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:

 

Does Aspartame Cause Lymphoma?

The approval of aspartame has a controversial history. The Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that “there is a reasonable certainty that human consumption of aspartame: (1) …will not pose a risk of brain damage resulting in mental retardation, endocrine [hormonal] dysfunction, or both; and (2) will not cause brain tumors.” However, the FDA’s own Public Board of Inquiry withdrew their approval over cancer concerns. “Further, several FDA scientists advised against the approval of aspartame, citing…[the aspartame company’s] own brain tumor tests…” Regardless, the Commissioner approved aspartame before he left the FDA and went on to enjoy a thousand-dollar-a-day consultancy position with the aspartame company’s PR firm. Then, the FDA actually prevented the National Toxicology Program (NTP) from doing further cancer testing. As I discuss in my video Does Aspartame Cause Cancer? we were then left with people battling over different rodent studies, some of which showed increased cancer risk, while others didn’t.

This reminds me of the saccharin story. That artificial sweetener caused bladder cancer in rats but not mice, leaving us “to determine whether humans are like the rat or like the mouse.” Clearly, we had to put the aspartame question to the test in people, but the longest human safety study lasted only 18 weeks. We needed better human data.

Since the largest rat study highlighted lymphomas and leukemias, the NIH-AARP study tracked blood cancer diagnoses and found that “[h]igher levels of aspartame intake were not associated with the risk of…cancer.” Although the NIH-AARP study was massive, it was criticized for only evaluating relatively short-term exposure. Indeed, people were only studied for five years, which is certainly better than 18 weeks, but how about 18 years?

All eyes turned to Harvard, where researchers had started following the health and diets of medical professionals before aspartame had even entered the market. “In the most comprehensive long-term [population] study…to evaluate the association between aspartame intake and cancer risk in humans,” they found a “positive association between diet soda and total aspartame intake and risks of [non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma] and multiple myeloma in men and leukemia in both men and women,” as you can see at 2:12 in my video. Why more cancer in men than women? A similar result was found for pancreatic cancer and diet soda, but not soda in general. In fact, the only sugar tied to pancreatic cancer risk was the milk sugar, lactose. The male/female discrepancy could have simply been a statistical fluke, but the researchers decided to dig a little deeper.

Aspartame is broken down into methanol, which is turned into formaldehyde, “a documented human carcinogen,” by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase.The same enzyme that detoxifies regular alcohol is the very same enzyme that converts methanol to formaldehyde. Is it possible men just have higher levels of this enzyme than women? Yes, which is why women get higher blood alcohol levels than men drinking the same amount of alcohol. If you look at liver samples from men and women, you can see significantly greater enzyme activity in the men, so perhaps the higher conversion rates from aspartame to formaldehyde explain the increased cancer risk in men? How do we test this?

Ethanol—regular alcohol—competes with methanol for this same enzyme’s attention. In fact, regular alcohol is actually “used as an antidote for methanol poisoning.” So, if this formaldehyde theory is correct, men who don’t drink alcohol or drink very little may have higher formaldehyde conversion rates from aspartame. And, indeed, consistent with this line of reasoning, the men who drank the least amounts of alcohol appeared to have the greatest cancer risk from aspartame.

A third cohort study has since been published and found no increased lymphoma risk associated with diet soda during a ten-year follow-up period. So, no risk was detected in the 18-week study, the 5-year study, or the 10-year study—only in the 18-year study. What should we make of all this?

Some have called for a re-evaluation of the safety of aspartame. The horse is kind of out of the barn at this point with 34 million pounds of aspartame produced annually, but that doesn’t mean we have to eat it, especially, perhaps, pregnant women and children.


For more information on the effects of aspartame, watch my videos Aspartame and the Brain and Aspartame-Induced Fibromyalgia. Interested in learning more about the effects of consuming diet soda? See, for example:

What about Splenda? Or monk fruit sweetener? I have videos on those, too—watch Effect of Sucralose (Splenda) on the Microbiome and Is Monk Fruit Sweetener Safe?.

I also do a comparison of the most popular sweeteners on the market, including stevia and xylitol, in my video A Harmless Artificial Sweetener.

Perhaps the best candidate is erythritol, which you can learn about in my video Erythritol May Be a Sweet Antioxidant. That said, it’s probably better if we get away from all intense sweeteners, artificial or not. See my video Unsweetening the Diet for more on this.

