Burning the resin of a Boswellia tree as an incense has been a component in religious and cultural ceremony for milennia, for it is said that its aroma contributes to spiritual exaltation. Also known as frankincense and olibanum, Boswellia resin has been mentioned in numerous ancient texts including the old testament for its mystical capabilities and continues to have its place in some spiritual practices today. An international team of scientists including researchers from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Johns Hopkins University set out to understand how this age-old practice produces these mysterious psychoactive effects.
To observe the incense’s psychoactive effects, the researchers administered incensole acetate, the primary constituent of the Boswellia resin, to mice. The team found that the incensole acetate affects areas of the brain that aid in emotion regulation, specifically activating the protein TRPV3, a protein found within mammalian brains that is known to play a role in the skin’s perception of warmth. This effect on the mind has a powerful anti-depressant and anxiolytic effect that can leave one in an almost vulnerable state of relaxation where one can lay their mind to rest and simply perceive.
“In spite of information stemming from ancient texts, constituents of Bosweilla had not been investigated for psychoactivity,” said Raphael Mechoulam, co-author of the findings. “We found that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin constituent, when tested in mice lowers anxiety and causes antidepressive-like behavior. Apparently, most present day worshipers assume that incense burning has only a symbolic meaning.”
In the ancient Middle East, Boswellia resin was a precious commodity, attained only from caravans from the sub-Saharan regions where it is still major export to this day. The ancient Greeks used the resin as an oblation and to the ancient Egyptians, the burning of frankincense was seen as the manifestation and presence of the gods as well as a sign of gratification. It served as the center of ceremony in ancient Judea and today, it is still offered in many churches of Christendom for ceremonies and liturgy.
Now, frankincense is not just recognized for its ceremonial role, but as a practical form of therapy in treating bouts of anxiety and depression. As reported by the National Institutes of Health, the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for people ages 15-44 is major depressive disorder which affects nearly 15 million Americans. Over 3 million are affected by dysthymic disorder, a less severe form of depression, and over 40 million reportedly suffer from severe anxiety, which is often associated with depression in and of itself. In the seemingly constant struggle for peace of mind, it is important that we are aware of all the natural methods of relaxation that the Earth has bore for us.
Additionally, the effects of frankincense have been found to be an effective remedy for nausea, fever, chest coughs, hypertension, as well as driving away mesquitos and other harmful insects.
Moussaieff, Arieh, Neta Rimmerman, Tatiana Bregman, Alex Straiker, Christian C. Felder, Shai Shoham, Yoel Kashman, Susan M. Huang, Hyosang Lee, Esther Shohami, Ken Mackie, Michael J. Caterina, J. Michael Walker, Ester Fride, and Raphael Mechoulam. “Incensole Acetate, an Incense Component, Elicits Psychoactivity by Activating TRPV3 Channels in the Brain.” The FASEB Journal. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.
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“The Story of Frankincense.” MEI.edu. Middle East Institute, n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. “Burning Incense Is Psychoactive: New Class Of Antidepressants Might Be Right Under Our Noses.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 May 2008. .