After years of being known in the United States as little more than a culinary flavoring, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is gaining respect for its potential to heal.
Recent research into rosemary’s chemical makeup shows that the herb contains antioxidants, which inhibit the action of free radicals–unstable molecules believed to cause many diseases, including cancer.
So far, studies of rosemary’s healing effects have been conducted only in test tubes and on animals, although human trials are planned. But animal studies show that rosemary’s antioxidants prevent cancer-causing compounds from binding to DNA.
Jim Duke, Ph.D., Herbs for Health editorial advisory board member and author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997), says that these studies, along with additional evidence, point to the ability of rosemary’s antioxidants to prevent and suppress Alzheimer’s disease.
“Alzheimer’s has been blamed on oxidative and inflammatory processes and on the breakdown or deficiency of choline and acetylcholine in the brain,” Duke says. “Rosemary contains more than a dozen antioxidants and a half-dozen compounds reported to prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine.”
Further, Duke and other researchers say that rosemary is at least as effective as the Alzheimer’s drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but that rosemary is gentler on the body.
“I’d bet my head of hair that rosemary shampoo, rosemary tea, or rosemary bathwater would have activities parallel to tacrine or huperzine [two FDA-approved Alzheimer’s treatments] at retarding the progression of Alzheimer’s,” Duke says.
Duke and others in the scientific community assert that the results of the scientific tests to date, combined with rosemary’s use in traditional medical practices, provide enough evidence to support using rosemary as an antioxidant.
In fact, at Hauser Laboratories, Inc., in Boulder, Colorado, workers currently are extracting large volumes of the herb to make a rosemary supplement to be sold nationwide.
Rod Lenoble, Hauser’s scientific affairs manager, says that despite a lack of human trials involving rosemary, there exists an “overwhelming body of research to support rosemary’s effectiveness.” He cites the fact that in Mediterranean countries, where rosemary is a common cooking ingredient, rates of cancer and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s are among the lowest worldwide.
Even so, Lenoble says, Hauser is planning extensive studies of the effects of rosemary on humans.
In addition to its promise as an antioxidant, rosemary is used traditionally to calm nerves, offset muscle spasms, gently stimulate the nervous system, and fight inflammation, according to Duke. Its active constituents include carvacrol, ursolic acid, carnosol, carnosic acid, and rosmanol.
There is some debate about whether extracting rosemary’s constituents will reduce the herb’s healing potential. In one animal study, Duke says, a whole-plant extract was more effective than carnosol alone in increasing the number of liver enzymes that deactivate carcinogens. He adds that this study unquestionably shows that a whole-herb extract is more effective than any single, isolated constituent.
Hauser’s Lenoble says that by carefully processing rosemary, the integrity of the whole plant will be protected to allow rosemary’s constituents to work together in an extracted form.
Rosemary is a member of the mint family native to the arid hills of the Mediterranean region, where its Latin name Ros marinus means “dew of the sea.” Apparently, its pale-blue flowers glowed like dew in the hills above the sea.
The first recorded uses of rosemary describe it as a preservative and flavoring. Ancient Greeks used it to preserve meats, and rosemary branches have been found wrapped up with the mummies of ancient Egypt. Some speculate that rosemary’s reputation as a preservative led the Greeks and Romans to believe it was a memory enhancer. They were so impressed with the herb that they thought a mere sniff of a sprig could prevent aging.
Rosemary has also long been used in herbal baths, cosmetics, and shampoos, and some believe it can stimulate hair growth and prevent baldness.