My first encounter with Palo Santo was in the Bastyr University’s annual health fair, a couple of years back. Instantly drawn to the booth, where small bundles of the wood were displayed for sale, catching a whiff of the burning Palo Santo stick was like catching a whiff of something otherworldly. The fragrance was at once achingly familiar and impossibly exquisite. Uplifting, vibrant and calming at the same time, it felt like the scent-substance that I had been waiting to discover all my life.
Needless to say, I came home with a small bundle of the wood. The small bundle of wood has been an integral part of my ‘raising my vibration, ‘bringing me back to myself’, ‘clearing negative energy’ or simply ‘removing musty smells’ arsenal. Whenever I feel moved to, I light the end of a Palo Santo stick, blow out the flame in a few seconds and allow the fragrant smoke that trails from the smoldering wood to purify a space. I also circle the smoke around my family and myself when they or I feel the need for an energetic cleanse. Palo Santo, when it touches fire, gives out a spurt of thick smoke that works like an instant reset button. The before and after is distinct and palpable.
Originally from South America, Palo Santo, literally meaning ‘wood of the saints’ is extensively used both in urban homes and in rainforests in Shamanic ceremonies. In homes in Ecuador and Peru, the smoke from the sticks is used both to symbolically purify a space and to literally ward off insects and mosquitos. In fact, most shamanic rituals begin with the burning of a Palo Santo stick to ‘clear negative thought-forms and bad spirits and reestablish balance and peace.” In addition to its use in smudging and as incense, the essential oil in Bursera graveolens, the botanical name for Palo Santo, which imparts the wood with a unique fragrance, also has immense healing properties.
The Healing Gentleness of Bursera graveolens
Bursera graveolens is widely used as an anti-inflammatory agent both in aromatherapy and folk medicine. In aromatherapy, the essential oil of the wood is used in massage to relieve pain and control inflammation. Folk medicine uses both the wood shavings and essential oil of the mature wood of Palo Santo to relieve symptoms of asthma, allergies, headaches, migraines and all manner of aches and pains.
The wood shavings are simmered in water and strained and the resulting tea is supremely delicious and healing. The shavings can also be added to boiling water to create a fragrant steam that is effective against a variety of pathogens and viruses. The expectorant properties of the wood also make it an effective medicine for thinning mucus and clearing the lungs of infection.
The Magic of Sesquiterpenes
The essential oil of Palo Santo is rich in a class of compounds known as sesquiterpenes. Sesquiterpenes, also present in the essential oils such as frankincense, cedarwood and myrhh are compounds that impart the characteristic herbal, woody and minty fragrance to these woods and resins. Research shows that these aromatic compounds can have an oxygenating effect on the brain and can prevent neuronal cell death. The oxygenating effect on the brain is probably the reason why Palo Santo has traditionally been used in folk remedies to ease symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety. Palo Santo’s capacity to prevent neuronal cell death can make it potentially beneficial for degenerative brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The Power of Limonene
Limonene, as the name suggests, is a compound that lends citrus fruits their characteristic, ‘lemony’ scent. Also called D-Limonene, the wonderful natural substance that is abundant in citrus peels, is also plentiful in the essential oil of Palo Santo wood. The oil nutrient is excellent for detoxification, liver detoxification especially, and has been associated with several healing benefits including treating cancer.
A small 2012 study published in Journal Natural Product Communications showed that the essential oil of Bursera gravelons inhibited the growth of a specific type of tumor called MCF-7. The study concluded that the essential oil showed promise in treating breast cancer.
What is left to Say?
We usually think about healing substances in terms of what we ingest through our mouths, but what if scents we ingest through our noses could heal?
The plant world is infinitely glittering. It has lavished us and continues to bestow us with enormous gifts. Palo Santo, the fragrant wood of the saints, is one that I am tremendously grateful for. The smell of this divine wood makes my heart-strings sing every single time. Watching its gentle smoke travel heavenwards is a beautiful experience. I become familiar with a more refined, less dense part of myself when I’m in its company. That it contains D-Limonene, sesquiterpenes and lignans (shown in other studies) and has been clinically proven to have neuroprotective effects and shrink tumors is a huge bonus.
- FoxNews; Pala Santo: A Fragrant Wood with Cancer Fighting Properties
- Wellness Resources; D- Limonene
- All about Smudging, Margaret Ann Lembo
- Dr. LoBisco; The Power of Palo Santo – The Missing Quadruplet?
- Natural Product Communications; Chemical Composition and anti-proliferative Properties of Bursera graveolens
- Fitoterpia; Four new Sesquiterpenes from Commiphora myrrha and their Neuroprotective Effects.