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The Medicinal Properties of Traditional Incense

Think of all the ways we take in medicinal plants. We drink them (infusion, decoction, tincture, syrup), eat them (capsule, tablet, electuary, culinary spices), absorb them through our skin (salve, poultice, compress, bath) and mucus membranes (suppository, sinus wash, enema, douche), and utilize them in magical and spiritual ways (talismans, charms, medicine bundles, smudges). We also inhale their medicine through cigarettes, pipes, steams, essential oil diffusers, and, yes, incense. 

Incense Sticks

Inhaling incense smoke is a way to quickly and directly benefit from the medicinal properties of plants. One of the ways this process occurs is through our sinuses, when aromatic molecules are inhaled and dissolve into the mucosal lining. Here they are detected by the receptors on the tips of the olfactory sensory neurons. How these molecules are sensed has been debated for hundred of years, though modern science has established that the neurons sense the vibrations of the molecules and send these messages directly to the brain. Another way this process occurs is through the lungs, where aromatic molecules that are inhaled can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream to be distributed system-wide by the heart.

Smell is the only sense perceived in the right brain, the side focused on intuition and imagination, versus the left brain, which is focused on analyses and logic. Because of this, the affect of incense is not just physical, it also affects our non-material thinking and feeling selves on a psychoactive and emotional level. Interestingly, in herbal medicine the fragrance of a plant is considered to be its most etherial component, the plant's spirit as it were, and is why aromatic plants are thought to have such a profound emotional effect us. Inhaling the plant's fragrance is considered to permit direct communication between our spirit and theirs. Smell is also our oldest sense and is processed through the limbic system, part of the primordial "lizard brain," which is 450 million years old and pre-dates all other senses, such as sight and balance. The limbic system deals with elementary emotions, lust, hunger, memory, and imagination, and is why smell can trigger such strong feelings and memories.

There are records of the use of incense all over the ancient world. The oldest written records of its use are found in Egypt, though it was also used extensively in other cultures in Africa, as well as in Arabia, India, the Americas, and Europe. The Incense Road transported frankincense thousands of years ago via camel caravan, from southern Arabia northward along the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, then westward to Europe and eastward onto Mesopotamia and India. The Spice Trade of centuries past moved other aromatic spice and incense plants between Europe, India, and the islands of Indonesia via the Red Sea and the monsoon winds. The Silk Road brought the use of incense along with Buddhism from India, through China and on to Japan, where it arrived around the first century A.D.

In Japan, where some of the highest quality incense is manufactured today, the incense ceremony (kohdo, "way of incense") is still considered to be one of the most important traditional Japanese arts, along with tea ceremony (chado), flower arranging (ikibana), and the Japanese lyre (koto). Formal incense ceremony schools were established by the ruling classes during Japan's Edo period (1603-1867), though there was a decline in its practice in the 19th century due to the disintegration of the royal shogunate and the reopening of Japan and China with the ensuing westernization of these cultures. Fortunately, the craft and ceremony of incense were revitalized in the 1920's in Japan by descendants of the kohdo masters, and in the 1960's incense schools began offering classes again. There are many traditional incense companies in Japan that have been around for hundreds of years, some even from the 1500's, keeping this tradition alive by passing family trade secrets on from generation to generation.

Olfactory Bulbs

Incense is historically used for a multitude of different reasons, especially ambient, medicinal, and spiritual applications. Because of its pleasing smell and relaxing effect, it is a simple way to enhance the atmosphere. Medicinal uses include boosting energy, inducing and promoting restful sleep, stimulating the libido, enhancing positive emotions, and reducing negative ones like anxiety and stress. It is also used to treat and prevent illness, primarily as a fumigation to drive off evil spirits, negative energy, and insect pests, or to clear the air of spores, allergens, and infectious microbes. The spiritual uses of incense are many. Incense smoke is seen as a way to attract the gods and sweeten prayers, and the rising smoke is said to carry both prayers and the spirit of the deceased up to heaven. It can also induce meditative states, dreams, and visions, and help with focus during prayer, the study of sacred texts, or the writing of illuminated manuscripts. It can even improve the acoustics in churches and other large spaces by buffering sound and, for those who practice plant spirit medicine, can help one accept communication directly from plants. It has been used to purify and sanctify spaces, people, and ceremonial objects, to mark celebrations and rites of passage, and is burned as a sacramental offering itself.  Historically, before mechanical clocks, it was even used to track the passage of time during meditation, formal meetings, or at the geisha house.

