Does Incense Get You High?

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Does Incense Get You High?

New research shows the age-old tradition of burning incense is more than just a religious symbol: The smoke lifts up the mood and fights depression.

Did you ever notice that unique calm instilled by the smell of incense? Now science suggests this may be no coincidence. It turns out the smoke of frankincense can measurably relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Burning incense is an integral part of religious and spiritual ceremonies around the world, particularly in Asia. But the tradition might go beyond the symbolism of the smoke as an offering - the underlying reason might be its psychoactivity. And of course it doesn’t take a scientist to figure it out: If you burn the right plant resin it gets you high. Essentially, the incense represents a way to collectively and ritually experience a plant through its smoke.

One particular plant resin is most commonly used in the practice - frankincense. The sap from the Boswellia sacra tree is already mentioned in the Old Testament and is still today used in many Christian churches during the mass.

Frankincense - A psychoactive drug?

Comprising of a joint effort between John Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, researchers set about investigating the psychoactive effects of frankincense on mice – an animal that has a surprisingly similar biological setup to us. It was found that incensole acetate – a compound directly derived from frankincense – significantly affected areas of the brain involved in emotion, as well as parts of the nervous system that interact with current anti-anxiety and anti-depression medicine. Quite specifically, the acetate activated TRPV3 proteins, which are present in the brains of most mammals. It is a protein that is associated with the feeling of warmth in the skin, and could go some way to explaining why incense also makes us feel warm and tingly.

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Beyond Frankincense

Incense is right in middle between aromatherapy and smoking. Aromatherapy is based on smell and the power of the aromatic compounds to enhance one’s wellbeing. Smoking largely bypasses the nose and is all about the absorption of the psychoactive compounds through the lungs. Incense does both - going through the nose, it triggers the highly sensitive olfactory nerves, and after the smoke passes into the lungs where the psychoactive properties are absorbed. That makes incense a powerful tool in the box of the psychonaut.

While Frankincense is the most popular psychoactive resin, it is by no means the only one. Numerous plant resins are commonly used - Myrrh, Copal, Styrax, etc. While traditionally the sap of the tree is the main part used, any other part or preparation of a plant can be used as well. In South America, Palo Santo - the heartwood of the Bursera graveolens tree - is widely used during shamanic ceremonies to purify the air and clean the space of malevolent spirits. Interestingly, the Palo Santo tree belongs to the same family as frankincense and myrrh. While certainly wasteful, even hashish can be used as a psychoactive incense!

Have you noticed the power of incense? Let us know about your favorite resin in the comments!