Palo santo (Bursera graveolens), also known as “holy wood,” is a plant that produces a powerful essential oil known for stimulating the immune system and fighting inflammation. Palo santo comes from a tree species native to the tropical dry forests of Ecuador, Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula in Peru. The tree belongs to the same botanical family (Burseraceae) as frankincense and myrrh trees, which also produce beneficial antioxidant-rich oils that are used around the world.
Burning dried wood from the “mystical” palo santo tree and collecting its concentrated oils have been widely used in folk medicines and by shamans (“medicine men”) for centuries because of the tree’s perceived spiritual applications. The wood from palo santo trees is also commonly burnt as incense and used to make a natural mosquito repellent (like citronella oil) because it possesses aromatic resins and volatile oils.
Burned similarly to other incense by lighting shavings of palo santo wood, the smell keeps bugs and spiritual “bad energy” away, according to mystics. In Peru, a shaman will light palo santo sticks, and the rising smoke is said to enter the “energy field” surrounding the site.
For ritual participants who observe the practice and take in palo santo’s aroma, it’s believed to “clear misfortune, negative thought prints, and evil spirits.” This is the reason it’s known as a powerful essential oil for mental and emotional clarity.
What Is Palo Santo?
Today, palo santo trees are widely grown and collected so their wood can be used to produce bottled essential oil using steam distillation. Aside from its mental health applications, palo santo offers promising benefits when it comes to raising immunity and fighting illness.
As a rich supply of antioxidants and phytochemicals called terpenes, including limonene and α-terpineol, concentrated palo santo oil is effective for fighting free radical damage (also called oxidative stress), relieving stomach aches, fighting stress, reducing pains due to arthritis and healing many other conditions. Particularly, it’s been gaining attention for being a natural cancer treatment for inflammatory diseases.
An analysis of steam-distilled palo santo oil (using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry) showed that the major active constituents include: limonene (89.33 percent), α-terpineol (11 percent), menthofuran (6.6 percent) and carvone (2 percent). Other beneficial compounds in smaller quantities include germacrene D, muurolene and pulegone.
Palo santo essential oil benefits include:
- Fighting cancer
- Fighting infection
- Relieving inflammation
- Relieving muscular pains
- Stimulating the immune system
- Supporting a healthy nervous system
The valuable fruit of the B. graveolens tree is a small black seed covered by a red pulp that’s contained in a green capsule. The two halves of the capsule fall off when the fruit is ripe, leaving behind the fruit that’s rich in lipids (fats), which are then concentrated and used therapeutically.
The fruit emits an odor similar to fennel (anise) that’s slightly sweet, which is one reason why people like to diffuse the smell of palo santo throughout their homes or use it in natural cleansing products. The tree is also related to the citrus family and has a somewhat similar sweet note of “clean” smelling pine, mint and lemon. Because they’re related and have similar emotionally stabilizing benefits, you can use palo santo as a substitute for more-popular frankincense oil or myrrh oil.
8 Palo Santo Uses and Benefits
1. Detoxifier and Immune Enhancer
Palo santo helps support the immune system and turns off inflammatory responses from things like a poor diet, pollution, stress and illness. Try using several drops of pure palo santo oil as a detoxification agent by combining it with hot water (not boiling) and drinking it as an herbal tea. It’s great for calming the nervous system and to recover faster from illness, chronic fatigue syndrome or emotional pain.
2. De-Stressor and Relaxant
Considered an oil that’s grounding and centering, both palo santo and frankincense oils are used for emotional and spiritual support since they work like natural anxiety remedies. Once inhaled, palo santo travels directly through the olfactory system (which controls our sense of smell) of the brain, where it helps turn on the body’s relaxation responses and reduces panic, anxiety and insomnia.
You can apply several drops mixed with a carrier oil (such as coconut or jojoba oil) to your head, neck, chest or spine to help you unwind and fall asleep more easily. You can also combine palo santo with lavender oil, bergamot oil or frankincense oil for additional relaxation benefits.
3. Headache Treatment
Known to combat migraines and even stress-related headaches or bad moods, palo santo helps to lower inflammation and increase blood flow that can help turn off perceived pain. For a natural headache remedy and instant relief, dilute a few drops in water and dissolve the vapors with a diffuser whenever a headache strikes. Or try rubbing some palo santo mixed with coconut oil onto your temples and neck.
4. Cold or Flu Treatment
Palo santo is known to fight infections and viruses that can leave you with a cold or the flu. By improving blood circulation and recharging your energy levels, it can help you feel better faster and stop severity of feelings of dizziness, congestion and nausea. Apply a few drops on the chest at heart level or add some to your shower or bath to beat a cold or flu.
5. Joint and Muscle Pain Reducer
As a great way to naturally lower pain from arthritis, injuries, chronic neck or back pain, and sore muscles, apply several drops with a carrier oil three times a day directly on the point of pain. For a natural remedy for muscle, bone and joint pain, try massaging the oil mixture into the skin until the oil is absorbed or sitting in a soaking bath with palo santo and Epsom salts.
6. Bug/Mosquito Repellent
Historically, palo santo wood chips or sticks were used as incense to keep off mosquitoes. If you can find wood chips, sticks or cones, burn one or two in an incense burner for about 20 or 25 minutes. You can also use palo santo essential oil in the same way or combine it with water and spray it directly onto your skin or clothes.
