In our fast-paced and busy lives, humans are no strangers to mental fatigue, brain fog and a lack of focus.
There are many factors which can contribute to these problems, such as environment, digestion, diet, lifestyle, stress, occupation, sleep issues, exposure to chemicals, or even excessive exposure to technology. Mental clarity is a broad topic of conversation, but also a relevant one, because it is becoming increasingly common for folks to experience symptoms in relation to cognition.
For each individual, the reason for fatigue or brain fog could be different. Two people could experience the same symptom, but the cause may not be the same. So to understand fully and bring resolution, one must go to the root.
While there are many remedies available to combat these issues, one often overlooked solution is aromatic medicine. Aromatic medicine involves using essential oils, plant extracts, and other aromatic substances like incense and topical preparations to promote physical and mental well-being. In this post, we'll explore how aromatic medicine can help strengthen, revitalize, and sharpen cognitive function.
Potential Causes of Brain Fog
- Lack of sleep: Sleep deprivation or poor-quality sleep can impair cognitive function.
- Chronic stress: Prolonged periods of stress can affect brain function, leading to mental fatigue and difficulty concentrating.
- Nutritional deficiencies: Inadequate intake of essential nutrients, such as vitamins B12 and D, omega-3 fatty acids, or iron, can impact brain health and contribute to brain fog.
- Hormonal changes: Hormonal imbalances, particularly during menopause or thyroid disorders, can cause changes in cognitive function.
- Medications: Certain medications such as antihistamines, sedatives, antidepressants, and some blood pressure medications, may have cognitive side effects.
- Chronic health conditions: Conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune diseases, and Lyme disease are often associated with brain fog as a symptom.
- Mental health disorders: Conditions like depression, anxiety, and ADHD can affect cognitive function and contribute to brain fog.
- Dietary factors: Consuming excessive amounts of processed foods, refined sugars, and unhealthy fats may negatively impact brain function.
- Dehydration: Inadequate hydration can affect cognitive performance and lead to mental fatigue.
- Sedentary lifestyle: Lack of physical activity and a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to cognitive decline and brain fog.
It's important to note that brain fog can have multiple contributing factors, and it's often a combination of lifestyle, health, and environmental factors that lead to its development. If you're experiencing persistent brain fog, it's recommended to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the underlying cause and appropriate management strategies.
How Digestive Health Can Affect Mental Clarity
Our digestion is a key factor to look at when it comes to mental clarity. The gut is often referred to as the second brain, and it affects our mind in an immense way. In Ayurveda, our digestive fire is called “agni.” The state of our agni is fundamental so that all systems of the body, mind and emotions are functioning optimally. Agni isn’t only our ability to digest food, but is the ability to digest experience as a whole. A balanced digestive fire is called “sama agni” and generally unfolds sensations of inner peace and clarity.
There are a few different types of agni imbalances, described as vishama, manda and tikshna. Vishama agni typically appears as an irregular appetite, and can produce symptoms such as gas, bloating, cramping and constipation or irregular bowel movements. Mentally, it can create anxiety, fear, too much thinking, restlessness and insecurity. Manda agni means a sluggish or lack of appetite, and can create slow digestion, lethargy, lack of motivation, heaviness, brain fog and malaise. Tikshna agni means to have sharp hunger but poor digestion, and can create acid reflux, burning sensations and loose stool. Mentally, it can result in frustration, anger, hate, jealousy, tension, and inability to slow down and relax. Any one of these imbalances in digestive fire can create ripples in the mind and emotions, which affect our ability to feel clear, loving, compassionate and present. The reverse is equally true, that our mental and emotional state directly impacts our digestive fire.
Balanced digestion is also extremely important in the modern perspective, as many neurotransmitters are created in the gut, such as serotonin, dopamine, GABA and glutamate. If our digestion is poor and we lack serotonin or dopamine production, we may struggle to feel happy, cheerful, motivated and satisfied.
Another valuable thing to consider is that the vagus nerve, which is a main nerve associated with the parasympathetic nervous system (the ability to rest and digest) is directly connected to the gut. The vagus nerve actually helps control and regulate digestion, as well as heart rate and respiration. This means that our mind and gut cannot be separated – the health of the mind strongly relies on a healthy digestive system and vice versa.
