Arabian incense burner

Frankincense may infuse users with mild euphoria

(Read the article on one page)

A group of researchers using hard science put frankincense to the test: Does this ancient, fragrant smoke give feelings of exaltation to the practitioners of the many religions in whose rites it has been used for millennia? Further, they asked, could extracts of frankincense or Boswellia be used by pharmacologists to create drugs that would fight depression and anxiety?

Another researcher published an article in October on anti-inflammatory and other health benefits of frankincense, a precious resin from the Boswellia tree that has been traded for more than 5,000 years . Both he and the researchers looking into the mental-health benefits say more study is needed.

“Taken together, our data support our original contention, namely that Boswellia resin may affect sensation and emotional states,” the research team wrote in a 2008 article in The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology .

The researchers, including biologists, pharmacologists, chemists and behavioralists led by chemist and pharmacologist Arieh Moussaief of Hebrew University, concluded that a resin present in frankincense, incensole acetate (IA), warrants further study. They wrote of their research on the effects of frankincense on the mentation and emotions of mice:

“It is possible that IA augments the euphoric feeling produced during religious functions, due to both positive, presumably mild, emotional effects and the sensation of warmth. Thus the neurobehavioral effect of IA may provide a biochemical basis for the millennial and widespread use of Boswellia-containing incense. However, only direct human trials including the investigation of human dosage and dosage forms may give final, concrete proof.”

The Biblical magi bearing gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh

The Biblical magi bearing gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh (public domain )

The researchers administered IA to the mice and found that it triggered the protein TRPV3 in their brains. TRPV3 plays a role in the warm-blooded animals’ skin warmth perception. They concluded IA also may be an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety agent that leaves people feeling relaxed.

“We assumed that the spiritual exaltation caused by incense burning in religious ceremonies would be enhanced by putative pharmacological effects of its constituents, particularly on the conductors of the ceremonies, who presumably inhale large amounts of smoke.”

Another research team found that an extract of Boswellia serrata resin produced sedative and analgesic outcomes in rats. That team did not identify and isolate which chemicals were responsible, however.

Writing to Ancient Origins in e-mail, co-researcher R. Mechoulam cautioned: “Without well done clinical trials it is not possible to know whether incensole acetate is active in patients. Incensole acetate definitely has anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory effects (in mice). It may also be an anti-depressant.”

A bag of frankincense being sold at a market in Dubai

A bag of frankincense being sold at a market in Dubai (Photo by Liz Lawley/ Wikimedia Commons )

The article says many ancient texts mention Boswellia resin as the major or sole ingredient in incense. It was a precious commodity and was transported via caravan from sub-Saharan regions of Africa into ancient Egypt, Judea and Greece, where it was used in religious ceremonies.

The psychoactivity of Boswellia was already recognized in ancient times. Dioscorides (first century C.E.) writes that it causes madness. In the Jewish Talmud (300–600 C.E.), Boswellia resin is mentioned as a potion (in wine) given to prisoners condemned to death to ‘benumb the senses.’ In Ethiopia, where Boswellia trees are indigenous, it is believed to have a tranquilizing effect .—Mousaieff et. al .

A Catalan caravan atlas of 1375; caravans carried frankincense from Africa to the Mideast, Europe and Asia

A Catalan caravan atlas of 1375; caravans carried frankincense from Africa to the Mideast, Europe and Asia ( Wikimedia Commons )

In Catholicism, for example, during religious ceremonies the thurifer swings the censer, the smoke from which is believed to lift the prayers and intentions of the congregation up to God. Also, Michael the Archangel is considered the heavenly thurifer. He burns incense in his Seventh Heaven, and again, legend says the smoke lifts the prayers of the believers into God’s presence.

A censer with incense burning

A censer with incense burning (Photo by Mark Miller)

Another article, this one from the October 2015 issue of the Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences , says Boswellia extracts are known to have anti-inflammatory properties, and drugs have been produced with the extracts.

“The resin of Boswellia species (‘frankincense,’ ‘olibanum’) has been used as incense in religious and cultural ceremonies since time immemorial,” M.Z. Siddiqui of the Indian Institute of Natural Resins and Gums. “Its medicinal properties are also widely recognized, mainly for the treatment of inflammatory conditions, as well as in some cancerous diseases, wound healing and its antimicrobial activity. Despite its historical, religious, cultural and medicinal importance, Boswellia has not been thoroughly studied, and gaps still exist between our knowledge of the traditional uses of the resin and the scientific data available.”


Even if it does not have pharmocological properties, covering an area with a pleasant scent may be enough to affect someones wellbeing. Sickrooms have a definite odor even if they are not in a hospital - sweat, body odors, biowaste odors, wound drainage and so forth contribute to the scent of illness. I frequently burn incense if I am ill to cover any smells I dislike. [Granted, I prefer nag champa, but it is a scent I like]

Why else do you think there is a serious amount of money spent on pot pourri, scented candles, air fresheners and other scent agents? People want to modify their surroundings to make them pleasant.


Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Rice goddesses are found across cultures
For centuries, rice has been a staple diet and plays an important role in Asian culture. Although rice farmers have found their lives becoming more difficult due to climate change, Bloomberg states in 2016 that 16 million people still farm rice in Thailand alone. Commemorating the beginning of the rice growing season with an annual Royal Plowing Ceremony

Human Origins

Map of sites and postulated migratory pathways associated with modern humans dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene.
Most people are now familiar with the traditional "Out of Africa" model: modern humans evolved in Africa and then dispersed across Asia and reached Australia in a single wave about 60,000 years ago. However, technological advances in DNA analysis and other fossil identification techniques, as well as an emphasis on multidisciplinary research

Ancient Technology

Detail of a star chart dating to the Middle Kingdom.
The calendar is one of mankind’s most important inventions. Calendars allowed societies to organize time for religious, social, economic, and administrative purposes. The calendar, or rather, two sets of calendars, were invented by the ancient Egyptians. One of these was a lunar calendar, which was used mainly for the organization of religious festivals.

Ancient Places

Smuts house
The farmstead of General Jan Smuts on the outskirts of Pretoria, is reputed to be one of the most haunted private homes in the country, according to Mr Mark Rose-Christie, raconteur and social scientist, who regularly takes brave visitors on a tour of haunted sites on his mystery ghost bus.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article