The world of holistic healing is a deep ocean of ancient wisdom and practices. Within the treasure chest of wonderful traditional remedies that have been passed down over time, incense stands out as a glimmering aromatic gem – a powerful healing tool for the body, mind and consciousness.

Crafting and burning incense has been among the earliest of natural remedies, contributing to the well-being of humans throughout history. In this blog, we'll delve into the fascinating world of incense and its therapeutic properties, tracing its roots to the traditional practices of aromatherapy. Let’s take a look at the rich history and modern revival of engagement with incense as a potent instrument for wellness.

Origins of Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy’s roots stem back to ancient times, as civilizations have long recognized the healing capacity of aromatic plants to elevate the mind, emotions, and spirit. Thousands of years prior to the use of essential oils, numerous traditions utilized aromatic herbs in the form of incense to address various physical, mental and emotional conditions. Many of these traditions still only use incense and have not incorporated the more modern use of essential oils into their tapestries.

The historical use of aromatic medicine and incense is present in Ancient Egypt, Indigenous traditions, Shamanic practices, Ayurveda, and Traditional Chinese medicine, among others. Throughout time, each culture created unique forms of incense using plants and tree resins in local regions, giving rise to a rich diversity of aromatics.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in incense within the modern wellness paradigm, as people seek out natural and holistic approaches to health. Today we see the integration of ancient knowledge with modern scientific research, shedding new light on the therapeutic potential of incense. With this weaving in understanding, traditional wisdom and practices are making a comeback.

Ayurveda, a traditional medical system from India, uses aromatic plants in a variety of ways to support healing. Ayurveda places emphasis on using qualities to bring balance within the body, mind and soul. For example, plants with cooling properties such as Sandalwood have been used to bring down excess heat in the body. Warming aromatic plants such as Nutmeg can bring balance to excess cold qualities expressing within a person. Ayurveda includes aromatic plant preparations in various herbal oil treatments, marma therapy, as well as incense smoke to invoke a peaceful and sacred container for healing to occur.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) also embraces the use of aromatics, where they are believed to influence the flow of Qi, the body's vital energy. Aromatherapy in TCM involves using specific scents and plant smoke to harmonize the body's energies and promote overall health.

Therapeutic Benefits of Incense

Our sense of smell is a powerful pathway for impacting our physiological, emotional and psychological functioning in every moment. When we smell something, aromas travel instantly to the limbic system in the brain, which includes the hypothalamus, amygdala, thalamus, and hippocampus. These areas of the brain oversee many bodily processes.

For example, the hypothalamus produces neurotransmitters that impact our mood, and also regulates our autonomic nervous system. It is also the beginning of various hormone pathways, including the thyroid gland, reproductive system and the adrenal glands.

That being said, when we burn incense, aromatic molecules from medicinal plants enter our body through the breath and have the power to influence our wellbeing in a profound way. Incense can be used to promote sleep, improve your mood, support and strengthen the immune system and respiratory system, bring relaxation and help reduce pain, just to name a few of its vast benefits.

Different types of incense offer distinct healing properties. For instance, the soft and woody scent of Sandalwood can soothe a sharp, overactive mind, while the calming aroma of lavender is ideal for relaxation. Frankincense, with its earthy and resinous scent, is known for its ability to enrich spiritual experiences and initiate inner contemplation. 

Certain plants like Palo Santo and Rosemary are used to bring healing to the emotional realm, specifically aiding in the grieving process and helping to overcome feelings of sadness in profound ways. Countless plants bring healing to countless respiratory imbalances and infections, and so much more. Understanding these properties allows you to choose the right incense for your specific needs and intentions.

Burning incense also helps to cleanse the air of a space and defend against viruses as the aromatic molecules can neutralize airborne pathogens and bacteria. Plants like Cedar and Pine, which have antibacterial, antiviral and antimicrobial properties, have been used traditionally to purify the home and protect health, especially during colder months.

Using Incense In Your Aromatic Medicine Practice

Something interesting to note is that although essential oils have become a very popular way to utilize aromatic plants, using incense can actually have a wider spectrum of medicinal potential. This is because the entire plant is used in incense, whereas essential oils are extracted, and not all constituents from the plant are carried over in the distillation process. Distillation of aromatic plants can also change the oils slightly. Incense can be looked at as a holistic approach to aromatic medicine, as the whole plant is used rather than just an isolated component of it.

Integrating incense into your aromatherapy routine is relatively easy – you can simply light an incense to disperse the fragrance throughout your space. It can be something you do as a ritual when you wake up in the morning, when you practice yoga or meditation, when you arrive home in the evening or before you go to bed. There are no rules for how using incense can look for you. Also, incense does not need to be burned for a long time in order for you to receive its benefits. You can also simply light the incense, let the aromatics ruminate for a short time, and then put the incense out to be burned again later. Experiment with different scents to find the ones that resonate most with you. Incense comes in various forms, including sticks, cones, smudge sticks, loose incense and resins, each with its unique properties and therapeutic potential.

Setting the Space for Healing

Incense has played a significant role in healing practices, rituals and in spiritual life. As our sense of smell has the ability to immediately influence the mind and emotions, it is a powerful tool for creating a healing environment.

Creating the right atmosphere is essential for therapeutic purposes. The fragrance of incense can unfold a sense of inner peace and bliss by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and helping to promote rest and relaxation. In this restful state is where the body can arrive at a safe place where it is able to digest unprocessed experiences, rejuvenate and heal.


Burning incense is a powerful, yet gentle way to support your health and quality of life. As you start to connect with this ancient form of medicine, the plants may open your heart and mind in ways you never anticipated. And when you build a connection with aromatic plants, you may eventually even be interested in crafting your own incense!

The journey of learning and understanding this beautiful aromatic art is vast, but simply lighting an incense is a delightful first glimpse into the magical realm of possibilities that this original form of aromatherapy holds.

Article Written By Dawn Gibson

© 2023 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.

*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.

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