Proper diet, agni, exercise, sleep, diaphragmatic breathing, meditation practices and cultivating healthy relationships are key pillars to helping you to have a bright, brilliant and clear mind. Alongside these primary factors, we can turn to aromatic herbs to help us along the way.
If you are feeling a sense of lethargy, Rosemary is a great friend. It is a warming, digestive herb with an affinity for the heart and brain. It stimulates the release of digestive secretions and can help with gas and bloating when taken in internally. When used as an aromatic, it increases circulation to the brain which can enhance concentration, mood and support memory function. Rosemary has an association with the sun, offering courage and strength to our heart and mind when moving through heavy emotions such as grief and sadness.
Though uplifting in nature, the aroma of Rosemary can also have a relaxing effect by helping to lower cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is a necessary hormone that gets us up and going in the morning. But it is meant to follow a natural circadian rhythm cycle, rising in the morning and then tapering off throughout the day. If we are constantly in fight-or-flight, or a state of stress, cortisol levels stay increased and can affect the body in various ways. Through helping to lower cortisol, Rosemary offers us an ability to have more tolerance for life scenarios and regulate the nervous system, which can ultimately positively affect our focus and mental clarity.
Lemon Balm uplifts the spirit and brings qualities of freshness and brightness. It has a special way of opening the emotional heart, helping to awaken a sense of inner joy. When you grow Lemon Balm at home, drink it as a tea or enjoy it as an essential oil, it can surely help to relieve tension carried in the mind and heart.
Lemon Balm is a great example of a plant which supports the gut-mind connection. It is a carminative herb, meaning it is supportive of digestion, but also has an action on the nervous system. Lemon Balm is beautiful to use when there is a tendency towards worry, fear, or melancholy. As well, it is used when there is an upset stomach due to nervous or emotional distress, and vice versa, to support emotional distress when there is an upset stomach.
Bergamot has a citrusy smell that can invigorate the mind and senses. You may be familiar with Bergamot because it is commonly a main ingredient in Earl Grey tea. Bergamot is known to be helpful in uplifting the mind, which can bring balance if you are experiencing heaviness, fatigue or are feeling depressed. It can be made into a poultice and applied to the forehead in the case of a tension headache.
The leaves of Bergamot have been used to relieve gastrointestinal pains such as gas and bloating, as well as insomnia – all of which symptoms can have a mental component associated. It can help ease nervous indigestion and loss of appetite caused by emotional stress.
Peppermint is a cooling, soothing, calming herb and can help to bring balance to the mind and nervous system if you are feeling a sense of burnout. The sensation of Peppermint oil on the skin will show stimulating and cooling qualities, and this is due to menthol, one of the terpenes found inside the plant. Peppermint leaves also have the ability to support digestion, and are commonly used when there is indigestion, gas, bloating or nausea. When taken as a tea, it is cooling in the GI tract and has antispasmodic qualities which can be helpful in symptoms related to IBS or indigestion correlated to nervousness and anxiety.
As an aroma, Peppermint can have clarifying and expanding effects on the mind, which can help to ease mental tension and stress. The smell of Peppermint opens up the air passages and invites in fresh oxygen, helping to enliven the mind and spirit. Topically, you could apply a small amount of diluted peppermint oil to the temples in the case of a stress headache – but be careful not to get Peppermint too close to the eyes.
Tulsi is commonly used to purify the air in homes and temples throughout India, as the aromatic leaves provide an aroma long considered to be sacred. With an affinity for the heart, blood and plasma, as well as the nervous system, Tulsi can help us to digest stagnant emotions which keep us from feeling clear and blissful. In this way, Tulsi can be correlated to supporting “sadhaka pitta,” an intelligence located in the heart and gray matter of the brain. Sadhaka pitta gives you enthusiasm, comprehension, intellect, and the ability to digest thoughts and emotions.
Tulsi is a warming herb with a pungent, bitter and astringent taste. It can even help to strengthen the muscles of the heart, has a blood-cleansing action, and helps to open the respiratory passages. With this connection to the pulmonary and circulatory systems, it has an ability to enhance a sense of clarity and devotion within. Tulsi can be taken internally, burned as incense, or simply grown in or around the home to promote the intellect and feelings of joy and peace.
