The Possible Benefits and Pitfalls of Incense
For centuries, incense has been as part of Roman Catholic traditions as well as religious celebrations of the Eastern Orthodox Church. As a matter of fact, it’s use for religious purposes was first recorded on papyrus—a thick paper-like material used for writing in ancient times—by the ancient Egyptians in 1500 BCE. Of course, it is also used in standard practices and rituals of Eastern religions including Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism.
Nowadays, incense tends to be used in aromatherapy and it’s not uncommon for it to be burned in our homes for the sole purpose of creating a pleasant smell. However, many people advocate against using incense for health reasons. We’ll take a look at this later but for now, let’s focus on some of the reasons why incense is used so frequently and the potential benefits.
Why People Burn Incense
Traditionally, incense was derived from plant extracts and certain resins and used for various religious and medicinal purposes. Many types of incense were also effective in other ways, for example, repelling insects or providing health benefits. Research has found that inhaling certain remedies as incense smoke can ensure rapid delivery of the beneficial properties to your brain. This allows efficient absorption of medicines often at a much cheaper price than the more ‘traditional’ delivery routes. Research has also proven the promising effects of burning frankincense, particularly for those suffering from depression. The study found that frankincense acts on the brain’s centers of emotion and therefore may benefit those suffering from depression.
Traditionally, incense has been used for the following:
Incense has been used in religious or spiritual ceremonies for thousands of years and has become an important part of many religious/spiritual traditions.
The fragrances produced by burning certain types of incense, such as frankincense or cedarwood, can be relaxing.
Sandalwood or lotus incense is widely used to aid meditation and is said to heighten your senses, increase your attention span, and uplift your spirits. Aloeswood incense is said to increase focus and enhance your concentration.
As a Sleep Aid
Lavender has long been touted as an excellent sleep aid, and chamomile and vetiver are also believed to be beneficial.
As a Creativity Aid
Certain types of incense are thought to enhance your creativity, such as geranium, ylang-ylang, and lemongrass.
Certain types of incense can influence brain activity by affecting your serotonin levels. Serotonin helps stabilize your mood and plays a role in functions related to sleep, eating, and digestion. Frankincense, as mentioned previously, may be useful and Aloes wood can also be beneficial.
Certain types of incense are believed to clean or purify the air, for example, sage.
The Health Concerns Surrounding Incense Use
Unfortunately, widespread commercial manufacturing of incense has led to the addition of synthetic and other harmful materials to the mix. For example, one individual stick of incense can be comprised of 45% adhesive materials and only about 20% of commercially manufactured incense contains natural raw materials. Additives like this can undoubtedly have negative consequences on your health.
Burning incense at home increases the air pollution in your immediate environment, which can be concerning especially for those people who spend a considerable amount of time indoors such as young children and the elderly. Chemical compounds in the smoke are inhaled and travel into your respiratory tract, infiltrate your lungs, and may even end up your bloodstream.
According to the environmental protection agency (EPA), burning incense has been linked to instances of lung inflammation, asthma, and cancer. In addition, long-term exposure has been linked to an increased risk of upper respiratory and squamous cell lung cancer. At the same time, the carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and formaldehyde found in incense smoke may be linked to inflammation of lung cells that can result in asthma or other respiratory issues. Small children and fetuses are most susceptible to the effects of these pollutants. Carbon monoxide may also increase your risk of developing an adverse reaction if you have an existing heart condition.
A study performed in 2015 found that incense and tobacco smoke have a number of similarities. Interestingly, the study concluded that the smoke derived from incense may actually have more harmful consequences. But just as cigarette smoke residue accumulates over time, so does that of incense.
The Role of Your Detoxification Circuit in Combating the Negative Effects of Incense
The negative elements associated with burning incense, as is the case with any other pollutants or stressors, may play a role in the development or worsening of adrenal fatigue symptoms. Your body responds automatically to any stressful situation via the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response system. Various circuits operating within the NEM system, including the detoxification circuit, work together to keep your body in a state of homeostasis, i.e., balance.
The six different circuits of the NEM system are made up of a number of different organs working together to regulate stress. One of the main goals of the detoxification circuit is to remove any excessive or unwanted reactive metabolites that are a direct result of stress. When your NEM system becomes compromised for whatever reason, your body can present numerous, often diverse, symptoms that are often associated with adrenal fatigue.
The most common symptoms associated with air pollutants include
- Faster aging of your lungs
- Reduced lung capacity and decreased lung function
- Increased cardiovascular and respiratory ailments
- Asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, and cancer
Those most susceptible to incense-related air pollution are stay-at-home parents, pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and unborn children.
Short-term exposure to burning incense may also have repercussions. You may experience shortness of breath, coughing, tightness around the chest area, and/or irritation of the eyes, throat, and nose.
Safe Use of Incense
It’s best to avoid commercially manufactured incense, if possible. However, there are a few things you can do if you do want to use them.
Ensure adequate ventilation
Open windows or doors in order to improve the airflow in areas where you’re burning incense.
Contain the area
If you’re burning incense, choose areas that have the least traffic to ensure you and your family are exposed the least.
Consider an air purifier
An indoor air purifier can be used reduce or limit the pollutants in your home to a large extent. Just remember that an air purifier will not entirely get rid of these pollutants from your home.
Choose your incense wisely
Incense made of 100% natural substances without the addition of harmful chemicals can reduce the amount of air pollutants released into your home. Smokeless or low smoke varieties are another good option.
Of course, you could consider alternatives, particularly if your main goal is to improve the smell of your home. Plants, potpourri, and essential oils are a great way to scent your home without any of the pollutants produced by burning incense.
Many people use air fresheners instead of incense. However, some air fresheners can also negatively affect your health owing to the high levels of volatile organic compounds usually found in them. Therefore, it’s best to use them sparingly.
At the end of the day, incense is used for myriad reasons but it’s important to remember that burning incense can result in a number of health issues. If you are going to burn incense, please be sure to take all the necessary precautions to minimize any possible negative health effects.
© Copyright 2012 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
Will burning incense aggravate my asthma?
There are many things that can cause or aggravate asthma. Although burning incense can be one of them, this may not be true for all asthma sufferers. If in doubt about your reaction, do not use incense.