The science is clear, using essential oils for Alzheimer’s, dementia and brain health can provide profound support, and researchers strongly suggest that people can use regularly them with very promising results!
Case in point, one literature review went so far to claim that, “EOs are effective on almost all currently known pathological targets of AD.”
Read on to get more insights from that study and others to help you use essential oils for Alzheimer’s, dementia and brain disease…
Table of Contents
Serious Public Health Considerations
Dementia occurs when brain nerve cells become damaged. Being that this affects several areas of the brain, people experience dementia quite differently. There are various types of dementias, and they are often categorized by the part of the brain damaged and whether the condition worsens. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia in seniors over 65 years old is, has been researched extensively and essential oils can be of great help.
The most recent data tells us that Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia, is the #6 leading cause of death in the United States. (1) By the time you read this sentence 2 people will have already been diagnosed with dementia. (2) Globally, more than 10 million will be diagnosed each year, and this is expected to double by 2025! Nearly 50 million worldwide are affected and a majority of people are classified as “low to middle income.” However, don’t think that the “rich” are immune as nearly 40% of all cases affect middle to high-income earners.
- Approximately 5.3 million Americans of all ages are affected.
- Of this amount, an estimated 5.1 million people are older than 65.
- Approximately 700,000 people in the United States age 65 and older died because of Alzheimer’s.
- Within the last decade, deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s disease increased 71%.
- Nearly two-thirds of American Alzheimer’s patients are women.
- African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be affected.
- By 2025 the number of people with Alzheimer’s is estimated to increase 40% – reaching 7.1 million.
- By 2050, that number is expected to triple.
- Up to 25% of people diagnosed with dementia are prescribed antipsychotics, which are not proven to help.
- According to one study, “The potential risks of such treatment are becoming clearer, but the benefits remain uncertain.”
No Known Medical Cure?
It is widely claimed that Alzheimer’s is the only disease among the top 10 causes of death in America that cannot be prevented, cured, or even slowed. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth! New York Times bestselling author Dale Bredesen, MD has proven that Alzheimer’s can be reversed has two books outlining his findings.
Nonetheless, according to researcher & Harvard Medical School fellow Dr. Rebecca Erwin Wells,
- “We know that approximately 50% of people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment – the intermediate stage between the expected declines of normal aging and the more serious cognitive deterioration associated with dementia – may develop dementia within five years. And unfortunately, we know there are currently no FDA approved medications that can stop that progression.” (5)
Note that Dr. Wells is NOT saying that there are no known cures or ways to slow down Alzheimer’s progression. He is simply saying that there are no FDA-approved medications that can stop the mental progression once it starts, which is correct. It is important to recognize that medicine is not the end-all solution to our healthcare problems and that there are proven Alzheimer’s natural treatment options like essential oils!
More on that below… It seems that the medical community is confused on how to prevent and treat dementia, seeing that so many people are prescribed antipsychotics.
The problem is that approximately 80% of people who have dementia will exhibit non-cognitive symptoms and what’s known as behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD): agitation, aggression, psychosis, sleep disturbance, and wandering. These side effects, especially the prevalence of agitation and aggression in those living in nursing homes, become significant issues for caregivers who all too often choose to “drug” their patient instead of trying to find Alzheimer’s natural treatment options.
The consideration must be made that the person with dementia may be exhibiting these behaviors as a way of communicating distress or frustration at not being able to properly communicate.
Please keep this in mind if you are a home caregiver before too many people are prescribed drugs or transferred to institutional care prematurely. Remember this: antipsychotics are not the answer. Alzheimer’s natural treatment options like essential oils frankincense, lavender, chamomile, vetiver, and especially citrus oils can help!
Top 4 Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease
Admittedly, scientists and researchers don’t quite fully understand what causes dementias like Alzheimer’s. However, there are 3 triggers that seem to put people most at risk.
1. Sanitation Overkill
Research published in the Oxford Journal has found a strong link between wealthy, “sanitized” countries and higher rates of Alzheimer’s. This research, led by Dr. Molly Fox across 192 countries, suggests that the lack of exposure to bacteria creates a poorly developed immune system, leaving your brain at risk for inflammation. (6) It all boils down to the human microbiome and this is how it works:
- Countries with a greater degree of sanitation have a lower degree of bacteria prevalence.
- Alzheimer’s disease shares certain characteristics with autoimmunity.
- Like autoimmunity, microbial diversity plays a key part in the development and function of the immune system.
- Exposure to bacteria and other microorganisms improves immune function in ways that protect against autoimmunity, and the same has been seen with Alzheimer’s.
