You’ve probably heard that sprinkling a few drops of lavender essential oil on your pillowcase at night will help you get to sleep faster (anything to catch more Z’s, right?). It’s true: Natural oils are revered for their calming, relaxing properties, but EOs can also come in handy when you need to stay alert and focused. You see, certain oils are actually able to stimulate the brain almost immediately, resulting in better focus—and sometimes a little mood boost, too.
Chances are you’re thinking, How does this all really work? Well, the emotional hub in our brain is directly linked to the olfactory epithelium in our noses, and this tissue communicates the effects of fragrance to our mind. “Aromatherapy is used to cure a variety of maladies while boosting other bodily processes,” says Emily Feldon, a certified health coach. “In particular, essential oils can profoundly improve memory, helping to boost both your focus and your recall time.”
Meet the Expert
Emily Feldon is a certified health coach who is passionate about the health benefits of essential oils, especially ones that improve memory and focus.
Speaking of focus, we’ve rounded up the top 10 essential oils for concentration for when you just need to get things done.
A 2016 study found that students who worked in a room with the fragrance of rosemary essential oil in the air actually scored 5 to 7 percent higher on memory tests. The findings were not all that out of the ordinary, said Mark Moss, one of the researchers working on the study. He explained that the herb has been associated with memory for years and even references a line in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”
How to use rosemary essential oil: When it comes to using rosemary oil (and all essential oils, for that matter), there are three approaches you can take: 1) inhalation (e.g., via a diffuser), 2) topical application (be sure to dilute the EO with a carrier oil, water, or unscented lotion), or 3) ingestion (e.g., in a cup of tea or in pill form). Before you even pick up a dropper, run your self-treatment plan by your doctor or a qualified herbalist to ensure it's safe. And if you're thinking about taking your EOs internally, double-check that it's on the FDA's list of EOs safe for consumption.
Lavender is often thought of when it comes to promoting relaxation (remember what we said about putting some on your pillowcase at bedtime?). But a Japanese study actually discovered that, when inhaled during a work break, this essential oil can improve your concentration once you get back to the tasks at hand. The research specifically focused on students on their recess (some were exposed to lavender oil; others to jasmine essential oil, which didn’t have any effect). The study points to the fact that lavender’s ability to lessen stimulation and decrease stress was likely helpful in allowing the students to take an appropriate break and refresh themselves for their next round of work.
How to use lavender essential oil: Evoke a focused state of mind by diluting the lavender EO to two percent (the potency generally thought to be safe for topical application) by mixing it with a carrier oil—think jojoba, olive, and grapeseed—then massage the oil blend into your temples or wrists, or dab it right under your nose.
In case you didn’t know, peppermint is actually a cross between a spearmint and water mint plant. According to a study conducted in 2018, taking peppermint capsules was associated with improved performance of demanding cognitive tasks. Take, for example, professionals such as truck drivers, pilots, and quality-control personnel—these workers need to be on their A game and focused for long stretches of time.
How to use peppermint essential oil: Peppermint is reportedly not as effective when it’s ingested (like in peppermint tea), so your best bet is apply the EO topically or take the inhalation approach. Add up to six drops of peppermint essential oil to two tablespoons of carrier oil, massage a small amount into your palms, then cup your hands over your mouth and nose, breathing deeply to the count of five.
If you want a milder scent, opt for cypress oil. “This evergreen scent can help to increase concentration without suffusing your entire house with the scent of licorice, à la basil essential oil and some of the other more pungent oils,” says Feldon. What’s more, it blends well with other essential oils.
How to use cypress essential oil: A go-to concentration blend is one drop of cypress, two drops of cedarwood, two drops of lemon, and one drop of pine. Add the blend to the diffuser of your choice and count on the fragrance to help you meet that deadline.
Seriously, the zesty, fresh scent of lemon alone could wake us up. In one study, inhaling lemon essential oil helped improved participants’ ability to type—workers who inhaled this fragrance made 54 percent fewer errors (wow!). Another study found that using a lemon essential-oil blend in aromatherapy helped to improve cognitive function in a group of Alzheimer’s patients (they inhaled lemon and rosemary oils in the morning and lavender and orange oils at night). Bonus: Breathing in this citrus essential oil will also give you natural stress relief.
