Incense sticks and their fragrant smoky aroma are synonymous with Eastern spiritual and religious centers. But with aromatherapy and the health benefits of essential oils becoming more widely applied in the States and elsewhere in the West, is it time to consider the benefits of incense too? Is the smoke from incense really that good for you, or will it choke your lungs?
Why Burn Incense?
Besides the more obvious spiritual reasons or religious traditions that demand their use, incense sticks also have more practical applications in several countries. For instance, when you burn the fragrant incense, it can help drive away bugs and little insects. Incense coils are widely used in tropical countries where mosquitoes and other insects are a common problem. What’s pleasing to our noses has the opposite effect on bugs – you can quite literally “smoke them out” by burning incense.1
In addition, some incense sticks can double up as aromatherapy, delivering the healing and pleasing benefits of the underlying essential oil. Choosing the right incense isn’t just about what’s pleasing to your sensibilities, but also about what is actually good for you. Because most pure incense sticks come infused with essential oils or extracts of various herbs and flowers, they can be used to impart some of the benefits of these natural herbal remedies.
Here’s a look at some of the most popular incense fragrances and their benefits for your body.
Sandalwood For Your Mind And Environment
The aroma of sandalwood can be a great stress buster and will instantly lift your spirits, calming and relaxing you. One study on animal subjects found that the fragrance did not only have a mildly sedative effect on stressed mice, but was also an effective antianxiety agent.2 Sandalwood can also improve your ability to concentrate and may even help your memory.
Battle Depression And Anxiety With Frankincense
Frankincense or Boswellia plant resin can help with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Its antidepressive and anti-anxiety effects on behavior have been demonstrated in animal tests.3
Calm Down With Cedar And Pine
Incense is also said to be good for driving away evil. Traditionally, cedarwood has been used in cultures across the world – from Tibetan medicine to Cherokee Indian tradition in America. It is supposed to create positive energy, warding off the bad and promoting inner strength. In a more modern context, the aromas of incense have a calming effect and can help ease anger, anxiety, agitation, and aggression. This particular essential oil or fragrance also helps ease congestion associated with colds or bronchitis.4 One study in Japan found that the pine scent associated with a forest walk could ease depression, reduce hostility, and bring relaxation.5
Sharpen The Mind With Cinnamon And Citrus
Cinnamon incense could help sharpen your mind, according to recent research. One study in particular endorses the ability of the spice to augment memory.6 Citrus scents can also work to heighten awareness and invigorate you, as studies have confirmed.7
Myrrh To Improve Immunity And Circulation
Myrrh, which originated in North Africa and the Middle East, is good for overall digestive health. It is anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, and can ease congestion and soothe coughs. According to Chinese Herbal Medicine, it also helps boost immunity and improve blood circulation by breaking up any congealed blood, making the body stronger. 8
Sleep Better With Lavender
Lavender has a distinctive refreshing aroma when burnt. Inhaling the fragrance through incense or during aromatherapy can reduce feelings of sadness, anxiety, grief, and depression. One study found it to be especially useful before a major event like an exam.9 It is also good for anyone struggling with insomnia because of the relaxing effect it has on your system.10
Careful What You Buy
All these health benefits might make burning incense seem like an obvious choice. But there are reasons to be cautious in your use of these fragrant sticks. Even with good quality incense, burning the sticks creates as much as four times the particulates associated with cigarette burning. In addition, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide are also produced – all of which are, in some manner, toxic or harmful to us. Incense is also known to release volatile organic compounds such as toluene and benzene, among other things. But the caveat here is that, unlike cigarette smoke which is directly inhaled into the lungs, incense smoke lingers in the air and not all of its byproducts enter your airways.11
It is, however, clear that when these sticks burn, they leave behind a lot of residue and super fine particulate matter that could potentially enter your lungs and cause respiratory problems. In addition, incense makers often replace natural essential oils with synthetic chemicals to cut costs and for large-scale manufacturing. These release toxic substance as you burn the stick. As such, if you are prone to respiratory problems, have a young baby or child at home, or have a family member with lung problems, it is safer to avoid using incense sticks. Otherwise, too, moderate use is recommended. And remember to air out the room properly, opening windows and doors for ventilation.
|↑1||Wilson-Howarth, Jane. Bugs, bites & bowels. New Holland Publishers, 2006.|
|↑2||Satou, Tadaaki, Michiyo Miyagawa, Haruna Seimiya, Hideo Yamada, Toshio Hasegawa, and Kazuo Koike. “Prolonged anxiolytic‐like activity of sandalwood (Santalum album L.) oil in stress‐loaded mice.” Flavour and Fragrance Journal 29, no. 1 (2014): 35-38.|
|↑3||Moussaieff, Arieh, Neta Rimmerman, Tatiana Bregman, Alex Straiker, Christian C. Felder, Shai Shoham, Yoel Kashman et al. “Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain.” The FASEB Journal 22, no. 8 (2008): 3024-3034.|
|↑4||Rhind, Jennifer Peace. Essential Oils: A Handbook for Aromatherapy Practice Second Edition. Singing Dragon, 2012.|
|↑5||Morita, Emi, S. Fukuda, J. Nagano, N. Hamajima, H. Yamamoto, Y. Iwai, T. Nakashima, H. Ohira, and T. Shirakawa. “Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction.” Public health 121, no. 1 (2007): 54-63.|
|↑6||Raudenbush, Bryan, Rebecca Grayhem, Tom Sears, and Ian Wilson. “Effects of Peppermint and Cinnamon Odor Administration on Simulated Driving Alertness, Mood and Workload.” North American Journal of Psychology 11, no. 2 (2009).|
|↑7||Warrenburg, Stephen. “Effects of fragrance on emotions: moods and physiology.” Chemical Senses 30, no. suppl 1 (2005): i248-i249.|
|↑8||Yang, Yifan. Chinese herbal medicines: comparisons and characteristics. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2009.|
|↑9||Lee, Inn-Sook. “Effects of lavender fragrance on depression and anxiety of nursing students intending to take the national licensing examination.” Journal of Korean Public Health Nursing 20, no. 1 (2006): 87-94.|
|↑10||Lee, Inn Sook, and Gyung Joo Lee. “Effects of lavender aromatherapy on insomnia and depression in women college students.” Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi 36, no. 1 (2006): 136-143.|
|↑11||Lin, Ta-Chang, Guha Krishnaswamy, and David S. Chi. “Incense smoke: clinical, structural and molecular effects on airway disease.” Clinical and Molecular Allergy 6, no. 1 (2008): 1.|