Frankincense has a bitter, pungent, sweet and astringent taste and has a heating action . It is considered an alternative and to have a regenerative effect on the body and although warming in nature, can help to reduce inflammation. For example, it can be used internally for musculoskeletal pain, having a similar action to Myrrh in that sense. Frankincense has an affinity for the nervous system and the mind, and can bring rejuvenation when there is excess worry, anxiety, fear and nervousness, as well as lethargy and brain fog.
Frankincense is one of the most widely used incense in the world, and is revered for its healing effects on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of the human being. It is often associated with the sun and can unfold inner intuition, strength, light and connection to the divine.
Sandalwood is bitter, sweet and astringent in taste and has a cooling, calming effect on the body and mind . It is used to relieve stress and reduce heat and inflammation in the body. Burning Sandalwood incense can be a wonderful way to reduce emotions of frustration, anger and stress, as it has a soothing effect on the nervous system.
You can mix Sandalwood into a carrier oil, and apply the oil to the temples to help reduce stress and tension headaches. On the same note, you can also put Sandalwood oil into the belly button before bed to support digestion. This is especially helpful if there are heat-related symptoms in the GI tract, referred to earlier as “tikshna agni.” This application can support the mind and digestion via the nerve plexus connecting to the umbilical region.
Vetiver is typically used to balance heat-related issues in the body. It has a bitter and sweet taste and a cooling effect, making it helpful to reduce the fire element in the body. The roots of this grassy plant have a smooth, rich and restorative fragrance. Similarly to Sandalwood, Vetiver oil can be applied to the temples to help with stress, tension or headaches.
When your energy is traveling outwards in all directions due to overwhelm and stress, Vetiver can guide you back into the body and establish a sense of groundedness from within. Vetiver has an antispasmodic action which can help to reduce anxiousness and nervous tension and move us into parasympathetic mode. You can add a few drops of Vetiver essential oil to a bath to help rest, relax and let go.
If you experience lethargy, brain fog and fatigue, Eucalyptus essential oil can bring freshness and alertness to the mind. It has a clearing energy and promotes concentration. Eucalyptus is considered pungent and heating, but can also have a cooling effect as an aroma, and increases cerebral and peripheral circulation. It is often used to reduce stagnant and sluggish conditions in the body such as excess phlegm. Eucalyptus is effective in clearing the air passages and opening up the lungs.
If there is slow digestion or excess mucus in the head and lungs, it can create dullness and heaviness in the mind. You can dilute 10-12 drops of Eucalyptus essential oil per 1 oz of a carrier oil and apply it to energetic points on the chest and heart to dilate the lungs and move stagnation. Similarly, Eucalyptus essential oil works great when used for an herbal steam to refresh the senses.
Meditation and the Mind
Aromatic plants are strong allies for supporting mental clarity. But ultimately, we also have to align our actions and patterns with our deepest inner knowing. This means bringing presence into our daily perception. Being aware of our behaviors, feelings and thoughts – without judgment – while going about our day is how we learn to navigate in a way that promotes well-being. When we are unaware, we create imbalance through not listening to the soft, subtle language that the body speaks.
If we rely completely on plants for supporting the mind, without adding awareness, we only receive part of the benefit. Plants help to guide us inward through the sensory pathways and support the process of transformation with their medicinal qualities, but it is also up to us to bring presence into action. This means keeping half of your attention inward while interacting with the external reality. My teacher, Dr. Lad often says, “meditation is not limited to a corner of your home, it is moment-to-moment awareness of what is.” You can practice meditation while walking outside in nature, doing dishes, while at work, or talking to your friend, just by adding awareness and watching your breath.
Every moment, the previous moment dies, and we create pain in our experience through bringing the past into the present, wanting things to be different than they are. The thinking mind is quiet when one is fully paying attention. Meditation is always available to you, just by continuously returning to now. As you do this, naturally you will feel more clear because you are able to watch experience pass with less attachment. Your behavioral patterns are then guided by deep inner wisdom, rather than mechanical patterns from the past.
When you reside in passive observation, it creates space between you and your thoughts and emotions. Slowly, you start to realize that you are not the story, you are the witness of the story. You will see worries, thoughts and frustrations as clouds that pass through the clear, blissful blue sky of awareness that is your true Self. Learning how to float effortlessly in the river of experience is the unfolding of meditation, and the greatest guide you have is the sound of your own breath.
Article Written By Dawn Gibson
1. Lad, V. & Frawley, D. (1986). The Yoga of Herbs
© 2023 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.
*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.