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Arabian incense burner

Frankincense may infuse users with mild euphoria

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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.”

Frankincense has been harvested for thousands of years in Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Sudan and Oman, but now over-harvesting, livestock grazing and diversification of the economy challenge the future of this treasured incense. In these countries, it is used not only for religious and cultural ceremonies, it is used in perfumes, soaps, beauty products, and even to flavor ice cream. It is also valued for its medicinal properties. “Pregnant women chew it for the health of their unborn children and water infused with the resin is taken to treat colds and upset stomachs,” reports the Globe and Mail.  But the trade in frankincense now has to adapt or become obsolete. The density of trees that produce the sap are in steep decline, and many are calling for a return to traditional harvesting techniques to keep the industry sustainable. 

Top image: Arabian incense burner. (flickrhivemind)

By: Mark Miller



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.

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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