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:

Is Milk Lowering Uric Acid a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

Parkinson’s disease, the second most common neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s, is characterized by a slowness of movement, rigidity, tremor, and stooping posture, all of which worsen over time. Non-movement symptoms such as cognitive impairment and sleep, smell, and mood disturbances occur as the disease spreads to other areas of the brain. The cause of Parkinson’s is perhaps “one of the important questions posed by the neurobiology [science] of aging.” For example, why is the consumption of dairy products associated with increased risk of Parkinson’s? Perhaps because they contribute to our exposure to pesticides and other neurotoxins like dieldrin, which continues to be found in the autopsied brains of Parkinson’s victims. Even though dieldrin was banned decades ago, it lingers in the environment and we “continue to be exposed to the pesticide through contaminated dairy and meats…”

The cause of Parkinson’s “is unlikely to be due to milk compounds such as calcium, vitamin D, total fat, or total protein as these compounds are not associated with [the disease] when derived from other sources.” However, it could be lactose, the milk sugar, perhaps accounting for the increased associated risk of death and bone fractures, as well as Parkinson’s. Earlier onset of Huntington’s disease has also been identified. There is, however, a third possibility.

As I discuss in my video Parkinson’s Disease and the Uric Acid Sweet Spot, milk lowers uric acid levels, and uric acid may be protective against Huntington’s and also slow the decline caused by Parkinson’s. More importantly, it may lower the risk of getting Parkinson’s in the first place. Why? Perhaps because uric acid is an important antioxidant in the brain, something we’ve known for more than 30 years. We can demonstrate uric acid’s importance directly on human nerve cells in a petri dish. When the pesticide rotenone is added, oxidative stress goes up. Add the pro-oxidant homocysteine, and it goes up even more. But, when uric acid is added, it completely suppresses the oxidative stress caused by the pesticide.

Drinking milk, however, has a uric acid-lowering effect. In the paper making this assertion, a study they cited was “A cute effect of milk on serum urate concentrations,” but that was just a cute typothey meant Acute effect. Indeed, drink cow’s milk, and, within hours, uric acid levels drop 10 percent. Drink soymilk, and, within hours, they go up 10 percent. Now, for gout, a painful arthritic disease caused by too much uric acid, the uric acid-lowering effect of dairy is a good thing—but uric acid is “a double-edged sword.”

If our uric acid levels are too high, we can get gout, but, if they’re too low, it may increase our risk of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis.

Incidence rates of gouty arthritis over five years indicate that if our uric acid is over 10.0 mg/dl, we have a 30 percent chance of suffering an attack of gout within the next 5 years. However, at levels under 7.0 mg/dl, our risk is less than 1 percent, so it might make sense to have levels as high as possible without going over 7.0 to protect the brain without risking our joints. But having excessive uric acid in the blood puts more than just our joints in jeopardy. Yes, having levels that are too low may increase our risk of MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer, but having levels that are too high may increase our risk of gout, kidney disease, and heart disease.

In fact, having a uric acid level over 7.0 mg/dl isn’t only associated with an increased risk of gout, but also an increased risk of dying from all causes. However, having a low uric acid level may also shorten our lifespan by increasing mortality. High uric acid levels are associated with increased risk of death from heart disease, but low uric acid levels are associated with increased risk of fatal stroke. So, keeping uric acid at optimum levels, the sweet spot between 5.0 and 7.0 mg/dl, may protect the brain in more ways than one.

If we measure the uric acid levels in patients with Parkinson’s, they come in around 4.6 mg/dl, which may help explain why dairy consumption may increase risk for Parkinson’s since milk pushes down uric acid levels. Dairy intake may also explain the differences in uric acid levels among meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans. In the graph in my video, you can see that vegan men have significantly higher uric acid levels at 5.7 mg/dl than vegetarians, presumably because vegans don’t drink milk, and those who both eat meat and consume milk fall between the vegans and vegetarians.


For more on Parkinson’s see:

Uric acid as an antioxidant? I’ve touched on that before in Miocene Meteorites and Uric Acid.

If uric acid levels are too high consider cutting down on Flesh and Fructose and eating cherries. (See Gout Treatment with a Cherry on Top and Treating Gout with Cherry Juice for more information.) Also, check out Preventing Gout Attacks with Diet.

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: