Our sense of smell influences us far more than we may realize.
Scents from our past conjure up vivid memories. Delicious food makes our mouths water in anticipation. Offensive odors warn us when something’s a little off. Colognes and perfumes heighten our ability to attract attention and romance. Incense is thought to bring the divine closer to mere mortals – and keep evil spirits at bay.
Does incense make you relax? Or is it just part of the show that sucks us in? Is it merely a trick of the mind or money-making hype? We’re going to dig up the truth and deliver the facts about using incense.
For thousands of years, incense has been tied to cultural and religious rituals in every corner of the Earth. From Buddhism to Catholicism to indigenous faiths – people continue to recognize the important role that incense can play in our various worship styles. New-age and natural remedy gurus swear by its de-stressing relaxation capabilities.
Let’s learn all about that below!
What is incense?
Incense is a stick, coil, powder, or cone typically made of a natural, aromatic material (e.g. plant, bark, oil, seed) as well as a combustible substance that keeps it in a cohesive form. When lit, this concoction emits a pleasant odor and a small amount of smoke.
The ancient world created, traded, and used frankincense widely. In modern times, the variety of incense types is now endless. You can purchase anything from rose to sandalwood, cinnamon to patchouli, cedar to lemongrass. Many of these substances have deep meaning and connection to ancient traditions.
Of course, many manufacturers advertise their incense as natural, but it’s not always clear whether synthetic fragrances are added to the incense. See our article on the best natural incense for more information.
Does Incense Make You Relax?
Many people ask “Why does incense make me calm?” Are we tricking ourselves or does incense really make you relax?
Believe it or not, there have been studies that indicate an actual, biologically produced calming effect.
Studies involving incensole acetate, a compound found in frankincense resin, a were conducted on mice. When the compound was administered, researchers noticed interesting reactions in sections of the brain as well as nerve circuits. These parts of the body responded as they would under drugs that alleviate anxiety and depression.
Also, a protein that produces a feeling of warmth was activated in the lab mice. It stimulated a soothing sensation on their skin.
Although these findings were fascinating breakthroughs, they were only conducted with purified components from the Boswellia plant and they were used on rodents – not people.
The specific experiments did provide some clear connections to the potential healing properties of frankincense, but they did not involve measuring the effect that inhaled incense smoke has on the human brain.
Does incense reduce stress?
Despite this, mice aren’t the only ones proven to have a physiological response to incense.
The level of serotonin in humans has been known to increase with exposure to various types of incense. Serotonin is a hormone that helps control our mood, sleep, learning, memory and general feelings of happiness.
The more serotonin released in our brains and nervous system, the better.
Does incense make you relax? Yes! You’re not imagining it. Incense really helps.
Are there any benefits to burning incense?
What else can incense do for us? There are many other advantages to burning incense:
- Air purification – Not only will incense cover bad odors in your home, some varieties, like Nag Champas, have been said to contain antibacterial properties.
- Sex drive – Want to get in the mood? Certain scents, for example Jasmine and Vanilla, can increase libido.
- Meditation – If you’re looking to improve your experience while meditating, Lotus is one of the scents that will take your mind to where you want it to go.
- Creativity – Lacking originality and productivity? Try Lemongrass to help the creative process flow more freely.
You can find many more incense uses and product suggestions here.
Is incense bad for you?
With any health craze, it’s important to be aware of potential risks and dangers. Although studies have been limited, researchers have observed that there are a number of possible hazards with incense use.
Because incense smoke contains tiny particles, there are concerns that they are bad for us when inhaled. These particles have been found to cause lung irritation (particularly for asthma sufferers). They expose users to toxins. These toxins increase people’s chances of developing cancer in their lungs and respiratory systems.
In addition, incidences of heart disease and high blood pressure rise with extensive incense exposure. Many people experience headaches from incense.
Studies have linked incense to inflammation of the lungs and liver in research animals. Negative effects on their metabolism were also noted.
In summary, populations that use incense repeatedly in their day-to-day lives have experienced a much higher negative impact. For this reason, prolonged or excessive exposure to incense is not advised. A safer alternative would be to try essential oils.
How to use incense
If you want to safely try incense and use it sparingly, follow these tips:
- Do not use incense if you or someone in your home has a respiratory condition. As mentioned previously, it could trigger symptoms and aggravate the throat and lungs.
- Only use naturally sourced incense products. The fewer synthetic chemicals within them, the better.
- Start slow until you know what you’re doing. Use just one incense stick, coil or cone at a time. Too much all at once might be overpowering and toxic.
- For fire safety protocol, don’t leave burning incense unattended. It can set of smoke alarms.
- Ensure proper ventilation. Keep a window open during and after your incense session.
- When you’re done, completely snuff out the incense. You don’t want to acidentally leave it burning.
Now that we know more about what incense is, what it’s used for and what the psychoactive benefits may be, it’s easy to see why it’s been a part of countless cultures over multiple millennia. However, studies have linked excessive incense use to very problematic health concerns. So remember – use it wisely and carefully.