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The Science Behind Smudging Benefits, Rituals, and Research Explained

The science behind smudging: Benefits, rituals, and research explained

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Smudging is a traditional practice that involves burning sacred herbs, such as sage, cedar, or palo santo, to create smoke.

Throughout the ages, the act of purifying spaces and individuals through the smoke of sacred fires, burning herbs, or incense has been a widespread tradition in numerous cultures. This practice, embraced by various traditions, employs the smoke of medicinal plants and natural substances for cleansing and healing purposes.

The Science Behind Smudging Benefits, Rituals, and Research Explained
Burning herbs, or incense has been a widespread tradition in numerous cultures

One of the most prevalent smoke-purification rituals is known as “smudging,” deeply rooted in Native American tradition. Considered a bridge to higher realms, smudging serves as a means to dispel spiritual and emotional negativity that may accumulate within a space or a person. This ancient practice finds application before significant ceremonies, special gatherings, or even after conflicts, aiming to cleanse the air and promote harmony.

What is smudging?

Smudging is a traditional practice that involves burning sacred herbs, such as sage, cedar, or palo santo, to create smoke. The smoke is used to purify and cleanse the air and space around a person, an object, or a place. This practice has been an integral part of various indigenous cultures and spiritual traditions worldwide for centuries.

While some might regard the spiritual benefits of these practices with skepticism, scientific evidence supports the tangible health benefits they offer. Burning sage and other herbs during smudging not only figuratively but also literally clears the air. The process neutralizes positive charges and releases negative ions, which have been shown to have antiseptic and bacteria-killing properties. Thus, smudging not only holds cultural and spiritual significance but also holds scientifically proven health advantages.

What is sage?

Sage is a perennial herb from the Salvia genus, and it belongs to the Lamiaceae family. It is known for its aromatic leaves, which have a distinct herbal fragrance. Sage is native to the Mediterranean region, and there are many different species and varieties of sage, each with its unique properties and uses.

The Science Behind Smudging Benefits, Rituals, and Research Explained
Sage is a perennial herb from the Salvia genus, and it belongs to the Lamiaceae family

Unraveling the Scientific Aspect

In 2006, an insightful scientific paper titled “Medicinal Smokes” was released, shedding light on the historical use of smoke for medicinal purposes. This extensive research encompassed data from 50 countries spanning 5 continents, revealing that the ancient practice of administering smoke medicinally primarily aimed to enhance lung, brain, and skin function. Remarkably, the study also highlighted an unexpected benefit – the passive fumes served as effective air purifiers.

Building upon these findings, a subsequent paper was published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 2007, specifically investigating the air-purifying potential of smoke-based remedies. The study reinforced the notion that smudging not only offers health benefits but also acts as a potent antiseptic, further affirming the scientific significance behind this age-old practice.

What is Journal of Ethnopharmacology?

The Journal of Ethnopharmacology is a peer-reviewed scientific journal that focuses on the interdisciplinary field of ethnopharmacology. Ethnopharmacology is the study of traditional medicinal practices and the use of plants, animals, and other natural substances in various cultural and indigenous communities.

The ancient practice of administering smoke medicinally primarily aimed to enhance lung, brain, and skin function
The ancient practice of administering smoke medicinally primarily aimed to enhance lung, brain, and skin function

In a noteworthy research study, it was observed that subjecting a closed room to a one-hour treatment of medicinal smoke, specifically Havana Sámagri, led to a remarkable reduction of over ninety-four percent in airborne bacterial counts. In India, traditional rituals commonly involve the use of a sacred fire to which a blend of medicinal herbs and other materials is offered as an homage. Known as Havana Sámagri, this mixture of wood and fragrant, therapeutic herbs is burned during the ritual, accompanied by the recitation of Vedic mantras.

What is Havana Sámagri?

Havana Sámagri is a traditional mixture of dried herbs and other materials used in Vedic rituals and ceremonies, particularly in Hinduism. It is an essential component of the sacred fire offerings known as “havan” or “homa” in Indian religious practices.

