How Incense Affects Brain Function: A Study

Maybe your first introduction to incense was that kid in your high school who never went anywhere without their guitar. 

Maybe it’s always been a part of your religious or spiritual experience.

Maybe you found the smell and warmth calming, and could never quite put your finger on why. 

From the Latin “to burn”, incense in one form or another has evolved along with humanity since time immemorial. 

Or at least since about 5,500 years ago in India, or 4,000 years ago in China, or 3,500 years ago in Egypt.

Did these ancients know that the burning of incense had a distinct and traceable psychoactive effect on the brain? Probably not the way we can see it today. 

For them, incense cleared away offending smells, was thought to cure asthma, connect with their deities, ward off evil demons, heal snakebites, kill insects, clear negative energies, and serve as medicine (in Ayurveda.)

The truth of those claims haven’t been confirmed by the Western medicinal model – but as functional medical practitioners – and anyone who’s ever been told by multiple doctors they have an undiagnosable condition only to have it diagnosed by a new one – that model isn’t exhaustive.

Incense is primarily made up of two materials: an aromatic oil and a combustible binding material. 

Although today you can find incense in almost any scent you want, traditional scents were frankincense, cinnamon, sandalwood, patchouli, myrrh, and musk. 

Binding materials were usually made from charcoal or wood powders.

Several years back, Johns Hopkins University and Hebrew University in Jerusalem sought to determine exactly how beneficial incense was on a neurological level.

What they found was fascinating.

Transient Receptor Potential Vanilloid Channels

Ever heard of it? 

Probably not. It’s a little understood ion channel that runs through the body – mainly through the skin, but also in the brain. In the skin, it’s primary function is to sense temperature. Without properly functioning ion TRPV channels, it’s difficult to notice elevations or reductions in temperature.

But its purpose in the brain hasn’t been understood very well scientifically.

A team of researchers administered doses of isolated incensole acetate from the resin of the Boswellia (Indian frankincense) plant to mice in a controlled setting. 

They monitored the mice’s reactions and discovered no activation in the TRPV1, TRPV2, or TRPV4 channels.

However, the TRPV3 channel did experience activity.

So what does that mean?

Frankincense May Have Antidepressant Capabilities

Using standard mood-measurement exercises in the mice, the researchers determined that after ingesting the incensole acetate, the mice reacted with lower anxiety and depressive markers. 

This occurred in conjunction with the activation of the TRPV3 ion channels.

Speaking plainly, frankincense incense has inherent antidepressant properties, lighting up a part of the brain we don’t know much about in modern medicine.

Additional studies have shown that this specific resin also has antiinflammatory effects – and we know that inflammation is possibly the oldest indication of trouble in the human body. 

These findings could: 

  1. Corroborate centuries of usage in holistic and foundational medicine as well as…
  1. Help us dismantle the modern dependence on antidepressant and antianxiety medication being sold at exorbitant and uncapped pricing through the untouchable pharmacological machine.

More research is needed about how and why the TRPV3 ion channel is activated by constituents of frankincense resin to really harness its power…

But should you choose to use its essential oil in incense, you should know that some studies suggest incense can play a role in raising blood pressure or in triggering asthma

Try keeping windows open for ventilation, or using low-smoke incense varieties! 

Experiment to find what works best for you – and start with frankincense! 

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.