A burning topic: how to best use incense
The Incense Route was one of the most important highways in the world at a time when faith in the mystic power of incense was at its height. Its traffic — frankincense and myrrh, spices from India — was the lifeblood of the countries through which it passed. That continuous stream saw the rise and fall of many kingdoms along the way. Earliest records mention the Egyptians sending an expedition for incense in 2800 BCE. Each kingdom, growing rich and ambitious, sought control of the forests of incense that lay to the east.
So says Barbara Toy in her extraordinary 1968 trans-Arabian journal, Travelling the Incense Route. For thousands of years, incense has been a currency of inestimable value for its roles in medicine, ceremony and religious and spiritual pursuit. It was favoured by the Egyptians (remains of frankincense have been discovered within pharaohs’ sarcophagi), Babylonians and Romans, was used in India as far back as 2000 BCE and travelled with Hinduism and Buddhism into the East.
Today, smoky wreaths of incense still fill places of worship throughout Asia, and in Catholic churches everywhere, as they did in ancient times, but incense is also coming under the scrutiny of modern research and data is both confirming the health benefits as well as revealing the darker side of this enlightening product.
In a time when hygiene was a very different kettle of fish from what it is now, and body odour, food decay and sewage all fed into daily life, it seems a logical conclusion that strong aromas that smelled “good” would have been highly prized for their perceived ability to purify the air. “It all goes back to our primitive origins, with the discovery of fire,” describes Lissa Coffey, who blends the wisdom of aromatherapy and Ayurveda on her site coffeytalk.com.
“We discovered the amazing aromas that came from the wood and the effects these fragrances had on our emotions. Then we started experimenting, burning different materials, leaves, herbs and fruits. As the smoke carries the aroma towards the sky, toward heaven, we can see that as a spiritual experience. Burning fragrances became a part of religious and spiritual rituals, seen as both a gift from the gods and an offering to the gods.”
Incense became deeply entwined with spirituality in a variety of religious practices throughout the world, from East to West. “In both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, incense is offered as a devotion and used to accompany meditation,” Coffey explains. “Buddhist monks from India brought incense to China and Japan, and the Japanese then introduced incense in the cone form at the Chicago World’s Fair in the late 1800s. Sandalwood is often used in both traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurvedic practices.”
Incense is essentially any organic substance that emits fragrance when it smoulders (its name comes from the Latin verb incendere, “to burn”). To make incense, pulverised aromatic herbs, wood, roots or resins are mixed with oil or water to make a dough that is then pressed into a stick or cone shape, rolled onto a stick (typically bamboo or pine) to coat it, or simply put in a tray as a powder. When lit, the fragrant, active substance is released into the air. “Our olfactory bulbs lie underneath the brain, just over the nostrils,”
explains Dr Thom E Lobe, a licensed practitioner in both Western and Eastern medicine. “These organs of smell are the closest link the brain has to the outside and are located very close to that part of our brain that regulates emotions and other important bodily functions. When you inhale incense there is a direct effect on the brain that is measurable and nearly immediate.”
According to Lobe, the various effects of incense depend on the aromatic. “It’s a chemical reaction within the brain; each variety of incense — and there are hundreds — has specific effects on the system,” he says. “We can see spiritual elation, enhanced ability to pray and meditate by effecting a calming of the emotions, activation of ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety and depression, and facilitation of the movement of energy.”
Incense through the ages
Myriad essential oil, herb, bark, leaf and flower products have been used in incense to spice the air. The following are some of the most commonly found and their benefits.
Frankincense Also called olibanum, frankincense is an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia, traditionally on the Arabian Peninsula, through tapping the tree and allowing the resin to harden. Judaic, Christian and Islamic faiths have used frankincense mixed with oils to anoint newborn infants and individuals considered to be moving into a new phase in their spiritual lives. Frankincense resin is edible and often used in various traditional medicines in Asia to aid digestion and skin health. In Ayurvedic medicine, Indian frankincense, commonly referred to as dhoop, has been used for hundreds of years for treating arthritis, healing wounds, strengthening the female hormone system and repelling mosquitoes.