7. Allergy Reducer
Because it lowers inflammation and the body’s response to histamines, palo santo has benefits for fighting seasonal allergy symptoms, digestive issues and asthma-related symptoms. Try taking it as a dietary supplement for natural allergy relief (only recommended when using a therapeutic-grade oil) or inhale it from the bottle several times daily.
8. Household Cleaner
Similar to clary sage and cedarwood essential oils, palo santo has a cleansing effect that can help reduce odors, bacteria and viruses within your home. Palo santo woodchip incense or essential oil can also be used to clean the air and surfaces in your home and prevent illnesses, contamination or even “bad energy.” Purify your kitchen, bathroom or appliances by diffusing the oil or running it through your household appliances.
Research and Studies
Over 40 different types of palo santo trees are grown worldwide, mostly throughout Central and South America. The use of palo santo bark and oil has been a traditional medicinal and religious practice in South America for many years, especially in Ecuador where it’s known to bring about “good luck.”
In fact, palo santo oil was believed to first be used during the time of the Incas for its reputed spiritual purifying properties. According to the local customs, palo santo oil can help protect from bad energy, known as “mala energía,” so it’s used to clean people’s homes from both disease and spiritual blockers.
Recently, studies have shown us that palo santo oil contains cancer-fighting compounds that lower oxidative stress and protect cells. Palo santo contains highly protective phytochemicals that can stop disease formation within the digestive, endocrine, cardiovascular and nervous systems.
Limonene, the main active ingredient in palo santo, is a bioactive component found in high concentrations in certain plants, including citrus peels, that has well-researched anticancer and anti-inflammatory effects. In preclinical studies of mammary carcinogenesis and inflammation-related diseases, supplementing with limonene helps to fight inflammation, lower cytokines and protects the epithelial barrier of cells.
In 2004, researchers from the University of Shizuoka School of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Japan discovered several other key phytochemicals in palo santo oil that are capable of fighting cancerous cell mutation. These include 4-aryltetralin-type lignans called burseranin and other isolated triterpenes (lupeol and epi-lupeol) taken from the stems of Bursera graveolens plants.
When tested, these compounds showed remarkable inhibitory activity against human cancer and ﬁbrosarcoma cells. Researchers observed biological activities including antineoplastic, antitumor, antiviral and anti-inflammatory actions against cell mutations and tumor growth. Triter-pene lupeol compounds found in palo santo especially showed strong activity against lung, breast and colon cancer cells.
Here are some ways to get started using palo santo oil at home:
- Aromatically: You can use palo santo essential oil for aromatherapy by diffusing it within your home using a diffuser, or you can inhale it directly from the bottle. If you’d prefer to try using dried palo santo woodchips instead of oil, use a candle, match or lighter to ignite your sticks/cones and hold them at about a 45-degree angle pointing the tip down toward the flame. Allow it to burn for about 30 seconds to one minute, and then blow it out or add it to a non-flammable metal, glass or clay bowl to slowly diffuse throughout your home.
- Topically: The oil should be diluted with a carrier oil like coconut oil in a 1:1 ratio before applying it directly to your skin. When used as an ingredient in cosmetics, the INCI name “Bursera graveolens wood oil” should be listed within the ingredient label. Note that some people react to citrus, frankincense and palo santo oils by experiencing skin irritation, so perform a patch test first to be safe and use caution when it comes to applying the oil to babies, children and pets.
- Internally: Palo santo is recognized by the FDA as safe to consume (21CFR182.20), but this is ONLY recommend for very high-quality oil brands. Look for an oil that is 100 percent pure therapeutic oil. You can add a drop to water or take it as a dietary supplement by mixing with honey or into a smoothie.
Palo santo oil mixes well with other oils, including: black pepper, cedarwood, clary sage, cypress, douglas fir, frankincense, lemon balm, myrrh, rose, vetiver and sandalwood essential oils. Try using some in various homemade soap, lotion, incense and cleansing products, especially in any recipe that calls for frankincense, cedarwood, myrrh or lemon essential oil.
Potential Interactions and Side Effects
Some reports show that it might be hard to obtain real palo santo essential oil, so you’ll want to buy from a reputable brand and do your research first. In Ecuador, it’s against the law to remove or cut down palo santo trees because they’re protected. Even though the oil can be obtained from fallen limbs or even dead trees, even this must permitted through the government in most countries, so therefore manufacturing is limited.
Be suspicious of companies selling palo santo oil (sometimes just called “holy wood oil”) for low prices over the internet today, and check the genus species name so you know you’re getting the real thing. Organic, 100 percent pure oils offer the most benefits and are the only kinds recommended for internal use to reduce inflammation, which is at the root of most diseases.
Although it’s well-tolerated, applying palo santo essential oil to a small patch of your skin to perform a test is a good idea before using it on larger or more sensitive parts of the body. Test the oil on your skin somewhere that is less sensitive, such as your forearm or foot, to make sure you don’t have any allergic reaction or other side effects. As with all essential oils, never use them undiluted on your skin without a carrier oil, and keep them away from your eyes, inside your nose and mucus membranes, children and pets.
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