Havana Sámagri is a traditional mixture of dried herbs and other materials used in Vedic rituals and ceremonies, particularly in Hinduism
Havana Sámagri is a traditional mixture of dried herbs and other materials used in Vedic rituals and ceremonies, particularly in Hinduism

For countless millennia, revered rishis (saints) have conducted ceremonies and yagnas to purify the environment through such practices. The combination of medicinal smoke and the vibrations produced by the chanting of mantras yields positive effects in the surrounding atmosphere, fostering an environment of wellness and purification. This time-honored tradition continues to reveal the profound impact of medicinal smoke and sacred rituals on promoting a harmonious and beneficial atmosphere.

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What is rishis?

Rishis, also spelled as “rishis,” are revered sages or seers in ancient Indian traditions, particularly in Hinduism. The term “rishis” comes from the Sanskrit word “ṛṣi,” which means “one who sees” or “seer.” These ancient sages played a significant role in the preservation and transmission of sacred knowledge, particularly the Vedas, which are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism.

What is yagnas?

Yagnas, also spelled as “yajnas” or “yagnas,” are ancient Vedic ritualistic ceremonies that hold significant importance in Hinduism. They are sacred and elaborate fire offerings conducted to invoke the blessings of deities and seek divine favor. Yagnas are an integral part of traditional Indian religious practices and are performed for various purposes, including spiritual, social, and environmental benefits.

Remarkable research findings have unveiled the potent efficacy of smoke derived from various herbs in significantly reducing airborne bacteria. What’s even more impressive is that the air purification and disinfection effects of this smoke persist for as long as twenty-four hours. Even after a staggering 30 days, many of the pathogenic bacteria did not reappear in the same room, underscoring the enduring impact of herbal smoke in maintaining a sanitized environment. These results mark a crucial breakthrough in understanding the powerful and long-lasting benefits of herbal smoke as an air purification agent.

Medicinal smoke treatment effectively eradicates pathogenic bacteria like Corynebacterium urealyticum, Curtobacterium flaccumfaciens, Enterobacter aerogenes (Klebsiella mobilis), Kocuria rosea, Pseudomonas syringae pv. persicae, Staphylococcus lentus, and Xanthomonas campestris pv. tardicrescens for over 30 days in confined spaces, demonstrating its powerful bactericidal potential.

Medicinal smoke treatment effectively eradicates pathogenic bacteria
Medicinal smoke treatment effectively eradicates pathogenic bacteria

Additionally, these studies reveal that:

Smoke-based remedies offer several benefits, including rapid delivery to the brain, enhanced absorption by the body, and lower production costs. The review emphasizes the limited knowledge about medicinal smoke and the untapped potential of numerous natural products for use in this form. As a result, the review strongly advocates for the expanded utilization of medicinal smoke in modern medicine, both as a drug delivery method and as a promising source of novel active natural compounds.

Smudging Customs in Diverse Cultures

In Indigenous Australian traditions, healers employed leaves or bark from various plants during smoking ceremonies. Notably, the emu bush leaves were placed on hot embers for their therapeutic benefits. The resulting wet, steamy smoke likely acted against bacterial or fungal pathogens and also served as a stimulus for milk let-down in women following childbirth. These smudging practices held significant medicinal value in the traditional healing methods of Australian indigenous communities.

What is emu bush?

The term “emu bush” is a common name for several different plants belonging to the Eremophila genus, which is native to Australia. These plants are known for their attractive flowers, and some species are called “emu bush” due to the resemblance of their leaves to the feathers of an emu, a flightless bird native to Australia.

The term "emu bush" is a common name for several different plants belonging to the Eremophila genus, which is native to Australia
The term “emu bush” is a common name for several different plants belonging to the Eremophila genus, which is native to Australia

Imphepo, also known as African Sage, holds vital significance in indigenous traditional medicine across southern Africa. Its smoke serves numerous purposes, from inducing trance states to purifying energy and acting as an offering during prayers. Moreover, the plant possesses remarkable properties, serving as an antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, headache remedy, and natural insect repellent. The multi-faceted applications of Imphepo underscore its integral role in the medicinal and spiritual practices of the region’s indigenous communities.

What is Imphepo?

Imphepo, also known as African Sage, is a traditional medicinal plant native to southern Africa. It belongs to the Helichrysum species, and there are several varieties of Imphepo found in different regions across the continent. The plant is highly regarded for its various medicinal and spiritual uses in indigenous African cultures.