Without exception, every single plant used in traditional incense is considered to be a medicinal plant. For example, in Japan natural incense is made with a base of tabu no ki, which is  naturally water soluble, adhesive, odorless, and burns smoothly and evenly. This is the powdered inner bark of the katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), an evergreen in the Magnolia family, which functions as both a natural binder and as a source of ignition.  Other examples of important incense plants in this family include cinnamon, cassia, bay laurel, champa, nutmeg, mace, star anise, ylang-ylang, camphor, and magnolia. In India the traditional incense base is halmaddi (Ailanthus triphysa), which has an unusual hygroscopic (moisture retaining) property  that makes Indian incenses feel characteristically damp to the touch. Halmaddi combined with honey is what gives most Indian incense its characteristically sweet note. Incense sticks get their distinctive aromas from the aromatics that are added to these bases: ground and powdered resins, barks, flowers, seeds, roots, leaves, fruits, twigs, rhizomes, bulbs, woods, lichens, seaweeds, and animal ingredients like ambergris and musk.

Synthetic incense is very different in composition from natural incense. Synthetic incense is typically made with a base of charcoal powder that is blended with sodium nitrate (salt peter), paraffin, or petroleum solvents to make it burn. This base is then mixed with a binder and glued onto thin bamboo splints which are dipped into synthetic petroleum-based fragrance oils. These synthetic aromas are favored by certain manufacturers because they are lower in cost, more consistent, can be used to create novel scents not found in nature, and are an ethical substitute for ingredients from endangered animal species like ambergris and musk. However, synthetic incense contains no actual medicinal ingredients so they do not have the same physical, emotional, and psychoactive properties of natural scents. Furthermore, the fumes from burning synthetic incense contain known carcinogens and allergens. Unfortunately, the smoke produced by synthetic incense is neuro-toxic and is known to cause asthma, skin reactions, nausea, dizziness, sneezing, and headaches. It is also a known irritant for sensitive mucus membranes like those found in the eyes, nose, and throat. As for testing and safety issues, there are no legal restrictions on the quantities or combinations of synthetic fragrance chemicals, the ingredients of these synthetic aromas do not have to be listed, and only a fraction of them have been tested for safety, so they are best to be avoided.

In closing I would like to offer the "Ten Virtues of Koh." Koh is the Japanese word for incense and this list was compiled by a 16th century Japanese Buddhist monk.

It brings communication with the transcendent.
It purifies both body and mind.
It cleanses and clarifies the spirit of worldly blindness.
It brings alertness.
It provides a companion in the midst of solitude.
In the midst of busy affairs it brings a moment of peace.
When it is plentiful, one never tires of it.
When there is little, still one is satisfied.
Age does not change its efficacy.
Used every day, it does no harm.

Happy Chinese New Year 2020!

Happy Chinese New Year 2020

Saturday, January 25th marks the 2020 Chinese New Year. The date of Chinese New Year changes annually since it is based on their solar calendar, falling on the new moon that occurs between January 20th and February 21st. In Chinese culture your animal zodiac sign is determined by your birth year, not your birth month. Because of this, those of you who were born in January and February need to check the date of New Year before determining your zodiac sign. Find your Chinese zodiac sign by clicking here. 

There are twelve Chinese zodiac signs and they are cycled through one by one in the same order every twelve years. The Rat is the first of the twelve. As the story goes, the Jade Emperor decreed that the order of the zodiac signs would be determined by the order in which the animals arrived at his party. Rat tricked Ox into giving him a ride but just as they arrived at the door, Rat jumped down and landed ahead of Ox, becoming first. In Chinese culture, because rodents are attracted to grain stores, rats are a symbol of wealth and surplus. Since a female rat can have up to six litters of pups per year, they are also considered a symbol of fertility. Rats are known for their originality and initiative. They are intelligent, energetic, trustworthy, hardworking, loyal, perfectionist, and easily angered but forgiving.