So, what’s the solution? Eat dirt once in a while and watch out for what you put on your skin. Especially hand sanitizer! Because all essentials oils are antimicrobial, the natural response from all of us would be to DIY and make our hand sanitizer and body care products that don’t kill our skin microbiome!
2. Sedentary Lifestyle
Did you know that sitting down too much has been shown to reduce life expectancy, and you can easily add 2 years back to your life by simply limiting your seat time to less than 3 hours a day?
The journal BMJ Open has explained this in this great deal, and imagine what the ramifications of excessive sitting are on the brain! We are designed to move, which is why regular exercise is so important. According to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, regular physical exercise (especially later in life) can prevent chronic conditions like cognitive impairment, diabetes, and heart disease. (7)
In the words of lead investigator Mark Hamer, Ph.D., “The take-home message really is to keep moving when you are elderly. It’s [a] cliche, but it’s a case of use it or lose it. You do lose the benefits [of exercise] if you don’t remain active.” And this is the key: moderate exercise is enough to reap the benefits.
You don’t have to be a marathon runner or do crazy stuff like cross-fit in your 60s! Just be sure to make some of these activities part of your daily regimen.
- Supervised weightlifting
- Water Aerobics
3. Over Stimulation
Our society woefully lacks peace and calm. Like never before, we need to get away, find our quiet place, and let our mind (and emotions) take a break. Taking a mental break is so powerful that a study from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center has shown that meditation plays an important role in slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s and dementia! Researchers found that when people meditate or go to yoga at least two hours per week, they literally had less atrophy in parts of the brain and better brain connectivity than those who didn’t!
Last, but not least is aluminum exposure. Don’t believe what the media wants to tell you: the link between aluminum intake and Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline is proven.
- According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, “The hypothesis that [aluminum] significantly contributes to [Alzheimer’s disease] is built upon very solid experimental evidence and should not be dismissed.” (8)
- And in 2014, “[Alzheimer’s disease] is a human form of chronic aluminum neurotoxicity. The causality analysis demonstrates that chronic aluminum intake causes [Alzheimer’s disease].”(9)
- And, in 2016, a meta-analysis evaluating eight cohort and case-control studies (with a total of 10,567 individuals), uncovered that “Individuals chronically exposed to [aluminum] were 71% more likely to develop [Alzheimer’s disease]” (10)
Digging Deeper into Aluminum
First off, it’s critical to note that aluminum is a known neurotoxin. (11) According to Dr. Douglas Scharre, a neurologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, it is “pretty well established that if you have too much aluminum in your brain, that’s not healthy. Aluminum can be a neurotoxin, and if you ingest it or get it into your brain, it can cause a dementia-like condition.” (12)
The debate, however, is at what level does aluminum become toxic and put you at risk of brain damage?
If you’ve done any research online about natural solutions for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, no doubt you’ve seen reports that aluminum exposure is a risk factor. This is actually one of the most publicized and controversial theories concerning Alzheimer’s because the data in the medical literature is conflicting. (13, 14)
Nonetheless, an entire industry of aluminum-free products has surfaced offering “natural” solutions for deodorant, antiperspirants, antacids, pots, pans, canned food, and beverages.
The backstory behind this originated from research done 55 years ago on “tau tangles,” one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.
Tau is a protein that helps form microtubules in the brain, which are essential for nutrient transport between nerve cells. In a healthy brain, tau proteins help maintain the structural integrity of the microtubules to ensure that the brain is properly “fed.” With Alzheimer’s patients, tau proteins collapse into clumps known as “tangles,” which will eventually starve brain cells.
In 1965, researchers discovered that rabbits injected with extremely high doses of aluminum developed tau tangles in their brains. This led many people to conclude that aluminum from cans, cookware, processed foods, and even our water supply could be a contributing factor to the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Dangers of Aluminum Exposure
In addition to being the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust (comprising roughly eight percent) aluminum naturally occurs in minute, trace amounts in our food.
- Tap water.
- Soy-based infant formula and many other processed food products.
- Baking supplies such as flour, baking powder, coloring, and anticaking agents.
- Pots, pans, and foil.
- Siding and.
- Body care items such as cosmetics, sunscreens, and antiperspirants.
- Pharmaceuticals such as antacids, astringents, aspirin, and others.
