Many individuals use essential oils to support their memory and focus, two components of cognitive health. However, scientific research has yet to adequately explain the cellular pathways mediating the positive effects of essential oils on cognition.
A recent study, performed by a collaboration of scientists from the UK and Duke University, set out to fill some of the existing gaps in scientific literature concerning the effects of essential oils on cognitive performance. Using in vitro analysis, they assessed the ability of numerous essential oils to bind to key receptors and enzymes found in the brain, such as GABA and cholinergic receptors, which modulate cognitive performance. Their preliminary testing identified spearmint and peppermint oils as the most promising due to the propensity of these oils to bind to GABA and cholinergic receptors.
To take the experiment further, a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over clinical trial was conducted with 24 healthy individuals as study participants. Study participants were given placebo capsules or capsules containing either 50 μL or 100 μL (approximately 1 or 2 drops respectively) of peppermint/spearmint essential oils. Participants were asked to perform a number of tasks designed to test cognitive function and assessed for mental fatigue.
The researchers found that peppermint essential oil had a positive effect on cognition during the execution of difficult mental tasks. In addition, peppermint essential oil significantly reduced cognitive fatigue. The authors of the study suggested the increased activation of cholinergic receptors by peppermint essential oil as the explanation for the cognitive benefits observed. While the study was limited to a small number of participants, this research represents a step forward in better understanding the benefits of essential oils in promoting healthy cognitive function.
- Kennedy D, Okello E, Chazot P, et al. Volatile Terpenes and Brain Function: Investigation of the Cognitive and Mood Effects of Mentha × Piperita L. Essential Oil with In Vitro Properties Relevant to Central Nervous System Function. Nutrients. 2018;10(8). pii: E1029. doi: 10.3390/nu10081029. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30087294/