Imphepo, also known as African Sage, is a traditional medicinal plant native to southern Africa
Imphepo, also known as African Sage, is a traditional medicinal plant native to southern Africa

Frankincense and myrrh have played integral roles in the religious ceremonies of ancient civilizations like the Egyptians and Greeks. Even today, the Catholic Church burns frankincense for purification and sanctification, with the rising smoke symbolizing prayers ascending to heaven.

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What is frankincense?

Frankincense is a resin obtained from the Boswellia tree, which is native to regions in the Middle East, Africa, and India. It is one of the most famous and revered aromatic substances used for spiritual, medicinal, and cultural purposes for thousands of years.

What is myrrh?

Myrrh is a natural resin derived from the Commiphora myrrha tree, which is native to regions in the Arabian Peninsula and Northeast Africa. Like frankincense, myrrh has been used for thousands of years for its cultural, spiritual, and medicinal properties.

Nowadays, frankincense is primarily grown in Oman and is revered for its remarkable properties, acting as a potent air purifier and insect deterrent. It also serves as a prophylactic against malaria-carrying mosquitoes, prevalent in coastal regions.

Furthermore, frankincense granules, its smoke, and solutions dissolved in water are all utilized to treat a diverse array of ailments, including indigestion, bronchitis, hypertension, depression, insomnia, and post-childbirth recovery.

The enduring significance and versatile applications of frankincense showcase its enduring value in both historical traditions and modern healing practices.

Frankincense is a resin obtained from the Boswellia tree, which is native to regions in the Middle East, Africa, and India
Frankincense is a resin obtained from the Boswellia tree, which is native to regions in the Middle East, Africa, and India

The Neural and Physiological Effects

A significant study published in 2008 by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology delved into the fascinating impact of burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) on the brain. The study revealed that this practice activates enigmatic ion channels, resulting in the alleviation of anxiety or depression.

What is Federation of American Societies?

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) is a coalition of scientific research societies in the United States. It is a non-profit organization that represents and advocates for various biomedical and life science research communities. FASEB’s primary mission is to promote and advance the understanding of biological and biomedical sciences through research, education, and communication.

Raphael Mechoulam, a co-author of the research, explains that incensole acetate, a constituent of Boswellia resin, demonstrated the ability to lower anxiety and induce antidepressive-like behavior when tested on mice. These findings shed light on the potential therapeutic benefits of frankincense and its impact on mood-related disorders.

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The Science Behind Smudging Benefits, Rituals, and Research Explained
Burning incense really does make you feel warm and tingly all over

In their research, they made another intriguing discovery – incensole acetate also activates a protein called TRPV3, which exists in mammalian brains and is associated with the perception of warmth on the skin. When mice lacking this protein were exposed to incensole acetate, the compound showed no impact on their brains. Gerald Weissmann, M.D., the Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal, remarks on the significance of these findings.

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!

Moxibustion, another ancient therapy with roots in Asia, involves burning dried plant materials and has been practiced for thousands of years. Typically, moxa is made from dried Chinese mugwort (artemisia vulgaris).

What is Chinese mugwort?

Chinese mugwort, scientifically known as Artemisia argyi, is a species of aromatic herb from the Asteraceae family. It is native to East Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, and parts of Siberia. Chinese mugwort is also commonly referred to as Ai Ye in traditional Chinese medicine.

The Science Behind Smudging Benefits, Rituals, and Research Explained
Chinese mugwort, scientifically known as Artemisia argyi, is a species of aromatic herb from the Asteraceae family

Research indicates that it effectively enhances blood circulation to the pelvic area and uterus, making it a successful method to turn breech babies into a normal head-down position before childbirth. Applied directly on or close to the skin’s surface, moxibustion aims to warm and invigorate the flow of Qi within the body, while also dispelling certain pathogenic influences.

This time-honored practice holds significant importance in traditional healing approaches and continues to be valued for its therapeutic benefits.

The ancient practice of burning potent herbal material appears to be far more than a primitive belief, as our ancestors likely intuitively recognized its numerous benefits.

Author Linh Vu
Linh Vu

“Herbs are the friend of the physician and the pride of cooks.” ~ Charlemagne.