The practice of burning incense has a rich history. It dates back to ancient times — it was used in religious rituals in ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Greece. There is a reason it has survived for thousands of years. The practice can have a “positive effect on your central nervous system by helping to alleviate stress and anxiety”, explained Hussain Abdeh, Superintendent Pharmacist at Medicine Direct.
However, you can have too much of a good thing, he warned.
“Burning incense sticks on a regular basis or in large quantities can increase the risk of lung cancer, brain tumours or leukaemia.”
What’s more, regularly burning the aromatic material can also cause mutations.
Mr Abdeh explained: “Some people like to burn incense every day, but the chemicals contained within it can possibly change genetic material.”
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The researchers also set out to explore the associations between indoor incense burning and brain structure.
Community older adults without stroke or dementia were recruited. Indoor incense use was self-reported as having burnt incense at home within a weekly basis over the past five years.
What did the researchers find out?
Indoor incense burning was associated with reduced performance across “multiple cognitive domains” at baseline (the start of the study) and year three as well as decreased connectivity of the “default mode network” (DMN).
The DMN is a network of interacting brain regions that is active when a person is not focused on the outside world.
What’s more, the practice interacted with diabetes and hyperlipidemia (the medical term for having too many fats, such as cholesterol in your blood) to predict poorer cognitive performance.
“Indoor incense burning is associated with poorer cognitive performance over three years,” the researchers concluded.
The practice is also related to decreased brain connectivity; and it interacts with vascular disease to “predispose poor cognitive performance”, they added.
Some studies have found that burning incense indoors increases the levels of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been linked to cancer.
The finding is not surprising – burning any sort of organic material, whether tobacco leaves, coal or an incense stick – produces PAHs.
The data is far from conclusive, however. The largest study so far looked at incense use and cancer, tracking the health of 61,000 people in Singapore.
Although the study claimed to show that people who used incense most heavily were almost twice as likely to develop cancer in their airways than those who did not, the results were weak.
“Regardless, anyone wishing to avoid any potential risks could consider burning incense only in situations with good ventilation,” warns health body the Cancer Council.