Sales of the plant’s oil – which reportedly improves memory – have shot up in the past year. So, which other natural remedies may aid learning?
Students are known for dabbling with mind-altering herbs, and the latest tale of herbal experimentation shows there has been a rush on rosemary. Following a report that the woody herb may improve memory, students have been seeking it out to give them the edge in exams.
Health store Holland & Barrett has reported a 187% increase in sales of rosemary oil in the past year. A spokesperson said that most in-store questions about rosemary “came from parents hoping to boost their children’s success for exam season”. The store also said that relaxation aids and “natural energy drinks … have been popular this exam time as alternatives to caffeine”.
Molecules in rosemary oil have “been shown previously [to] have the ability to interact with the brain’s neurotransmitters”, according to Mark Moss, head of the psychology department at Northumbria University. Compounds are absorbed into the blood by inhaling the aroma. “They interact with what is called the cholinergic system, which is involved in memory,” he added.
Herbal remedies, says Moss, are not a “magic bullet”. “It’s not just one molecule; there are a number of them and you need the right molecules in the right proportions in order to get the beneficial effect. You might actually get some rosemary oil that isn’t having any beneficial effect.”
It is also worth remembering, perhaps aided by a cup of rosemary tea, that evidence for the benefits of herbal remedies mostly comes from small-scale studies. In any case, here are some other remedies that might be useful to students.
Last year, Moss presented findings that showed that volunteers who drank peppermint tea before tests had better memory and alertness than those who were given camomile tea. In the US, studies led by Bryan Raudenbush, an associate professor of psychology at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, found peppermint scent reduced anxiety and fatigue.
Raudenbush also studied the effects of cinnamon, testing it in a simulated driving experiment. He found it increased alertness and reduced frustration.
Moss has also studied sage. He discovered “performance enhancements in aspects of memory and also attention – the speed at which you can attend to something. They are small effects, but they seem to be beneficial”.
This supplement, extracted from the leaves of the ginkgo tree, is believed traditionally to give cognitive benefits, but one large study into whether it could help prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia failed to show positive results, while one review found no compelling evidence that ginkgo biloba was helpful in healthy young people. “Sometimes we have found beneficial effects and sometimes we have not,” says Moss. “These extracts differ considerably depending on where they have been sourced.” Perhaps no amount of supplements and herbal teas can make up for rest and revision.
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