancer volunteered to be injected with a special dye that’s incorporated into the DNA of new cells. On autopsy, researchers then went hunting for nerve cells that lit up in the brains. And, as you can see at 1:14 in my video, there they were: new nerve cells in the brain that didn’t exist just days or months before, demonstrating “that cell genesis occurs in human brains and that the human brain retains the potential for self-renewal throughout life”—something in which we can take comfort.

It still doesn’t mean smells can help, though. An aromatherapy regimen of rosemary, lemon, lavender, and orange essential oils was attempted for a month. At 1:43 in my video, you can see the trajectory of the subjects’ cognitive function and their ability to form abstract ideas starting six weeks before the treatment. Prior to the aromatherapy regimen, there was a rather steady decline, which was reversed after the aromatherapy. The researchers concluded that aromatherapy may be efficacious and “have some potential for improving cognitive function, especially in AD [Alzheimer’s disease] patients”—all, of course, without any apparent side effects.

What about severe dementia? We always hear about the cognitive deficits, but more than half of patients with dementia experience behavioral or psychiatric symptoms. Thorazine-type antipsychotic drugs are often prescribed, even though they appear to be particularly dangerous in the elderly. “Antipsychotic medication may be viewed as an easier option than non pharmacological alternatives,” such as aromatherapy. Another study examined the effect of rubbing a lemon balm-infused lotion on the arms and face of patients twice daily by caregiving staff, compared with lotion without the scent. “During the 4 weeks, significant improvements were seen” in agitation, shouting, screaming, and physical aggression, as were improved quality of life indicators, with patients less socially withdrawn and more engaged in constructive activities, compared to the unscented control. This is important because antipsychotics cause patients to become more withdrawn and less engaged. They are like a chemical restraint. The drugs can reduce agitation, too. So, aromatherapy with lemon balm “is safe, well tolerated, and highly efficacious, with additional benefits on key quality of life parameters.”

These findings clearly indicate the need for longer-term multicenter trials,” but we never had any, until…never. We still don’t have any. This study was conducted in 2002, and there have been no follow-ups. Is that a surprise? Who’s going to fund such a study: Big Balm?

I’ve produced one other video on lemon balm: Reducing Radiation Damage with Ginger and Lemon Balm. We grow lemon balm in our garden. It makes a delicious tea. Give it a try!

For more on the potential (and limitations) of aromatherapy, check out:

It’s better, of course, to prevent dementia in the first place. Learn more:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

A Half Teaspoon of Dried Rosemary May Improve Cognitive Function

In Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5, Ophelia notes that rosemary is for remembrance, an idea that goes back at least a few thousand years to the ancient Greeks, who claimed that rosemary “comforts the brain…sharpens understanding, restores lost memory, awakens the mind…” After all, “plants can be considered as chemical factories that manufacture all sorts of compounds that could have neuroprotective benefits”. So, let’s cut down on processed foods and eat a lot of phytonutrient-rich whole plant foods, including, perhaps, a variety of herbs. Even the smell of certain herbs may affect how our brain works. Unfortunately, as I discuss in my video Benefits of Rosemary for Brain Function, I’ve found much of the aromatherapy literature scientifically unsatisfying. There are studies offering subjective impressions, for example, but while sniffing an herbal sachet is indeed “easy, inexpensive, and safe,” is it effective? The researchers didn’t even compare test scores.

However, even when there was a control group, such as one study where researchers had people perform a battery of tests in a room that smelled like rosemary, lavender, or nothing, and even when the researchers did compare test results, the lavender appeared to slow down the subjects and impair their performance, whereas the rosemary group seemed to do better. Perhaps that was just because of the mood effects, though, as I show at 1:36 in my video. Maybe the rosemary group did better simply because the aroma pepped them up in some way—and not necessarily in a good way, as perhaps the rosemary was somehow overstimulating in some circumstances?

Now, there have been studies that measured people’s brain waves and were able to correlate the EEG findings with the changes in mood and performance, as well as associate them with objective changes in stress hormone levels, as you can see at 2:05 in my video, but is that all simply because pleasant smells improve people’s moods? For instance, if you created a synthetic rosemary fragrance with a bunch of chemicals that had nothing to do with the rosemary plant, would it have the same effect? We didn’t know…until now.

Aromatic herbs do have volatile compounds that theoretically could enter the blood stream by way of the lining of the nose or lungs and then potentially cross into the brain and have direct effects. A 2012 study was the first to put it to the test. Researchers had people do math in a cubicle infused with rosemary aroma. The subjects got that same boost in performance, but for the first time, the researchers showed that their improvement correlated with the amount of a rosemary compound that made it into their bloodstream just from being in the same room. So, not only did this show that it gets absorbed, but that such natural aromatic plant compounds may have a direct effect on changes in brain function.

If that’s what just smelling it can do, what about eating rosemary? We have studies on alertness, cognition, and reduced stress hormone levels inhaling rosemary. “However, there were no clinical studies on cognitive performance following ingestion of rosemary”…until now. Older adults, average age of 75, were given two cups of tomato juice, with either nothing, a half teaspoon of powdered rosemary, which is what one might use in a typical recipe, a full teaspoon, two teaspoons, more than a tablespoon of rosemary powder, or placebo pills to go even further to eliminate any placebo effects.