How to use lemon essential oil: Nothing can derail a train of thought quite like an unkempt workspace. Tidy your desk or work area, then spritz down hard surfaces with an aromatic lemon-vinegar cleaner made from equal parts water and vinegar and several drops of lemon essential oil. Not only can the spray help boost your mood, it'll keep your space germ free: Lemon EO has been shown to have antibacterial properties.
This essential oil emits a woody, licorice-like fragrance—similar to the herb (Ocimum basilicum) from which it's derived. Those in search of a concentration aid will likely be more interested in the fact that basil essential oil contains linalool, an organic compound that has shown to reduce memory loss and stress in scientific studies.
How to use basil essential oil: Sprinkle two drops of basil EO onto a handkerchief and inhale deeply to help you retain your focus. After you've completed the task at hand, mix a couple drops of basil essential oil with a carrier oil and Epsom salts, then add the mixture to the tub for a luxurious (and well-deserved) soak.
Sourced from the cananga tree—a flowering tropical tree that's native to India, Southeast Asia, and parts of Australia—ylang-ylang essential oil is commonly associated with luxury bath and beauty products—and for its use as an aphrodisiac. This sweet- and floral-smelling EO should also get credit for its effectiveness as a concentration aid, as there's a scientific link between topical use of ylang-ylang essential oil and the relaxed state conducive to optimal focus.
How to use ylang-ylang essential oil: Pre-brainstorming sesh, treat your skin to an invigorating steam facial. Simply fill a large bowl with boiling water, then add three to seven drops of ylang-ylang EO—and a few springs of fresh herbs if you're feeling so inclined. Drape a towel over your head, then position your just-cleansed face no closer than six inches to the steaming bowl of water. Stay in position for about 15 minutes to fully reap the aromatherapeutic benefits of the steam.
If you're looking to up your mental stamina, keep a bottle of frankincense essential oil handy because this EO is esteemed for its memory-boosting abilities. In fact, in a 2016 scientific study, frankincense (Boswellia papyrifer) EO is credited for having a therapeutic effect on rats with Alzheimer's disease. Another study, conducted in 2011, showed a link between frankincense essential oil and improved spatial memory retention in male lab rats.
How to use frankincense essential oil: To set the mood for focus and concentration, bring a pot of water to a simmer on your stovetop. Add a few drops of frankincense EO to the water, and it'll soon fill your space with a fragrance that's earthy, sweet, and spicy—just be sure to keep an eye on the water so that it stays below boiling.
Native to Oceanic Southeast Asia, the sandalwood tree is the source of the essential oil with the same name. The EO boasts the same woody fragrance that's earned sandalwood a spot on countless ingredient lists—from candles and incense to perfume and lotions—but it's also associated with an ability to promote mental clarity. In a 2003 study, a correlation was found between the transdermal application of sandalwood EO and increased attentiveness in human subjects.
How to use sandalwood essential oil: Add a few drops of sandalwood essential oil to your diffuser to fill your space with a fresh, invigorating fragrance. No diffuser? Dab a few drops of the EO onto a cotton ball, then tuck the ball into a fan cage for a DIY take on the unitasker. Pro tip: You can also wedge one of the balls into a car's air vent for aromatherapy on the go.
Get this: In two scientific studies involving humans with Alzheimer’s disease, the use of sage essential oil (S. officinalis and S. lavandulaefolia) was linked to improved cognitive function and an improvement in attention. The findings bolster sage's long-standing reputation as a catalyst for mental clarity; the studies showed a link between sage EO and alertness, calmness, and contentedness in human subjects.
How to use sage essential oil: Combine sage EO with the carrier oil of your choice, then massage the oil blend all over your feet, from your heel to your toes. In reflexology, the top segment of the toe is believed to be connected to the brain, so massaging your toes can help promote mental clarity. Nota bene: It's said that the foot contains larger-than-average pores, and this allows EO to be absorbed into the body more rapidly.
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