Rosemary has long been used both inwardly and outwardly for its warming and comforting properties, from a sprig of fresh rosemary in hearty home-cooked stews to using its oils for general well-being and skincare.
Rosemary was, and still is, often used for ailments in the “brain, head, stomach, liver and belly” and was known to help with digestion, especially as a “remedy for the windiness in the stomach, bowels, and spleen, and expels it powerfully” (Culpeper, p. 155).
Culpeper also says it helps to strengthen memory, to quicken the senses, as well as for easing pain in the gums and teeth from “rheum falling into them”. It was also once prescribed for easing coughs by taking “the dried leaves shred small” in a pipe. The essential oil from the flowers was used “to take away spots, marks and scars in the skin”.
In ancient Greece students used rosemary to boost memory, and it’s long been used in traditional Chinese medicine for headaches, indigestion, insomnia and the spleen.
Pliny (23 – 79 AD), Dioscorides, a contemporary of Pliny and author of De Materia Medica a work on the use and identification of medical herbs which was the basis of medical practice for the next 1400 years, and Galen all wrote of the benefits of rosemary.
More recently, smelling rosemary and lavender was demonstrated to decrease the stress hormone cortisone in saliva, and to increase free radical scavenging activity, free radicals related to issues such as “inflammation, aging and carcinogenisis”.
Another recent study in Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology found that young adults who had the highest blood levels of a key rosemary compound following inhalation of the essential oil performed better and faster on some cognitive tasks.
And the Journal of Medicinal Food found that low doses of rosemary – not much more than used in cooking – had positive effects on memory speed in older adults, while high doses worsened performance.
Culpeper, N., 1652, The Complete Herbal.