I cannot begin our series of chemistry mini-reviews with any other plant but sage. I hold this beautiful plant close to my heart. And I like to hold her close to my nose, too, because she smells so nice! Her blue-ish flowers welcome butterflies and bees who come to our garden. There is always some activity in the sage bush! I am not a huge fan of sage tea (unless mixed with other herbs), but I do like to use this herb in many other medicinal preparations. It is for example featured in our medicinal toothpowder.
The most common use of sage takes advantage of her content of volatile aromatic compounds such as camphor, 1,8-cineole and pinene. These compounds act as antiseptics. Sage is thus indicated to heal sore throats and minor inflammations in the mouth. A strong infusion or concoction is prepared for this purpose and used as a gargle. The above mentioned aromatic compounds are the main constituents of sage’s essential oil. It’s composition vastly differs based on the area of growth and growing conditions. Sage is native to south Europe, namely to the coast of Adriatic Sea, but is nowadays commercially grown as far away from Europe as Brazil. Some research shows that genetic factors also play an important role in the oil’s varied composition [1, 2, 3].
Thujon – full of controversy
The most controversial chemical constituent of sage, thujon, is also present in her essential oil. Its content is particularly sensitive to the area and conditions of the herb’s growth. Thujon is a neurotoxin which stimulates brain function. For this reason, epileptics should avoid sage and her essential oil as it may trigger fits. Whether thujon is the cause of sage being traditionally prescribed to improve memory, we cannot be sure. Nevertheless, as a matter of fact sage is researched for her potential to help ease off symptoms of memory loss in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) . The medicinal mechanism is based on her content of (yet to be identified) compounds that increase availability of acetylcholine in the brain. Although decrease of acetycholin is not the cause of AD, its lower concentrations accompany AD and are believed to be responsible for memory loss and other cognitive dysfunctions in the patients.
Sage has been further indicated to decrease excessive sweating. The mechanism is not entirely understood, but it is believed that she regulates the heat center in our brains. For this purpose, you can either drink sage tea or apply the infusion directly on skin, perhaps in the form of a foot bath. Sage is also used to decrease lactation in breast-feeding women and has been shown to be effective against hot flushes in menopausal women . One of the studies performed  suggested that a compound responsible for the latter action is cynaroside – an estrogen-like compound.
As you can see for yourselves, sage has a variety of medicinal actions. However, before you use her for medicinal purposes, make sure you discuss your intention with your herbalist or pharmacist. Pregnant women should avoid medicinal doses of sage, although its culinary doses are deemed to be safe. Oh, did I just mention the word culinary? Yes, of course, there is a never-ending list of recipes using sage and one can hardly imagine Italian or French cuisine without this wonderful herb.