“Speed of memory is a potentially useful predictor of cognitive function during aging,” and, as you can see at 4:08 in my video, researchers found that the lowest dose had a beneficial effect, accelerating the subjects’ processing speed, but the highest dose impaired their processing speed, perhaps because the half-teaspoon dose improved alertness, while the four-teaspoon dose decreased alertness. So, “rosemary powder at the dose nearest normal culinary consumption demonstrated positive effects on speed of memory…” The implicit take-home message is more isn’t necessarily better. Don’t take high-dose herbal supplements, extracts, or tinctures—just cooking with spices is sufficient. A conclusion, no doubt, pleasing to the spice company that sponsored the study. No side effects were reported, but that doesn’t mean you can eat the whole rosemary bush. In one study, an unlucky guy swallowed a rosemary twig that punctured through the stomach into his liver, causing an abscess from which two cups of pus and a two-inch twig were removed. So, explore herbs and spices in your cooking. Branch out—just leave the branches out.

That twig is like a plant-based equivalent of Migrating Fish Bones!

Interested in more on aromatherapy? See:

For more on spicing up your life, check out:

And, learn more about improving cognition and preventing age-related cognitive decline in:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:


Deep Breathing Exercise for Nausea

Deep Breathing Exercise for Nausea

One of the most common fears patients express when facing surgery is postoperative nausea, which can range from minor queasiness to protracted periods of vomiting. Feeling sick to one’s stomach and throwing up after surgery is a common problem, affecting between a quarter and a half of those placed under general anesthesia, and more than half of those at high risk (women who don’t smoke and have a history of motion sickness).

I’ve explored the science behind treating nausea with ginger (see Natural Nausea Remedy Recipe), but if you’re too nauseous to eat, what do you do? Well, people are often sent home with anti-nausea rectal suppositories. Surveys, however, show that cultural and sexual attitudes may make a number of people sensitive to anything involving the rectum. Though the wording of the question researchers asked was, “are you happy to have a drug put in your back passage?” I can imagine many of the respondents thinking “well, maybe I wouldn’t so much mind, but wouldn’t exactly be happy about it,” especially when you’re feeling sick and throwing up.

For women who’ve had a C-section, they might not want to take drugs at all if they’re breastfeeding; so, researchers decided to put aromatherapy to the test. Research has shown that essential oils of both spearmint and peppermint are effective in reducing nausea and vomiting after chemotherapy, but this was after swallowing them.

Would just the smell of peppermint help with nausea? I explore this in my video Peppermint Aromatherapy for Nausea. Researchers had women take deep whiffs of peppermint extract (like you’d buy at a store) and it seemed to work. Eighty percent of the mint-sniffers felt better within just a few minutes, compared to no improvement in the placebo group who sniffed water with green food coloring, or the control group who didn’t sniff anything.

The study was criticized for being small and for not using pure peppermint oil. Peppermint extract is peppermint oil plus alcohol. Maybe it was the smell of alcohol that made people better? And, that’s actually not too much of a stretch. In 1997, researchers reported a simple, innocuous, and inexpensive treatment for postoperative nausea and vomiting—the smell of isopropyl alcohol, which is what is found in those alcohol wipes, the little prep pads that nurses swab you with before shots. They found that they could just effectively tear one open and wave it under someone’s nose and relieve nausea and vomiting in more than 80% of folks after surgery. It has since been shown to work as well as a leading anti-nausea drug, and may even work faster, cutting nausea in half within 10 to 15 minutes, rather than 20 or 25.

So, was it the alcohol, the peppermint, or both? Researchers decided to put it to the test. They instructed patients to take three slow, deep breaths, smelling alcohol, peppermint, or nothing. The smell of peppermint cut nausea in half within five minutes, and so did the alcohol. But, so did smelling nothing! So, maybe it had nothing to do with the scent; maybe it was just the instruction to take slow, deep breaths. That would make it a really cost-effective intervention. Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising, given the proximity of the vomiting and breathing centers within the brain.

And indeed, controlled breathing was found effective with or without any scent. So, next time you feel nauseous, inhale deeply through your nose to the count of three, hold your breath to the count of three, and exhale out the mouth to the count of three. Do that three times.

Ironically, the researchers continued to advocate using those nasty smelling alcohol pads even though they themselves showed they weren’t any more effective than breathing alone. Why? Since isopropyl alcohol has a readily detectable odor, patients are more likely to think that their post-operation nausea and vomiting is being actively treated when they inhale alcohol vapors rather than just engaging in breathing exercises.

What do you think of still using the alcohol pads even though they were shown to offer no additional benefit? I have a whole video on such questions: The Lie That Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos?

For those who can swallow, I offer more about powdered ginger in my video Dangerous Advice From Health Food Store Employees.

There’s more on aromatherapy here:

What about actually eating the peppermint? 

Of course, the best way to avoid postsurgical nausea is to try to avoid surgery in the first place. Those that eat healthy may be less likely to go under the knife. See Say No to Drugs by Saying Yes to More Plants.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: