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May 21, 2019 -- Acupuncturist Claretha Yeager frequently uses smudging -- or burning sage -- to help rid her patients of negative emotions.

Yeager, a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, and a reiki master/teacher, says the sage smoke unburdens people of their negative energy and makes them feel better. “I see patients start to relax and go into a more neutral state within minutes,” says Yeager, who works at Jade Path Acupuncture in Chicago.

Native Americans and other indigenous peoples have burned sage for centuries as part of a spiritual ritual to cleanse a person or space, and to promote healing and wisdom. It's been used since the time of the ancient Egyptians and Romans to treat digestive issues, memory problems, and sore throats. The name sage comes from the Latin “salvia,” which means, “to feel healthy.”

The practice of "smudging" has more recently become popular in other cultures, too. In April, a young girl burned a sage stick at a makeshift memorial to slain rapper Nipsey Hussle.

"It is seen to metaphysically un-cling the things that cling to us that are no longer needed -- spiritually, mentally, and physically. … Almost the way a sponge can cleanse things from you that are stuck to you," says Anthony Fleg, MD, an assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of New Mexico.

While sage burning might offer a kind of metaphysical or spiritual cleansing, its medical virtues haven't been well-studied. Very little research has been done on burning sage in general, and there isn't much evidence to confirm what it might do for your health.

Here’s what you need to know about sage burning.

What Type of Sage Do You Burn?

Sage comes in several varieties. Healers and herbalists typically use white sage, also known as California or bee sage, for burning. Common sage, lavender sage, blue sage, black sage, and other types each have their own unique qualities, Yeager says. For example, blue sage is used in cleansing and healing rituals, while desert sage is used for purifying and protection. Other herbs, including juniper and sweetgrass, can also be burned for similar purposes.

Where Do You Get Sage?

You can grow and harvest sage in your backyard or buy it in a bundle. You'll find it in places like new age and health food stores, farmer's markets, and on the internet. If you grow it or harvest it fresh, let it sit and dry for about a week before burning. It should be crackle when squeezed as a bundle.

When you buy sage, make sure the seller harvests it sustainably and responsibly, Yeager says. Sometimes, bundles will have other herbs mixed in, which could dilute the intended result.

How Do You Burn Sage?

To burn sage, you light the end of the bundle and let the smoke waft into the air. If you are trying to cleanse the air in a room, you'd then walk around the space with the burning wand. You can also place the burning sage bundle in an abalone shell, which you can buy online.

When Yeager works with a patient, she starts at either the head or feet, and then makes counterclockwise circles around the person’s body.

What Does Research Show About Sage?

Sage contains flavonoids -- plant compounds that have medicinal properties. Some of these compounds appear to improve brain health and guard against diseases like Alzheimer's. In one study of mice, sage extract improved memory.

In other animal studies, sage helped against depression and anxiety. It also helps with digestive troubles, soothing upset stomachs. "It is calming to the gut and calming [to the mind], probably in the way lavender is calming," says Fleg, who’s also partnership coordinator for the Native Health Initiative, which aims to correct health inequalities among Native Americans.

It's important to note that these studies were mainly done using sage extract. Whether burning sage has the same effects is still unknown. Also unclear is whether sage works on humans in the same way that it does on animals.

Is It Safe to Burn Sage?

Breathing in smoke carries some possible risks, Fleg says. Although researchers haven't studied sage burning specifically, burning incense has been linked to lung problems and allergies.

As long as you burn sage for only short periods of time, it's unlikely to cause problems, Fleg adds. But if you have asthma or other lung problems, check with your doctor before using it.

When Yeager has a patient with lung problems, she won't burn sage with the person in the room. "I might sage the room prior to them getting there to make sure it's not smoky, or I might not use it at all," she says. Sage essential oils are an alternative when burning the herb might not be safe.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said a study had shown that burning sage could remove bacteria from the air in a room. That study, however, was of an Indian mixture of dried herbs, roots and leaves that does not include sage. 

Show Sources

Annales Pharmaceutiques Francaises: "Effects of sage extract on memory performance in mice and acetylcholinesterase activity."

Anthony Fleg, MD, assistant professor of family and community medicine, University of New Mexico.

Clinical and Molecular Allergy: "Incense smoke: clinical, structural and molecular effects on airway disease."

Drugs in R&D: "Salvia (Sage): A review of its potential cognitive-enhancing and protective effects."

Grove and Grotto: "Sage advice: An illustrated guide to smudging herbs."

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: "Sage."

Claretha Yeager, doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, reiki master/teacher, Jade Path Acupuncture, Chicago.


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