There is the obvious concern that micro-doses may be accumulating over time (i.e. “bioaccumulation”), and it’s well documented that aluminum exposure has been linked to a variety of health concerns such as:
- Brain and bone disease found in children with kidney disorders. (16)
- Calcium imbalance and oxidative damage in the brain. (17)
- DNA and epithelial skin cell damage. (18)
- Neurological damage via occupational exposure. (19)
This last point was confirmed in 2014 when a study was published that presented the first case with comprehensive and unequivocal data demonstrating significantly elevated brain aluminum content in a man who was occupationally exposed to aluminum dust for several years. (19)
Even the United States Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concedes that “Some studies show that people exposed to high levels of aluminum may develop Alzheimer’s disease.” (16)
The question remains. At what levels?
Essentially, we should all be asking whether or not there are health risks associated with aluminum that would prevent us from using aluminum-based products.
We wholeheartedly believe that there are, which is why we kicked out aluminum-based products from our home years ago.
Natural Treatment & DIY Tips
First off, as we’ve seen above, anyone looking to prevent slow down or reverse the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia should focus on movement, exercise, calming the brain, and maintaining a proper microfloral balance in their body. Various studies researchers have found that:
- Those who practice meditation and yoga have less brain atrophy in the hippocampus, which shrinks in people with Alzheimer’s.
- Meditation helps protects our brain by increasing protective tissues.
- Meditation increases grey matter and cortical thickness, both of which slow the brain’s aging rate. Also, cortical thickness has been connected with decision-making and memory.
- Meditation helps seniors feel less isolated and lonely, both of which increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
- Meditation reduces cortisol (the stress hormone), which has been known to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
A 2019 study published in the Neural Regeneration Research journal stresses the importance of functional food and says this about herbs, primarily Mediterranean herbs like mint: (20)
- Consumption of fresh herbs can help boost memory and reduce sugar levels in the body.
- The use of herbs as a functional food could lead to significant improvements in health.
- Cognitive stimulation with medical food and medical herbs could delay the development of cognitive decline, and improve the quality of life of Alzheimer’s disease patients.
And, yes, essential oils can add an extra boost to this approach.
- “This effect can be enhanced if combined with aromatherapy, topically or by inhalation, and/or by ingestion. Terpenes and terpenoids, the primary constituents of these essential oils are small, lipid-soluble organic molecules that can be absorbed through the skin or across nasal mucosa into the systemic blood circulation. Many terpenes can also cross the blood-brain barrier. Therefore, topical application or inhalation of essential oils will also produce a systemic effect.” (20)
These are some very encouraging words from the University of Palermo:
- “Probably the interest in the essential oils and volatile compounds will be fueled from the new available scientific data about receptor on olfactory mucosa of the nasal cavity. It can receive and distinguish different odor molecules, which produce nerve impulses and transmit into the olfactory bulb via olfactory nerves. The nerve cells in the olfactory bulb transmit the signals into the hippocampus. Because the hippocampus is closely related with learning and memory functions, the volatile compounds can be potential drugs in [Alzheimer’s] therapies.” (21)
Catch that? Essential oils can be potential “drugs” to help with learning and memory function. More on that below.
Essential Oils Research & Mechanism
When it comes to using essential oils to promote brain health and manage Alzheimer’s disease, a recent literature review sums it up best. Taken from the study: (22)
- EOs are effective on almost all currently known pathological targets of AD.
- EOs also possess neuroprotective, anti-aging potentials and are effective in dementia, epilepsy, anxiety, and other neurological disorders.
- It is important that EOs which are effective on multiple targets (multi-potent agents) must be screed to find more effective drugs in comparison to the currently available drugs which have limited efficacy and are useful for symptomatic relief only.
- Anti-aging EOs will be more effective in the prevention of these neurological disorders.
- Special focus must be on the edible EOs which are either part of the diet or used as spices will be more useful.
- Special concerns regarding the kinetic profile, route of administration, and dose are important tasks in the development of EOs as new drugs.
Hence, essential oils can be referred to as nootropics (“smart drugs”) or cognitive enhancers: drugs, supplements, and other substances that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation.
The mechanism behind this is explained by the science of smell.
Science of Smell
As Yale Scientific so candidly points out, “There is something to be said for the consistent mood improvement across studies.” This aromatherapy stuff is not hocus pocus, it’s science! This is how Yale describes it: (23)
- When you smell lemon oil, [for example] some molecules dissolve in the mucus lining of the olfactory epithelium on the roof of the nasal cavity.
- There, the molecules stimulate olfactory receptors. Olfactory sensory neurons carry the signals from the receptors to the olfactory bulb, which filters and begins processing the input signals of the lemon scent.
- Mitral cells then carry the output signals from the olfactory bulb to the olfactory cortex, which allows you to perceive and recognize the tangy scent of lemon.
- Interestingly, the mitral cells do not only lead to the olfactory cortex, they also carry the signals from the lemon scent to other areas in the brain’s limbic system.
