Concentration is the ability to focus through any number of distractions, external such as phones, dog’s barking, and children crying, as well as internal brain chatter, web surfing, and procrastination. It’s an immensely useful skill (or gift!) and fortunately there are traditional ways it can be enhanced with essential oils. Worwood suggests the following oils as useful for concentration: Lemon, Lemongrass, Cardamom, Orange, Rosemary, Peppermint, Basil, Bergamot, Cedarwood, and Eucalyptus (1996, p. 99).
With the exception of the citruses (lemon, orange, and bergamot) the oils are distinctly different than those recommended to treat depression. The tonic effects of terpene hydrocarbons in the citrus oils make them naturals for the stimulating warmth required for concentration. So we’ll review the constituents of the most common oils recommended for focused alertness and concentration: rosemary, peppermint, and eucalyptus.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) has three main chemotypes. The most common in aromatherapy is the cineole type. Its main component is cineole, an oxide. Oxides are known for their expectorant properties and 1.8 cineole found in rosemary is cited as the constituent “responsible for rosemary’s CNS-excitatory properties” (Battaglia, 2007, p. 83) and terpene hydrocarbons, which are known for their tonic effect. Traditionally rosemary is said to stimulate the mind and help with memory. A UK study recently validated this in the lab: “Rosemary produced a significant enhancement of performance for overall quality of memory and secondary memory factors, but also produced an impairment of speed of memory compared to controls” (Moss M, Cook J, Wesnes K, Duckett P., 2003). And in regards to mood: “both the control and lavender groups were significantly less alert than the rosemary condition; however, the control group was significantly less content than both rosemary and lavender conditions. These findings indicate that the olfactory properties of these essential oils can produce objective effects on cognitive performance, as well as subjective effects on mood” (Moss M, Cook J, Wesnes K, Duckett P., 2003). So, indeed, rosemary does aid memory and enhances mental clarity.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is composed principally of menthol (up to 46%) with the associated alcohol tonic effect. The above referenced study (page 3) by Moss, et al indicated peppermint stimulated cognitive functioning as opposed to ylang-ylang, which slowed processing time (Moss, Hewitt, Moss, & Wesnes,2008). Not entirely unrelated to concentration peppermint is also shown to relieve headaches and: “prevent congestion of blood supply to the brain” and cold compresses of peppermint oil are recommended to reduce headache and migraine (Battaglia, 2007 p. 247). While headaches are not directly related to concentration they can certainly distract! By including peppermint oil in a concentration blend the unfortunate occasional by-product of focused work, the headache, can be avoided.
Eucalyptus has at least 600 different species and at least 13 different essential oil types. For our purposes we’ll review Eucalyptus radiata, which is 65-75% cineole content (Battaglia, 2007, p. 192) with the remaining principle components terpene alcohols. Like rosemary cineole oxide stimulates and terpene alcohols tonify. Aside from Worwood’s list eucalyptus is rarely indicated for mood but more often for its expectorant and antibacterial qualities. However its distinctive, clearing odor may well serve to bring the mind to rapid attention regardless of chemistry.
So while the essential oils traditionally associated with depression have euphoric, sedative, and calming effects via their ester, ether, and alcohol contents the essential oils associated with concentration are heavier in oxides and terpene alcohols. The aromas of florals are rich, warm, and gently supportive whereas cineole-rich rosemary and eucalyptus are crisp and clearing. Citrus oils are useful for both depression and concentration with their stimulating uplift.
Much of aromatherapy’s elegance is the synergy between different oils. Blending lemon with clary sage and jasmine creates a different effect (uplifted euphoria) than blending lemon with rosemary and eucalyptus (crisp awareness) and yet the component ‘lemon’ is an integral part of each blend.
This synergy offers more freedom than the pharmaceutical approach to treating ‘disease’. Pharmaceuticals for mood are suddenly common as candy and many client intake forms are filled with lists of anti-depressants, sleeping pills, and pain relievers. While pharmaceuticals have their place often they’re unnecessary and evidence of a cultural reliance on chemicals to “fix” us. With laboratory studies suggesting the efficacy of traditional remedies, including aromatherapy, we can explore viable alternatives to pills. This encourages active engagement of the client/patient in his/her own health and well-being. And aesthetically the application or inhalation of a blend of essential oils pleases the senses and engages the imagination while the chemical constituents work their “magic” to alter mood and promote well-being. That’s good medicine.
Battaglia, Salvatore. (2007). The complete guide to aromatherapy. Brisbane, Australia: The International Centre of Holistic Aromatherapy.
Moss M, Cook J, Wesnes K, Duckett P. (2003). Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults. Int J Neurosci. 2003 Jan: 11.3(1):15-38. Abstract obtained from http://www.pubmed.gov.
Moss, M Hewitt, S Moss, L, Wesnis, K. (2008). Modulation of cognitive performance and moods by aromas of peppermint and ylang-ylang. Int J Neuroscience. 118:(1):59-77. Abstract obtained from http://www.pubmed.gov.
Schnaubelt, Kurt. (1995). Advanced aromatherapy: the science of essential oil therapy. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press.
Worwood, Valerie. (1996). The fragrant mind: aromatherapy for personality, mind, mood, and emotion. Novato, CA: New World Library.