“Rosemary contains more than a dozen antioxidants and a half-dozen compounds reported to prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine. It’s fabulous that the classical herb of remembrance has so many compounds that might help people suffering from Alzheimer’s.”
These are the words of Dr. James Duke, former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Chief of Medicinal Plant Research.
Dr. Duke is one of the world’s leading authorities on medicinal plants. He helped build the USDA database that demonstrates how rosemary may slow the progress of Alzheimer’s.
The brain depends on a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, or ACh for short. The brain keeps making fresh batches. In order to keep the brain from getting flooded with it, there is an “esterase” that breaks it down after use. Think of the esterase as the garbage truck, carting away extra acetylcholine. In Alzheimer’s, there is a shortage of acetylcholine, so we want to inhibit (or block) the esterase (the garbage collector), so that more acetylcholine stays in the brain. To do that, a person needs to consume an acetylcholine esterase inhibitor, such as Aricept® or rosemary.
His strong advocacy of rosemary has to do with a chemical called acetylcholine. Anyone who has lived with Alzheimer’s in the past decade has heard of the drug Aricept®, sold generically as donepezil. It is the #1 drug therapy for Alzheimer’s.
Aricept® is a medicine that does one thing: it prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine.
So does rosemary.
Dr. Duke said that when he learned of the new medications that fought Alzheimer’s by inhibiting the breakdown of acetylcholine, “I probed my U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) database for herbs with phytochemical constituents that were also reported to prevent the breakdown of ACh (acetylcholine).
“Even though I myself had been the source of the overwhelming proportion of the data in the database for more than a decade, I was surprised at the output. The database yielded about a half dozen anti-AChE (acetylcholine esterase) compounds, with Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) the proud winner in terms of their numbers and potencies.”
Dr. Duke’s Big Bet
Years ago, Dr. James Duke publicly bet his hair that rosemary shampoo would do as well as over-the-counter medication in helping the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
“Because,” he said, “aromatic phytochemicals are absorbed transdermally through the pores in the scalp just as elsewhere on hairy areas of the body, so it would be a very good bet indeed that some of the volatile aromatic phytochemicals in rosemary shampoo would make their way into the circulation and thence to the brain.”
Probing the USDA phytochemical database, he found that rosemary was reported to contain nearly a dozen aromatic compounds potentially active against AChE (acetylcholine esterase).
Dr. Duke shares more about that memory. “On that same day I heard, at least thrice, a commercial broadcast on NBC telling listeners that Aricept® (donepezil HCl), the most heavily promoted of synthetic anti-Alzheimer’s drugs, probably modifies a neurotransmitter involved in Alzheimer’s. But Aricept® consists only of a single AChE inhibitor, and it’s synthetic and unnatural; rosemary contains nearly a dozen!!”
In addition to its benefits to memory and cognition, herbs like rosemary also contain thousands of phytochemicals that have other positive effects on health. In addition, aromatic herbs like rosemary will also produce an attractive aroma in the otherwise depressing environment that Alzheimer’s can often induce.
Dr. Duke’s Takeaway
Dr. James Duke sums up with the following advice: “All of this leads me to conclude that rosemary shampoo, rosemary tea (and aromatic mint teas), and rosemary in skin lotions and in bath water are safe and pleasant ways to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. And cholinergic foods… chased down with an anti-AChE herbal tea… would be my suggestion for retarding dementia.”
Rosemary of Yore
- Sir Thomas Moore (1478-1535) wrote, “As for rosemary, I let it run all over my garden walls, not only because my bees love it but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance…”
- In ancient Greece, students wore sprigs of rosemary in their hair to fortify the brain and refresh the memory. In Greek mythology, Minerva, the goddess of knowledge, is associated with rosemary. Also part of Greek mythology were the nine daughters of Mnemosyne, or memory, who are often depicted as holding sprigs of rosemary.
- Rosemary has been used as a symbol for remembrance (during weddings, war commemorations and funerals) in Europe and Australia.
- Mourners would throw it into graves as a symbol of remembrance for the dead.
- In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia chides Hamlet, saying, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember.” (Hamlet, iv. 5.)
- In 1607, Roger Hackett, one doctor of divinity of the time, said of rosemary that, “It helpeth the brain, strengtheneth the memorie and is very medicinable for the head.”
- Rabbi Doctor Moses Maimonides, often deemed the greatest Talmudic scholar since Moses at Sinai, taught 800 years ago that tea made of rosemary leaves soothes the nerves, sharpens brain function and memory, and helps induce sleep.