- Some mitral cells connect directly to the amygdala, the brain structure involved in emotional learning and memory. Indeed, the olfactory system is the only sensory system that involves the amygdala and the limbic system in its primary processing pathway.
- This link explains why smells are often linked to specific memories. For example, if you have had a positive experience with lemon meringue pie, the scent of lemon may induce positive thoughts.
No wonder essential oils are becoming a popular non-pharmaceutical intervention for Alzheimer’s patients!
A Note About Anosmia
However, the effects of aromatherapy is debated in the context of dementia and Alzheimer’s patients because of anosmia.
Unfortunately, many patients with advanced dementia have lost their sense of smell (“anosmia”). This may be why research has shown that lavender aromatherapy via diffusion has had no effect on agitation in people with dementia, while application as a skin lotion and lavender hand massages worked wonderfully to reduce aggression.
This leads us to believe transdermal application is necessary, yet, we still don’t really know until more research is completed. (24)
A common question we get is what about dementia and Alzheimer’s patients who have lost their sense of smell? Coming directly from a Facebook Q & A, essential oil safely expert Robert Tisserand states this:
- Q: If one has lost their smell does aromatherapy still work with the emotions like uplifting or physical like relaxing?
- A: As far as we know, psychological effects do not take place for someone who has completely lost their sense of smell, but the physiological effects still do [which is what I was talking about regarding lavender oil, agitation, and dementia research above].
In other words, the body will react to essential oil constituents in the usual ways, but the mind does not. When we inhale an essential oil there is a two-fold reaction – a physiological one, which is hard-wired, and a psychological one which is not, and which varies from person to person. For those of us with an intact sense of smell, it may be interesting to note that an essential oil (or blend) cannot have one effect on the mind and the opposite effect on the body. Also bear in mind that psychological effects partly depend on our state of mind and may be different at different times.
Top 5 Essential Oils for Alzheimer’s & Brain Health
Although essential oils have multiple uses, certain oils can ramp up mental focus and clarity and these oils top the list for Alzheimer’s, dementia & brain health.
1. Cinnamon Bark
As we quoted in our new book, The Essential Oils Apothecary:
- “There is growing interest in aromatherapy as a natural alternative because of the unique quality of essential oils to achieve the same outcome as the gold standard in AD medication: acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. The primary medical approach for AD is to prescribe these drugs. More commonly referred to as cholinesterase inhibitors, they block the activity of an enzyme in the brain known as cholinesterase, which is responsible for breaking down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.”
Cholinesterase inhibitors (such as donepezil, rivastigmine, and galantamine) are used to reduce the action of cholinesterase, thereby making more acetylcholine available to nerve cells in the brain, because low levels of acetylcholine are devastating for nerve impulse function and cause mental impairment, which are both hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. As you’d expect, side effects of these drugs are devastating, including vomiting, falling, dizziness, nausea, confusion, pneumonia, diarrhea, hallucinations, malaise, convulsions, rapid heart rate, loss of consciousness, decreased appetite, unhealthy weight loss, and even death.
On the other hand, essential oils have been observed to inhibit acetylcholinesterase with no reported side effects! For instance, cinnamaldehyde and cinnamyl acetate, two primary components in cinnamon bark essential oil, have shown nearly an 80% inhibitory activity on cholinesterase. (25)
Pro Tip: There are several essential oils known for their anticholinesterase activity including, bergamot, lavender, and rosemary. For the complete list, and to uncover how to use ingest them safely, pick up a copy of our new book, The Essential Oils Apothecary.
No discussion about brain health and cognitive function would be complete without first discussing rosemary, the “herb of remembrance.” Touted for centuries to help improve memory, the cognitive enhancing power of 1,8-cineole (a component of rosemary oil), has been well documented in the medical literature. (26)
Only recently, however, has the scientific community begun to examine rosemary essential oil and its chemical constituents (specifically the terpenes) as a natural therapy for Alzheimer’s disease as it has been observed to inhibit neuronal cell death, significantly reduce inflammation, and strengthens attention span. (27)
Pro Tip: Make our Focus and Clarity Inhaler for on-the-go mental alertness when you need it most!
- 10 drops rosemary essential oil
- 5 drops pine essential oil
- 5 drops Litsea cubeba (also known as may chang) essential oil
- Precut organic cotton pad
- Aromatherapy inhaler
- Place a cotton pad in the inhaler tube.
- Drop the essential oils directly onto the cotton pad in the tube. Alternatively, you can drop the essential oils into a glass bowl, roll the cotton pad in the oils to absorb them, and then insert it into the inhaler tube using tweezers.
