You may affectionately know sage as a choice herb used to add flavour to a south European-themed roast chicken or burnt butter sauce.
But for centuries, well before sage was ever featured on your dinner table, the herb native to the Middle East and the Mediterranean was also used for medicinal purposes.
Research from 2017, published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, shows that believers thought that sage could remedy skin infections, respiratory tract illnesses, ulcers, gout, hot flushes, age-related memory loss and cognitive decline.
Can sage really help to improve your memory or treat menopausal symptoms like hot flushes?
Historical data even suggests that sage was used back in ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome to treat common ailments. That probably explains the herb’s genus name, salvia officinalis, which was derived from the Latin word ‘salvere’ meaning ‘to save’.
Of course, our medical systems default to non-herbal remedies with a strong and broad evidence base. So can sage really help to improve your memory or treat menopausal symptoms like hot flushes?
Memory and cognitive function
Themis Chryssidis, Accredited Practising Dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia says current evidence suggests that sage could boost your cognitive function and memory.
“There is a bit of research out there now about how sage – in concentrated forms – can impact people’s cognitive function and ability to retain information,” Chryssidis comments. “Generally, the evidence recommends that a couple of drops of sage essential oil in water could improve your memory.”
A 2003 study conducted in the UK found that Spanish sage may improve your memory. Researchers from the Medicinal Plant Research Centre (MPRC) at the Universities of Newcastle and Northumbria carried out clinical trials with healthy adults aged 18 to 37 who were either given capsules containing sage oil or placebos. The results showed that participants who had taken sage oil capsules performed better in a word recall test.
A press release from the university says the cause-and-effect mechanisms are unknown but guesses it could be down to a combination of chemicals in the oil which gives it antioxidant, oestrogenic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Two specific studies were undertaken in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a review of the research published in 2017. Both studies demonstrated improvements in the cognitive function of participants but to varying degrees.
Chryssidis says the results look promising but, as it’s only early days, more clinical trials are needed to determine how much sage essential oil or sage (as a food) should be administered to reap desired effects.
Chryssidis adds that sage contains many beneficial nutrients. In fact, one teaspoon of sage will provide you with around 10 per cent of your daily vitamin K needs. Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps your body to clot blood, metabolise bones and regulate blood calcium levels.
The herb also contains small amounts of magnesium, zinc, copper and vitamins A, C and E.
“Sage does provide you with a good amount of your vitamin K needs but you need to eat a lot of sage to get a lot of vitamin K."
However, Chryssidis says, given that sage is used in such small quantities, it’s much easier to get these nutrients from commonly consumed fruits and vegetables.
“Sage does provide you with a good amount of your vitamin K needs but you need to eat a lot of sage to get a lot of vitamin K,” Chryssidis comments.
Endeavour College Senior Lecturer for Naturopathic Medicine, Elizabeth MacGregor, tells SBS that sage also contains antioxidants like flavonoids.
These can help with cell damage caused by free radicals and metallic ions in the body, and could potentially have antihistamine and antimicrobial benefits.
Research is needed to determine the correct amount of sage a person needs to have in their daily diet to reap such beneficial health effects.
But if you enjoy dishes rich in sage as part of your regular cultural diet, MacGregor recommends cooking it with heat to enable the body to better absorb its antioxidant properties. “Microwaving, simmering, stewing have all been found to make the antioxidant polyphenols more bioavailable,” she explains. “In contrast, dry roasting, grilling and frying reduce the antioxidant capacity through dry heat losses (Maillard reaction).”
Menopausal hot flushes
Sage has been traditionally used in folk medicine to treat menopausal hot flushes. So researchers in Switzerland conducted a small test across eight different centres throughout the country to clinically demonstrate whether sage could live up to its ancient menopausal hype.
The study showed a significant decrease in participants’ intensity-rated hot flushes.
“The small trial, with participants who used a daily tablet of fresh sage leaves for eight weeks, demonstrated clinical value in the treatment of hot flushes and associated menopausal symptoms,” MacGregor explains.
Although this study supports that a fresh sage preparation can have clinical value in treating the hot flushes associated with menopausal symptoms, more research on a larger scale is needed to further validate the results.
“If sage is used in a way that it allows people to potentially engage in a healthy lifestyle, then I would never tell anyone to not have it."
Plenty of flavour
At the end of the day, Chryssidis says, people can go ahead and use herbs like sage for an intended health benefit or flavour if it is ingested as a food.
“If sage is used in a way that it allows people to potentially engage in a healthy lifestyle, then I would never tell anyone to not have it,” he says.
“At this stage there are no major contra-indications or upper levels we need to be aware of. If you use sage as a food, [whether or not it leads to specific health benefits], it should not cause you any issues.”
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