Familiar to most Christians as one of the gifts the Three Kings presented to the Christ child, the burning of frankincense has been part of cultural and religious ceremonies for millennia. Frankincense is a resin from the Boswellia tree, made into oils or incense, used in everything from worship to medicinal applications. Its name originates from the old French “franc encens”, meaning “quality incense”.

Johns Hopkins University teamed up with researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to explore frankincense as to see what kinds of effects it has on the mind. To measure the effects on the mind, researchers used some of the resin from the Boswellia tree known as incensole acetate and gave it to some mice. This test showed that incensole acetate affects the area of the brain where emotions reside.

“In spite of information stemming from ancient tests, constituents of Boswellia had not been investigated for psychoactivity,” said Raphael Mechoulam from the study. “We found that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin constituent, when tested in mice, lowers anxiety and causes antidepressive-like behavior. Apparently, most present-day worshippers assume that incense burning has only a symbolic meaning.” They concluded that when someone comes in contact with frankincense it has a strong anxiolytic (anxiety decreasing) effect and acts as an antidepressant, leaving a person feeling relaxed and open which can be very soothing.