As the long summer days come to an end, we’re faced with the hectic back-to-school and work period. Pending emails and to-do lists are growing, and you may have temporarily lost some of the habits that kept your days productive. But fear not! There are many herbs and oils that can help to nourish your nervous system and promote mental clarity, focus, memory and learning.
In this blog, we will be exploring some of the following questions:
- How can herbs help improve alertness, memory and concentration?
- What herbs help with focus for work and/or study?
- How can essential oils help create a peaceful and productive work/study environment?
Rosemary Promotes Memory and Alertness
Rosemary is a fantastic brain tonic. It improves blood flow to the brain, which also improves the flow of oxygen and nutrition to the tissues, and eases any inflammation and tension. This means that it is helpful to alleviate headaches but also to improve focus and concentration.
The herb has a long history of traditional use for these purposes, documented over the centuries in key herbal books such as M. Gerard’s herbal (1636) and Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1653). In the 17th century, Culpeper said that it helps “all cold diseases of the head and brain, as the giddiness or swimmings therein, drowsiness or dullness of the mind and senses…”, adding that “it helps a weak memory, and quickens the senses''. In her A Modern Herbal (1931), Maud Grieve said that “the Ancients were well acquainted with the shrub, which had a reputation for strengthening the memory”, and she reports that Sir Thomas More described it as “the herb sacred to remembrance”, and Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet also said that “rosemary is for remembrance”.
Modern clinical trials have confirmed this long tradition. For example, a randomised clinical study showed that inhaling rosemary leaf oil for 3 minutes can lead to improved alertness, in this instance measured by a decrease in frontal alpha and beta power shown in electro-encephalographic recordings. Participants also reported feeling more relaxed and alert. They were faster at mathematical computations compared with baseline values.
You can drink rosemary as a herbal tea, as part of a tincture blend, or apply it topically to the skin (for instance an oil, balm, gel or cream in which fresh or dried rosemary has been infused, or one to which rosemary essential oil has been added). Zen Maitri’s Headease balm contains rosemary essential oil — it is one of its key ingredients that make it helpful to relieve headaches and improve concentration. Rosemary is for obvious reasons also one of the key ingredients in Zen Maitri’s Focus tea, tincture, supplements and essential oil diffuser blend.
Ginkgo Improve Cerebral Blood Flow and Aids Cognition
Ginkgo, also known as maidenhair tree is another plant that improves cerebral circulation and cognition. It can even be used for mild forms of dementia, including the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
The mechanisms by which ginkgo improves cognition are not entirely understood, but they are believed to be linked to the herb’s ability to improve blood circulation to the brain, to its antiinflammatory and antioxidant properties and to its effects on neurotransmitters. Many clinical studies have clearly shown that ginkgo can improve mental performance in healthy volunteers and geriatric patients where this was impaired.
Gingko is also a fascinating tree: it has survived unchanged for about 150 million years, from when dinosaurs walked the earth. It was described by Charles Darwin as a living fossil. It may have been saved from extinction by the Chinese, who revered the tree and planted it around temples. However, unlike rosemary, ginkgo does not seem to have a documented tradition of use for cognitive enhancement. This modern use is due to a scientific discovery just a few decades old. In the 1960s, a group of German scientists were investigating the effects of exotic herbs on blood circulation and found that ginkgo leaves were remarkably active. In the following years, extracts of ginkgo leaf became more widely used across Europe and beyond, and a body of scientific evidence supporting its use started to grow.
Gotu kola Strengthens and Protects the Nervous System
Gotu kola or centella has been prized in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for millennia for a wide range of benefits. Its traditional uses include improving microcirculation, enhancing cognitive function and easing anxiety — and they are increasingly supported by modern scientific studies.
The herb’s neuroprotective activities were explored in experimental, in-vitro studies, with promising results that merit further clinical studies. It seems that gotu kola enhances the body’s own antioxidant protective mechanisms, thereby protecting the brain from any damage.
Other experimental studies suggest that gotu kola not only protects the brain from degeneration, but that it also helps the tissues to regenerate where damage may have occurred. In one study, a gotu kola extract was administered to rats for 18 days and led to quicker functional recovery and tissue regeneration compared to controls.
Gotu kola was also shown to have anxiolytic effects in several animal studies, suggesting that it can alleviate anxiety, which can be a key obstacle to concentration.
Lavender Calms the Mind and Enhances Focus
If the reason why you are struggling to focus on work or study is that you are feeling stressed, it may be worth exploring how herbs that strengthen the nervous system (“nervines”) and herbs that help increase resilience to physical and emotional stress (“adaptogens”) can support you. There are many of those in Zen Maitri’s Balance collection — including a tea, a tincture and supplements.
A key nervine herb that is excellent for calming the mind and lifting the spirits is lavender. It is a great remedy for stress-related headaches and agitation, and taken in the evening, it can support sleep. It is also great to enhance focus and concentration when stress is getting in the way. You can take the dried flowers as part of a tea blend or infused in the bath (as in Zen Maitri’s Unwind bath salts), and/or use lavender essential oil in the bath, in a balm, a cream, or a body oil (it is one of the ingredients of Zen Maitri’s Headease balm to relieve headaches and migraines and Night Cream, for example). You can also diffuse the essential oil into your work space (if you work alone or have accommodating office neighbours!).
Developing the Right Work Environment with Support From Essential Oils
Creating the right environment to study and work is key to being comfortable and productive. If you are studying or working from home a lot of the time, it’s important to choose a quiet, relaxing, well-lit space, if possible with minimal interruptions. This can be a desk in your bedroom, a comfortable chair in the kitchen or if possible a separate room.
Wherever it is, make sure the space stays organised, and that all of the materials you need are easy to find. To bring an extra bit of herbal inspiration, we recommend diffusing some carefully-chosen essential oils to bring calm and harmony and boost your concentration. We’ve seen above how lavender can help, especially if stress is getting in the way — but there are a few other great options too. Rosemary essential oil, as mentioned above, is also brilliant to help improve circulation in the brain, promote concentration and memory retention — and it has an invigorating and warming scent. It is complemented in Zen Maitri’s Focus essential oil blend by two citrus essential oils: bergamot and grapefruit, that make it even more uplifting and energising.