Back in 1993, the FDA approved a drug called Cognex (tacrine) to treat Alzheimer's disease. Tacrine works by blocking the breakdown of acetylcholine. This is an important brain neurotransmitter that plays a significant role in memory and learning.
Neurotransmitters are substances that allow brain cells to "talk" to one another. As we age, our bodies produce smaller quantities of lots of nutrients — including acetylcholine. We've known for a long time that acetylcholine is low in people with Alzheimer's disease. So if you can keep your acetylcholine levels high, you're going a long way to maintain and even improve your memory.
The year after the FDA approved tacrine, botanist James A. Duke, PhD was so convinced that he had found an answer to Alzheimer's that he actually bet all of his hair that using rosemary shampoo would protect against this dreaded disease as effectively as tacrine.
Does this sound crazy? Let me tell you why it's not.
Dr. Duke is not just an ordinary botanist, he’s one of my favorite botanists and an American treasure. He's the botanist who developed the Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This is a huge database consisting of scientifically based information about herbs and the chemicals they contain. When he looked for herbs that prevented the breakdown of acetylcholine in this database, Dr. Duke found half a dozen plants that worked. Of them all, rosemary (Rosmarinus officianalis) was the most effective.
Even if rosemary prevented acetylcholine breakdown, why would using a shampoo infused with its oil help preserve memory? Because the aromatic plant chemicals found in rosemary are not only absorbed orally. They're absorbed through the pores in the scalp! Dr. Duke realized that at least some of these phytochemicals would get from the scalp into the bloodstream, and from the bloodstream into the brain.
What's more, he thought that rosemary might work even better than tacrine. While tacrine preserves choline through a single chemical pathway, rosemary contains nearly a dozen different aromatic chemicals that protect against its breakdown.
It's Nothing New
Using rosemary to retain cognition isn't something new. People have used this herb to enhance brain and nervous system function at least as far back as the Middle Ages. The ancient Greeks used it to improve their memory. In fact, Greek students wore garlands of rosemary during their examinations to keep their minds sharp. Shakespeare knew all about its effects, as well. Hamlet said to Ophelia, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember."
But using rosemary for memory is more than folklore. Now it looks like rosemary may be just what we need in the 21st century to stave off Alzheimer's disease. What's more, it may not be necessary to take a lot of rosemary supplements. Instead, you may need to use only a different shampoo and drink a few cups of a rosemary herb tea each day. It's safer than using tacrine, which caused liver disease in 25% of Alzheimer's patients. Rosemary has no known side effects.
Follow the Pharmaceuticals
Doctors usually base their decisions to use particular drugs on evidence from scientific studies. Researchers frequently conducted these studies on single substances from plants, rather than studying the abilities of the whole plant. After all, the drug companies can't make money by studying plants that they can't patent.
Researchers are testing a number of these single compounds from plants, both synthetic and natural, on Alzheimer's patients. The results of these studies strongly suggest that the herbs can be even more effective — and much safer.
Galantamine is an FDA-approved drug doctors use to treat mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. The problem is that there are interaction problems between galantamine and more than one hundred different drugs. And this phytochemical can cause side effects from nausea and fainting, to stomach pain. The patented form of galantamine comes from plants with known toxicity. But this same chemical occurs naturally in rosemary, a plant with no known toxicity.
Little-Known Nutrient in Rosemary Improves Memory
Rosemary also contains huperzine A. This is an important nutrient for brain health. Studies conducted in China found it was so effective in stopping the progression of Alzheimer’s disease — and even reversing it — that researchers in this country are working furiously to develop a drug they can patent. But you can buy it today on the Internet or at most health food stores.
The Chinese have used this nutrient for centuries for everything from fever to memory disorders. And it’s been used for decades throughout Europe. But chances are you have never heard of it. Once again, we’re behind the times in the use of safe, natural substances.
Numerous studies have documented huperzine A’s effectiveness. One showed improved memory and thinking in Alzheimer’s patients after two months. In another, patients with senile dementia improved in just two to four weeks. This is as good as, or better than, pharmaceuticals (such as galantamine and donepezil) used to treat Alzheimer’s.
It’s not often that you find a natural substance that’s as effective as a drug like this one is. The added advantage to this over-the-counter supplement is that it costs less than a similar drug with fewer side effects. It’s also easier to absorb than drugs and remains in the body longer.
Huperzine A increases acetylcholine levels. And acetylcholine is a chemical that your nerves use to talk to your brain and muscles. Your hippocampus, the area in the brain responsible for long-term memory, has an especially strong need for it to function properly.
This chemical works by blocking an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine. Its job is to clean up excessive acetylcholine. But in some people, acetylcholine degenerates and there’s no excess. In fact, there’s not enough.
Huperzine A can also be helpful in people with frequent “senior moments,” the age-related gap in mental recall that’s common with aging. That’s because this alkaloid increases the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters necessary for learning and memory. This is a memory nutrient I not only suggest to my older patients, it’s one I’ve added to my daily supplements for memory insurance. And Rosemary is loaded with it.
How much Huperzine A is enough? Studies suggest taking 200 mcg twice a day for people with Alzheimer’s, and 30 mcg twice a day for people with early dementia or memory problems. Again, you can find Huperzine A in most health food stores and online.
Rosemary’s COX-2 Inhibitors
Drug companies are beginning to use synthetic COX-2 inhibitors (enzymes that reduce inflammation) to prevent Alzheimer's disease. If a synthetic drug can prevent loss of cognition, so can natural substances. Rosemary contains not one, but six known COX-2 inhibitors.
But that's not all.
There's additional evidence of rosemary's effectiveness in protecting memory. Researchers found that the active ingredient in rosemary, called carnosic acid (CA), can protect the brain both from stroke and from degeneration in the brain. This includes Alzheimer's when triggered by free radicals.
Now, CA is an interesting chemical. It becomes activated only when there's free radical damage. Otherwise, it lies dormant. Researchers recently discovered this pathway and reported on it for the very first time in The Journal of Neurochemistry and Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Expect to see drugs based on CA in the future. When you do, just remember that rosemary is non-toxic.
Then there was an animal study conducted in Korea in 2001. When researchers gave mice drinking water with ferulic acid, a substance in rosemary that reduces oxidation and inflammation, their memory improved. So why reach for a synthetic drug when you can use the real thing?
Products With Rosemary
Since it's safe and inexpensive, I suggest you use more rosemary, both as a tea and externally. You can find shampoos and skin lotions that already contain this aromatic herb, or you can buy essential oils of rosemary in any health food store or over the Internet. Then simply add 4-10 drops of the oil into your favorite skin-care products.
Add fresh rosemary leaves to your herb tea, as well. This Mediterranean plant grows in many areas of the U.S. Plant some and in a year you'll have enough to use in your teas. If the taste of rosemary tea is too strong or not to your liking, use mint instead, or dilute rosemary with mint. Peppermint, spearmint, and lemon balm all contain many of these same phytochemicals, although in smaller quantities.
Don't wait for the latest drug to prevent Alzheimer's disease. You can begin preventing it today by using safe products with many more of these same ingredients.
Duke, J.A., PhD. "Rosemary, the herb of remembrance for Alzheimer's Disease," Alternative & Complementary Therapies, December 2007.
"Neurological protection from rosemary," Stroke/Neuroprotection News, October 31, 2007.
Wang, Bai-Song, Hao Wang, Zhao-hui Wei, Yan-yan Song, Lu Zhang, and Hong-Zhuan Chen. “Efficacy and safety of natural acetylcholinesterase inhibitor huperzine A in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease: an updated meta-analysis.” Journal of Neural Transmission, 116 (4): 457, 2009.