- Open the inhaler and take a few deep breaths through your nose with your eyes closed. Repeat as often as needed whenever you need a quick boost of mental clarity.
There is a lot to be said of how lavender can help Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, and The Women’s Brain Health Initiative published a study conducted by The Alzheimer’s Society that highlights a few practical uses. (28)
- In folklore linen bags were filled with lavender flowers and placed under pillows in order to facilitate sleep: one trial showed that the use of lavender increased sleep patterns of dementia patients who were in residential care.
- In a trial involving 122 non-demented patients in intensive care, massage aromatherapy using lavender oil was well received, the greatest improvements being in mood and reduction in anxiety.
- In another trial, lavender, geranium, and mandarin essential oils in an almond oil base were applied to the skin of 39 patients over an unspecified period. This resulted in increased alertness, contentment, and sleeping at night; and reduced levels of agitation, withdrawal, and wandering.
- In a recent open-labeled trial on people with dementia, the use of a range of essential oils, including ylang-ylang, patchouli, rosemary, peppermint, and others, produced a marked decrease in disturbed behavior in the majority of participants. This led to a reduction in prescribed conventional medicines, thereby delivering cost savings.
Pro Tip: Make lavender part of your nighttime routine by adding 4-6 drops in your diffuser 10 minutes before going to bed, and having an aromatherapy inhaler handy for when you need a quick “cool down” during stressful moments throughout the day.
4. Lemon Balm (Melissa)
Results of placebo-controlled clinical trials using lavender and Melissa (lemon balm) for Alzheimer’s natural treatment of residential care residents with advanced dementia have shown that “All treatments resulted in significant benefits, including (in most instances) reductions in agitation, sleeplessness, wandering and unsociable behavior!”
Here are some of the ways lemon balm and other essential oils were used.
- Lemon balm and lavender aroma were introduced to 6 patients and compared to a control group using sunflower oil for one week increased functional abilities and communication and decreased difficult behavior.
- Lavender aroma and massage with 21 patients were compared to aroma or massage alone for one week. Aromatherapy with massage significantly reduced the frequency of excessive motor behavior.
- Lavender aroma oil was given to 15 patients and placebo (water) on alternate days for ten days. The aromatherapy significantly reduced agitated behavior.
- Lemon balm (Melissa) lotion was applied to the face and arms of 36 patients, whilst another 36 patients had sunflower oil applied. Melissa was associated with highly significant reductions measured on an agitation inventory and social withdrawal, together with an increase in constructive activities (dementia care mapping).
- Lavender, marjoram, patchouli, and vetiver were applied as a cream to the body and limbs of 36 patients and compared with inert oil. The essential oil combination significantly increased the mental state examination – yet also increased resistance to care (considered to be due to the increase in alertness), compared to inert oil.
Pro Tip: Make a lemon balm ointment by mixing 12 drops of Melissa essential oil with 1 ounce of your favorite carrier oil and apply it after you get out of the shower as a body moisturizer.
5. Ginger (C02)
Beta-amyloid deposit buildup in the brain causes the formation of senile plaques (an important pathological marker of AD), which cause apoptosis (“programmed cell death”) in neurons through oxidative stress. It has been found that 6-gingerol, a pungent phytochemical-rich in antioxidants found in CO2 ginger extract, can actually protect against this oxidative cell death in the brain.
Ginger blends well with fennel and bitter orange, both oils that I discuss in length in my new book because of their ability to promote mental and emotional well-being – particularly in patients with AD, according to the research.
Pro Tip: Like cinnamon bark, ginger CO2 is consumable. To learn how to ingest it properly & other ginger use tips, pick up a copy of my book, The Essential Oils Apothecary. You can also make this delightful Sweet Chill-Out Differ Blend to help calm your nerves when stress hits.
- 2 drops fennel essential oil
- 2 drops ginger CO2 extract
- 2 drops bitter orange essential oil
- Fill your diffuser with purified water as directed in the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Add the essential oils.
- Turn on the diffuser when you are ready to relax and release stress or anxiety.
- Turn off the diffuser when done.
BONUS: Care for the Elderly
In addition to being more at risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia, the elderly often suffer from a wide variety of symptoms that aromatherapy can help with. There is significant overlap here with many common issues that AD patients struggle with and we include an extensive chart in The Essential Oils Apothecary outlining which oils to use for everything from poor appetite and grief to circulatory issues and depression.
Pro Tip: When you order The Essential Oils Apothecary, we have put together a special book bonus gift, which includes a full-color printable download of this chart & more than 6 hours of masterclass instructional videos to help you get the most out of the book!