The Benefits of Burning Sage, Incense, and Herbs
Smudging (Burning sage) was a ceremonial practice of many Native American tribes (Lakota, Chumash, Cahuilla, and others). Some utilized sweetgrass or palo santo, while many shamans used medicinal herbs that were burned in sweat lodges or in healing ceremonies. Coastal First Nations people had many uses for cedar; Coast Salish and Tlingit shamans often had cedar “spirit assistants” or “guard figures” to protect them.
Indigenous people around the world had similar practices, including burning African rue/wild rue seeds in the Middle East and North Africa and in China and Asia, burning incense to venerate one's ancestors. One of the earliest written records of smoke cleansing comes from the Vedas. These ancient Hindu texts, written in Sanskrit, detail the use of incense as a healing tool to support recovery from illness and to create a clean, peaceful, nurturing space in which to heal.
Today, we have adapted many of these elements into our own spiritual practices, but a question I am often asked is whether there are any benefits associated with them, other than the ceremonial aspect of smoke or fire. The answer, of course, with a bit of research, is yes. There are many benefits, however, today I will focus on the benefits supported by the scientific literature.
When studied scientifically, the following benefits were identified:
● The Genus Salvia (sage) improves neurological and cognitive benefits, as well as having antimicrobial properties (2016).
● Studies also indicate burning sage removes bacteria from the air and add negative ions which improve mood/alleviate depression (2013).
● Burning wild rue seed reduced airborne bacterial counts by over 94% (2007); this antibacterial effect lasted from 24 hours up to 30 days.
● Burning frankincense alleviates anxiety or depression (2008).
● Burning bay leaves or lavender may improve mood and ease anxiety (2009).
● Inhaling linalool-rich essential oils (mints, laurels, cinnamon, rosewood, and citrus) can be useful as a means to attain relaxation and counteract anxiety (2010).
One consideration of using white sage is that its popularity for use in modern spiritual practices is endangering this plant that is found in the American southwest in shrinking habitat. The plant is poached on both private and federal land, so please consider the source of any sage you purchase. I have found a source for white sage essential oil, which goes a very long way, and is sourced ethically and legally. Another great option that I use is burning cedar or juniper bark, palo santo, bay leaves, or homemade bundles of mullein, thyme, barberry and other local plants that have similar medicinal properties (as identified in Native American herbal medicine texts).
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. (2008, May 20). Burning incense is psychoactive: New class of antidepressants might be right under our noses. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 18, 2021, from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080520110415.htm
Linck, V.M., et al. (2009). Effects of inhaled Linalool in anxiety, social interaction and aggressive behavior in mice. Phytomedicine. 2010 Jul;17(8-9):679-83. doi: 10.1016/j.phymed.2009.10.002. Epub 2009 Dec 3. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19962290/
Lopresti, A.L. (2016). Salvia (Sage): A Review of its Potential Cognitive-Enhancing and Protective Effects. This article is published with open access: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5318325/pdf/40268_2016_Article_157.pdf
Milly, P. J. (2003). Antimicrobial Properties of Liquid Smoke Fractions. A Thesis Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia. Available online: https://getd.libs.uga.edu/pdfs/milly_paul_j_200312_ms.pdf
Nautiyal, C.S., Chauhan, P.S., and Y.L. Nene. (2007). Medicinal Smoke (Havan) Reduces Airborne Bacteria, Division of Plant-Microbe Interactions, National Botanical Research Institute, India.
Pino, O. and La Rangione, F. (2013). There’s Something in the Air: Empirical Evidence for the Effects of Negative Air Ions (NAI) on Psychophysiological State and Performance. Research in Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, 2013 1 (4), pp 48-53.
DOI: 10.12691/rpbs-1-4-1, Available: http://pubs.sciepub.com/rpbs/1/4/1/
Smoke Cleansing Around the World. https://blog.mountainroseherbs.com/smoke-cleansing