Myrrh This is a reddish-brown resinous material, the dried sap of a number of trees, but primarily from Commiphora myrrha, which is native to Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia. The Ancient Egyptians imported large amounts of myrrh as far back as 3000 BCE, using it to embalm the dead, as an antiseptic and to burn for religious sacrifice. The Greek word for myrrh, μÏρον, came to be synonymous with the word for perfume. Myrrh has been used in traditional medicine to prevent putrefaction and infection while promoting cell and tissue regeneration.
Agarwood Also called aloeswood, agarwood is produced inside a tropical rainforest tree called Aquileia and relies on an infectious mould to convert the light heartwood into the dark, resin-embedded heartwood whose ethereal fragrance has been prized in Asia for incense in ceremony, as well as used as a sedative in traditional medicine. Agarwood is said to calm the nervous system, expel negative energies, bring alertness, relieve anxiety, invoke a sense of strength and peace and enhance cerebral functioning. In Tibetan Buddhist traditions it’s said to bring energy to calm the mind and spirit and to provide motivation and the necessary devotion for meditation.
Sandalwood Heavy and yellow in colour, this fine-grained wood retains its fragrance for decades. Traditionally grown in India, sandalwood has been valued and treasured for medical and religious qualities. Used broadly in Ayurveda, the aroma of sandalwood is said to help to ease various ailments of the digestive system by encouraging the production of gastric juices and easing nausea, colic and gastritis. It is also thought to be a natural sedative, subduing aggression and irritability, promoting compassion and openness and enhancing meditation.
Patchouli A bushy herb of the mint family, patchouli is native to tropical regions of Asia and has had a long history of medicinal use in India, China and Japan where it has been used to stimulate the nervous system, lift depressed moods, relieve stress and give a feeling of elation and wellbeing. Patchouli is believed to help balance the endocrine system, which in turn balances the hormones of the body, as well as to stimulate the pituitary gland, which secretes endorphins, so relieving pain and inducing euphoria.
Sage Dried sage leaves, especially white broadleaf sage, were traditionally used by Native Americans as an ingredient of smudge sticks, in which it is bundled up whole and dried. One end of a smudge stick is lit and then blown out so that it smoulders and smokes. The smoke is used in Native American practices for purification and cleansing as well as for meditation and divination. Smudging with sage can also be used to encourage spirituality, clear negative energy, banish spirits, create sacred space, invite positive energy and promote decision-making.
Historically, incense has been used to enhance prayer and balance the body. Recent scientific studies bear out its effect: frankincense has been found to have anti-depressive qualities, myrrh can reduce cholesterol and agarwood actually causes new neurons and synapses to grow in the brain.
In October last year, scientists from the Department of Plant Sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel reported that, when inhaled, frankincense provides an arsenal of bio-active molecules with considerable therapeutic potential. “These compounds were shown to exert significant anti-inflammatory and pro-apoptotic activity in vitro, in vivo and in clinical trials … Furthermore, it causes behavioural as well as anti-depressive and anxiolytic [anti-anxiety] effects in mice,” they reported.
Other ancient products are also garnering respect from the scientific community. In 1991, the Tropical Metabolism Research Unit at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, found that myrrh had pharmacological application in the reduction of cholesterol and triglycerides. In Japan, a 2006 study at the University of Toyama’s Institute of Natural Medicine demonstrated that agarwood showed significant induction effect on brain-derived neurotrophic factor expression in rats, helping to support the survival of existing neurons and encourage the growth of new neurons and synapses. And a 1995 study in China found that the antibacterial qualities of Chinese herbal incense made it as effective an air steriliser in hospital wards as methods such as ultraviolet radiation and formaldehyde.
Where’s the harm?
Unfortunately, though, the news isn’t all good. Despite the historical and ongoing popularity of this method of aromatherapy, the research is also stacking up that the airborne particles released by incense can have negative consequences for respiratory health and may deliver long-term ill-effects.
“Up to 40 per cent of the population report respiratory or eye symptoms in response to a broad range of fragrance products, so inhalation of scented products like incense is certainly not pleasant for everyone,” says Associate Professor Helen Reddel, a research leader at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research (which specialises in the diagnosis of breathing disorders) and a respiratory physician at the Asthma Centre, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney. She points out that incense smoke, like any type of smoke, contains particles that can irritate the airways and lungs, and that people with asthma are vulnerable to negative side-effects. “In a study in Oman, there was a strong association between household use of incense and increase in children’s asthma symptoms,” she says.
