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Burning Incense: A New Antidepressant May Be Right Under Your Nose

Burning incense has been believed for thousands of years by religious leaders to be good for your soul. Now, recent studies have found it that may actually be good for your brain also.  An international group of researchers from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Johns Hopkins University have now described how burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) may activate ion channels in the brain to relieve depression or anxiety.  It has been suggested that possibly a new level of antidepressants may be right under your nose. 

Raphael Mechoulam, one of the research study's co-authors said "In spite of information stemming from ancient texts, constituents of Boswellia had not been investigated for psychoactivity.  He went on to state that "We found that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin constituent, when tested in mice lowers anxiety and causes antidepressant-like behavior.  Apparently, most present-day worshipers assume that incense burning has only a symbolic meaning." 

To determine the psychoactive effects of incense, researchers administered incensole acetate to mice and found that it significantly affected parts of the brain believed to be involved in emotions, in addition to nerve circuits that are affected by current depression and anxiety drugs.  Incensole acetate activated a protein called TRPV3 which is in mammalian brains, and is believed to play a role in the perception of warmth of the skin.  When mice were bred without this protein and were later exposed to incensole acetate, it had absolutely no effect on their brains. 

 

Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal stated: "Perhaps Marx wasn't too wrong when he called religion the opium of the people: morphine comes from poppies, cannabinoids from marijuana, and LSD from mushrooms; each of these has been used in one or another religious ceremony." Weissmann concluded "Studies of how those psychoactive drugs work have helped us understand modern neurobiology. The discovery of how incensole acetate, purified from frankincense, works on specific targets in the brain should also help us understand diseases of the nervous system. This study also provides a biological explanation for millennia-old spiritual practices that have persisted across time, distance, culture, language, and religion--burning incense really does make you feel warm and tingly all over!"

According to the National Institutes of Health, major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the United States for people ages 15--44, affecting approximately 14.8 million American adults. A less severe form of depression, dysthymic disorder, affects approximately 3.3 million American adults. Anxiety disorders affect 40 million American adults, and frequently co-occur with depressive disorders.

Journal reference:

Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain. Arieh Moussaieff, 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. Published online before print May 20, 2008 as doi: 10.1096/fj.07-101865. [link]

Adapted from: 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 May 26, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2008/05/080520110415.htm

Additional Information and webpage by Paul Susic  MA Licensed Psychologist   Ph.D. Candidate  (Health and Geriatric Psychologist)

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