Scientists finds that brain-mood benefits lie behind the ancient spiritual use of incense
by Craig Weatherby
Spiritual seekers of all stripes have long employed incense as a soothing, renewing, inspiring balm for the soul.
And scent scientists note that aromas light up the olfactory bulb… the only part of the human brain that extends beyond the skull.
In this sense, they say that scents can literally change your mind.
Now, biologists may have learned one reason why.
An international team of researchers from the U.S. and Israel report that burning frankincense—resin from the ancient medicinal Boswellia plant—activates ion channels in the brain in ways known to alleviate anxiety and depression (Moussaieff A et al. 2008).
According to co-author Raphael Mechoulam, “We found that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin constituent… lowers anxiety and causes antidepressant-like behavior” (FASEB 2008).
When the researchers administered incensole acetate to mice, it significantly affected brain areas involved in emotions and nerve circuits affected by current anxiety and depression drugs.
Specifically, incensole acetate activated a protein called TRPV3, which is present in mammalian brains and known to play a role in the perception of warmth of the skin.
This finding suggests that relief from depression and anxiety—and possible sources of new drugs to combat these conditions—may lie in this ancient, aromatic element of myriad churches, temples, and yogi caves.
As the authors wrote, “Our results… may provide a biological basis for deeply rooted cultural and religious traditions.”
Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal, which published the study, made this comment in a press release:
“The discovery of how incensole acetate, purified from frankincense, works on specific targets in the brain should also help us understand diseases of the nervous system. This study also provides a biological explanation for millennia-old spiritual practices that have persisted across time, distance, culture, language, and religion—burning incense really does make you feel warm and tingly all over” (FASEB 2008).
Indeed, ancient tradition suggests that perfumed smoke may lift our moods.
Before reaching for marginal, potentially problematic medicines like Prozac, it seems worth trying incense… plus omega-3s, exercise, positive thinking, and socializing!
- Moussaieff A, Rimmerman N, Bregman T, Straiker A, Felder CC, Shoham S, Kashman Y, Huang SM, Lee H, Shohami E, Mackie K, Caterina MJ, Walker JM, Fride E, Mechoulam R. Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain. FASEB J. 2008 May 20. [Epub ahead of print]
- FASEB. Incense is psychoactive: Scientists identify the biology behind the ceremony. Accessed online July 12, 2008 at http://www.fasebj.org/Press_Room/07_101865_Press_Release.shtml