The science behind this New Age practice

  • Why a woman attacked me with a fiery stick 
  • The common herb you can burn to ward off infection 
  • So what does modern science think of this arcane, ancient practice?

I was 26 years old when a woman attacked me with a fiery stick.

It all started when I was invited to the flat of one of my rugby team mates for lunch one Saturday.

When I walked in, I was surprised to see bohemian touches everywhere…

Indian quilts thrown over the sofa, tie dye fabrics hanging from the wall and candles on the mantlepiece.

“My girlfriend,” Gary said, noticing my raised eyebrows.

Suddenly, a door in the hallway swung open and a young woman walked towards me with a stick of what look liked dried branches – on FIRE!

There was smoke wafting from the stick and a thickly pungent smell.

“Hi,” she said, “I’m Lucy – don’t mind me, I’m smudging!”

Instinctively, I burst out laughing, as she walked past me, wafting smoke at the walls of the hallway.

Genuinely, I thought she was taking the mickey.

I mean… come on…


Now, before I get a flurry of emails to point out my crass ignorance, let me explain myself.

Back in my 20s, I was a bit of a lad.

Rugby, football, pints, curries, action films.

That was the kind of thing I was into.

Make no mistake, I still like those things…

But in my 30s, 40s and 50s, I started to open my mind and take a lot more interest in different aspects of life.

I got into literature and travel…

gardening… wine… cooking…

Then alternative medicine and nutrition…

Which is why I started writing the Good Life Letter way back in 2005.

(I can’t believe it’s been over 15 years!)

Now that I know a lot more about traditional medicine and folk remedies, I feel bad that I mocked poor Lucy for her behaviour when I went to her flat.

Though admittedly, it’s a bit strange to approach a guest with a smoking stick of dried herbs when they arrive at your house!

What she was doing, of course, was burning sage – otherwise known as ‘smudging’.

Today, I thought it might be worth taking a look at this practice to see why people do it, and what effects it can have on your health and wellbeing.

A New Age idea with some science behind it

Burning sage is a ritual that has been around for thousands of years.

Native Americans did it for spiritual reasons, to cleanse a space of malevolent forces or to promote wisdom and insight.

The ancient Egyptians and Romans burned sage to treat digestive problems, sore throats and other infections.

People who use it today say that it can help focus the mind, reduce stress, boost concentration, and give you a sense of harmonious, spiritual connection.

Now, a lot of people (like young Ray Collins) might be sceptical about this kind of stuff.

But actually, there’s evidence to suggest that sage does have extraordinary properties.

Some types of sage contain thujone, which is mildly psychoactive, so it does affect the brain and your perception of the world.

A 2016 research project at the University of Mississippi showed that white sage (Salvia apiana) contains compounds that activate receptors in the brain that are responsible for mood, stress, and even pain.

Some research suggests that sage also contains compounds that could help ease insomnia.

Many forms of sage commonly used in smudging also have antimicrobial properties that can help protect against troublesome bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

For instance, a 2007 study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacol linked sage burning to the reduction of airborne bacteria.

So perhaps it really could help purify the air of infections.

While I’m not suggesting it’s some kind of iron-clad way of protecting you from the coronavirus, for instance, many naturopaths swear by it.

A few drawbacks, however…

All the above said, here’s a word of caution.

If you have asthma or respiratory problems then you should be very careful and avoid inhaling too much smoke from burning sage.

While researchers haven’t yet studied the health impact of smudging, they have found that regularly burning incense indoors could be linked to lung problems.

Also, the practice of smudging has some criticism from people who believe that it should be left to Native American cultures, for whom it is an important part of spiritual life and who truly understand it.

Whatever your opinions, I think this story is interesting because it’s another example where an arcane, ancient practice can hold up when looked at by Western science.

It goes to show that the ancient wisdom of humans who relied on plants for healing and advancement still has so much to offer us, here in 2020.

And we should keep these old customs alive, using the wonderful bounty of nature to help us live better lives, wherever possible.

The ignorant 26-year old me used to dismiss this kind of thing – but I’m glad that the older, balder, wrinklier me has a much more open mind.

Which brings me to you…

Do you smudge, or do you use incense or other similar processes for health and wellbeing? How has it improved your life and what would you recommend for other Good Life Letter readers?

Do let me know, as I always love to read your emails and share your insights.