The Science Behind Incense: Research Reveals Mental Health And Wellbeing Benefits

I am obsessed with incense. I might even go as far as to say I am addicted to incense. I burn it in the morning, I burn it at night. There’s something to this habit that I've created that sparks something in me. A sort of ritualistic peace of mind that I can’t quite explain in layman's terms, but this ritual has helped create this space I step into once I light my incense that offers more than a sense of tranquility. It helps me turn inward, and gain a feeling of connection. It helps remind me of the space I'm occupying and how important these moments are to simply flow. 


Throughout history a variety of different cultures agreed on the spiritual benefits of burning incense. Its earliest uses were recorded in ancient egypt, where priests would use incense in ceremonial and prayer procedures. In every Hindu ceremony, temple and shrine, incense is a consistent component, they believed the smoke could carry prayers through to deities and loved ones who have passed. Buddhists believed incense has the power to eliminate negative energies in the atmosphere where the smoke touches. The bottom line here is that for many centuries incense has been recognized as an aid in one’s spiritual path. However, it has taken modern science quite a bit longer to nod their heads to this notion. 


Recent studies have now shown proof of the possibilities of incense actually affecting mental health and brain function. Incense has now been deemed “good for the brain”. This study has pointed out a distinction in their findings that the results were not merely based on placebo effects, but actually shows a clinical finding that is not associated with any existing cultural practices of incense.


I came across a study that grabbed my attention that was being performed by a team of international scientists at Johns Hopkins university. The initial studies they were conducting were on groups of mice. When incense was administered to mice, they found that these groups of mice had undergone affects to their brain in the areas that are primarily involved with anxiety, depression, and mood fluctuation. These areas of the brain are the same functioning parts that drugs such as antidepressants or mood stabilizers target. One very interesting aspect of this study was that burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression


One important fact of this study can go hand in hand with  the findings of other studies that have a similar connection; pleasant smells can stimulate parts of the brain that contribute to overall happiness. This is true across a vast array of facets of life. Where the brain finds an odor to be pleasing, a response is triggered that releases dopamine, the chemical in the brain that contributes to emotional states. 


For me personally, I believe that incense goes much further than what science can understand. While I do believe it is a remarkable breakthrough to have the understanding of incense from the science community, I believe it is important to understand the greater benefits that incense can add to your life. 


I am a creature of habit. I love a good ritual, and for me, incense is a remarkable aid in that- in this overall feeling of having at least one consistent thing in my day. One moment where I choose to sit down and simply exist for a minute or two. Incense burners have been so pivotal for me in this ritual I perform. Truly, it seems such an obvious point to make that the experience of burning incense entirely changes when you are noy simply lighting a stick with no apparent benefit. The unique burners I have found have given a much broader viewing experience than I have had in previous years. The flow of the smoke, the notion of entertainment, a peaceful eb of this essence moving over surfaces. I have found these to be a gamechanger. 
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1. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "Burning Incense Is Psychoactive: New Class Of Antidepressants Might Be Right Under Our Noses." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 May 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080520110415.htm>


Of course, i cannot speak on the benefits of incense and not make an honorable mention of their effects within the yoga community. I recall a psychology class of mine years ago and the discussion known across the field of certain brain associations and how one could cognitively trigger them. For example, chewing gum while studying and chewing gum while taking your test could increase your memory function due to the common mental association your brain has made. However accurate these studies were, one thing maintained true; your brain does associate certain smells, actions, visual cues, or sounds to other brain activities. Kind of how when you hear a song or smell cold air you have nostalgic feelings of a time or place you had previously experienced. The same goes for lighting incense. 

When you consistently light incense and create a routine in your brain, you are training your mind to understand this trigger. This is ideal for yoga or meditation, because by creating this learned ability in your brain, everytime you light your incense you are telling your consciousness to enable the mental place you typically would while lighting your incense (.i.e. Yoga or meditation). This simple notion also nods to the idea that you could benefit from lighting incense while studying or working out, or whenever you need a bit of a mental shift in focus. At the core of this, I am supportive of anything that can contribute a greater aspect of peace and attunement to your life. I realize in our busy day-to-day schedules it’s not always easy to take time to find the mental triggers that help you personally achieve a more peaceful mindframe, which is why I’d like to end this by suggesting incense as a great start. Find a quiet corner in your home. Invest in some quality incense. Buy an incense burner that visually sparks joy in your mind and home. Start with one cone/stick of incense a day and simply sit. Breathe, relax, and continue this habit for a few weeks. I guarantee the benefits will be notable (after all, science has proved it ;) ). 


For some further information on what incense may be best for you, especially if you are new to the incense game, be sure to check out my next post that will be covering the basics of what incense aromas are beneficial to what parts of your mind, body, and life. 

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