Chinese Zodiac

There are many traditions surrounding the New Year. In preparation for the upcoming holiday it is important to sweep your house out to get rid of any bad luck left over from the previous year. Never sweep or dust on New Year’s Day, however, or all of your good luck will be cleared away. On New Year’s Eve you should open all of your doors and windows at the stroke of midnight to allow the old year to escape and the good luck of the New Year to enter. Firecrackers are set off to scare away evil spirits, send off the old year, and welcome the new.

For New Year’s Day itself there are many considerations. It is thought that on this day precedents are set for the entire year. In particular, it is important to not lend anything out on this day or you will find yourself lending things out all year. Also, never spank a mischievous child on this day to avoid tears that will last the whole year through. It is taboo on New Year’s Day to refer to death or the past, to use foul language or unlucky words, or to tell ghost stories. In general, knives and scissors may not be used because they may cut off your good fortune. Do not wash your hair on New Year’s Day or you will wash away good luck and do not get your hair cut during the first lunar month of the year because it places a curse on your maternal uncles.

How you dress is also important as are the types of gifts that are given. On New Year’s Day it is thought that you should wear red because it scares away evil spirits and bad fortune and ensures a bright future. Black and white should not be worn as black symbolizes bad luck, and white is a Chinese funeral color. People also dress in all new clothes and shoes to symbolize a new beginning. Children are given red packets or envelopes containing even numbered amounts of money since odd numbered amounts of money are traditionally given during funerals. However, $4 is never given since it is an unlucky number (because the Chinese word for “four” sounds like the Chinese word “death”).


Winter is the Season of the Water Element

Winter is the most yin of all the seasons: cold, dark, and quiet. It is a time for storage and rest in nature, when the plants die back to their roots and energy is conserved. Winter is a natural time for us to rest as well, sleeping more, staying more in the dream world, a semi-hibernation against the cold. It is also natural during this time of year to turn inward, reflecting on life.


Water exists within us as an essential medium in the blood, which carries warmth and nutrients throughout your body, and in the lymphatic system, which drains wastes and helps you fight off viruses. Just like our planet, we are 75% water, and our blood is our private ocean, almost identical in its concentration of salt and other ions to seawater. The urinary and reproductive organs are part of the water element and the flavor associated with it is salty, like seawater. If you crave salt or have a strong aversion to it, this may signal an imbalance in this system. If you have an unquenchable thirst, drinking many liters of water a day, or no thirst, where you have to force yourself to drink, that may also signal an imbalance. A good way to gauge if you are getting enough fluids is by the number of times you urinate per day (normal is five to six, or approximately every two to three hours) and the color of your urine ( it should be pale yellow, not clear or dark). Because of the challenges of the weather, it is especially important during this season to relax, eat well, and stay warm and dry.

Winter foods should be warming and, because we are less active, we must take care to watch our portions, so we don't gain too much weight during the season. A diet of mostly vegetables, grains, beans, dairy, and protein is idea. Fresh fruits are not naturally available around here during the winter and they are considered to be cooling in nature, so their consumption should be minimized (dried fruits and nuts are better for snacks). In general, hearty warming dishes like soups, stews, and casseroles are best. Winter root vegetables like carrots, onions, and potatoes are seasonally appropriate, as are winter greens like cabbage and kale. Ocean foods, especially deep, salt water fishes, come from the water element and provide us with healthy fats and easily digestible proteins.

Just as the energy of the plants retreats into the roots during the winter, many of the herbs that are helpful during this season are roots. For example, marshmallow root is often used for respiratory infections, soothing inflamed mucus membranes and thinning phlegm so it can be expectorated. Ginger root is warming and helps the body eliminate pathogens by sweating out fevers. Ginseng root is an excellent tonic to boost the chi, our internal source of warmth.