But even if asthma is not an issue, there are other concerns. According to Reddel, incense is made from a very broad range of products (with the content rarely reported on the label) and that when it is burnt it naturally releases a wide range of chemicals, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and possibly even heavy metals, into the air.
“Although there are not many studies specifically of incense smoke, the chemicals in it are common components of air pollution and these are associated with increased risk of respiratory symptoms including bronchitis and lung cancer,” she says. “Incense smoke also contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are known to cause cancer and birth defects. A study of pregnant women who wore personal air-quality monitors showed much higher levels of these carcinogens in the blood of women who had burned incense during pregnancy.
“Incense smoke is a potential hazard to human health due to various airborne carcinogens emitted,” reported the Laboratory of Environmental Toxicology at Chulabhorn Research Institute in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2008. “These results indicate that exposure to carcinogens emitted from incense burning may increase health risk for the development of cancer in temple workers.”
Temples in Asia in which incense is burned constantly in confined spaces have formed the central focus of many of the studies. Scientists from the Ecotoxicological Modeling Center at the National Taiwan University, Taipei, published findings in 2006 on human exposure to airborne particles and carcinogenic hydrocarbons during incense burning in temples. They assessed that there was a dose response ratio and surmised that exposure to smoke emitted from heavy incense burning may promote lung cancer risk. A second study in 2009 by the same group mirrored these findings and showed that incremental lifetime cancer risk is greater for temple-goers and especially temple-workers, who had high to extreme levels of exposure to incense.
Weighing up the results
It’s important to realise that even products made from natural ingredients still can have serious health effects, according to Reddel. “There is not enough research to know whether any types of incense are safer or better than others, and the lack of product labelling would make any recommendations difficult,” she says, pointing out that there is no regulation of the content of incense. She advises that anybody who has asthma, is pregnant or has children should avoid or minimise its use. For those who want to access incense’s benefits but reduce the health risks, Reddel encourages them to apply the same principles as for other sources of pollution. “Use it only in well-ventilated areas and avoid exposure if you develop symptoms of eye or airway irritation,” she says. “The amount that different people are exposed to incense, and therefore the risk to their health, varies a great deal, depending on the length of time and amount they are exposed.”
While the evidence may seem contradictory, Lobe advises that if incense works for you, use it. “Our noses are sensitive and it only takes a few molecules of the aromatic coming in contact with the olfactory bulb to achieve a desired effect,” he says. “I believe that too much of anything can be bad for you, so it’s important to do everything in moderation. While certain forms of incense emit potentially carcinogenic materials, it can enhance health when used right.” So with adequate ventilation and targeted use, you can still tap into the benefits of this ancient form of aromatherapy, while steering clear of the risks.
Inspired to make your own incense out of natural ingredients? Try one of these loose powder incense recipes from Ginger Quinlan’s new book Scents of the Soul.
½ cup patchouli
2 tbsp allspice
2 tsp vervain
1½ handfuls rose flowers
1 tonka bean, ground
5 drops rose oil
3 drops pennyroyal oil
2 tsp benzoin gum powder
Add the dry ingredients to a mortar and begin crushing slowly and deliberately with the pestle. The herbs may be crushed finely or you may leave some of the petals whole in the mixture. Add the wet ingredients. Stir after each essential oil has been added to ensure the mixture is completely blended. Add the benzoin gum powder. Benzoin is designed to bond the herbs further, prolonging the burning time of the incense. Light a charcoal briquette in a burner. When the charcoal is grey around the edges, place a pinch of the freshly made incense on the charcoal. Pull the smoke towards you with your hands, gently smelling the aroma of the incense.
½ cup rose petals or rosehips
¼ cup hibiscus
¼ cup white willow bark
1⁄8 cup patchouli
1⁄8 cup marjoram
5 drops rose oil
3 drops patchouli oil
1⁄8 cup benzoin gum
Make as per love incense. The marjoram and patchouli can be strong, so you may wish to add a couple of extra drops of rose oil. This incense can also be used to stuff sachet bags and dream pillows.