Winter Health: A Chinese Medicine Perspective

Winter Sun
Winter = Yin: winter begins on the solstice on 12/21, longest night, maximum yin.
Organ = Kidney: strengthen your kidneys with yoga poses like cat-cow, cobra, bridge, boat
Tissue = Bones: eat more bone broth and leafy greens for their nourishing minerals.
Climate = Cold: protect your body from excess exposure to cold and damp weather.
Color = Black: long nights induce semi-hibernation; 9 hours of sleep are recommended.
Direction = Inward: focus on inward reflection and solitary mental activities like reading and writing.
Quality = Storage: stock preserves, build up your store of firewood, conserve your energy.
Taste = Salty: switch to an unrefined salt, eat more seaweed, fish, soy sauce, and miso.
Sense = Hearing: sink in, observe your internal narrative, listen to your inner voice.
Element = Water: nourish your water element with long soaks in hot epsom salt baths.
Diet = Warming: warm up with hot soups, stews, casseroles, mulled wines, and spiced teas.
Plants = Roots: eat more parsnips, carrot, rutabaga, turnip, burdock, onion, garlic, celeriac.

Digestion is Like Fire, Digestion is Like Earth

Digestive Organs

I see so many individuals who have digestive conditions. In order to address the cause of these conditions it is important to understand that digestion is like fire and digestion is like earth. What does this mean? Well, digestion is like fire in that this is how we burn up, or metabolize, nutrients and reduce them to "ash," or waste material. This literally is our metabolic fire, the juice that keeps we warm-blooded creatures moving. We don't want our fire to be too low or we are always tired, with poor appetite and susceptibility to cold. However, we don't want our fire too be too high either, or we end up with heartburn, stomach ulcers, excess thirst, or acid reflux.

On the other hand, digestion is like earth because this is how we dissolve and break down foods into smaller particles so that their nutrients can be absorbed and utilized by our cells. Think of the soil and how anything that falls on the forest floor is slowly broken down and absorbed by the soil and its microbes. This is exactly how our digestive organs work. We use stomach acid and digestive enzymes to reduce foods to smaller and smaller particles and then absorb them through our intestinal walls into our bloodstream. And, just like the soil, our digestive process depends on the beneficial bacteria in our intestines to help up do this effectively. In fact, we actually couldn't live without the bacteria in our guts! This is why supplementing with digestive enzymes and probiotics can be so beneficial for those who have poor digestion.

I started thinking about all of this and its implications on diet just the other day when I came across an article from the BBC, "Did the Discovery of Cooking Make us Human?" It's quite an interesting hypothesis, you really should read it. In the article, the author proposes that if we ate nothing but raw foods, like chimpanzees, we would have to eat around five kilos of raw food per day to get enough calories to survive. Not only that, but we'd have to spend a staggering 6 hours per day chewing in order to properly extract the nutrients from our foods.

Cooking our food saves us from all of that chewing because it breaks down cells walls so that our intestines don't need to do as much work to release the nutrients. In other words, cooking predigests our foods, saving us energy because we don't need to work so hard to digest it. Apparently cooking our foods may have even precipitated an evolutionary leap for us, freeing up energy to power a larger brain, and freeing up time for the development of culture. In fact, once we started cooking out foods our digestive system reduced in size by 20% and our brains grew by exactly the same amount, 20%! As the article states, "Cooking is essentially a form of pre-digestion, which has transferred energy use from our guts to our brains."

"I'm sixteen and I have had many chronic health issues. Nancy was the first acupuncturist I had ever been to. I've been seeing her for over a year now and she has helped me so much! She has listened to all of my concerns and has helped me in all areas of my health, including stress, autoimmune disorders, and head and neck pain. I would recommend Nancy to anyone and will definitely continue to go to her to improve my health even more. I am thankful for all that she has done for me!!" ~Ruby M.
Dr. Nancy Hyton
Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine
By Appointment M to F, 9:30 to 6:00
26 Fairfax Avenue, West Asheville, NC 28806
Text or Call (828) 606-6791
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