Many culinary enthusiasts swear by bay leaves as a key ingredient in stews and other savory dishes. But the potential uses of these leaves extend beyond the kitchen.
People around the world have also used bay leaves in traditional and complementary medicine practices for thousands of years. Most of these uses involve crumbled leaves, poultices of leaves, or bay leaf essential oil.
And then there’s bay leaf burning, which is said to produce smoke that offers a range of health benefits.
Here’s what you need to know about the practice, including its potential benefits and how to safely try it.
Anxiety relief is touted as a major benefit of bay leaf burning.
This is probably due to the fact that bay leaf smoke contains linalool, a compound found in a number of other plants, including mint and lavender. Lavender is another plant commonly used for treating anxiety.
According to the theory behind aromatherapy, inhaling certain fragrances prompts olfactory (smell) receptors in your nose to communicate with the areas of your brain that help regulate your emotions.
Research suggests that linalool, in the form of lavender essential oils and extracts, seems to have a calming effect.
After inhaling linalool, the mice seemed less aggressive and more inclined to interact with other mice. They were also more likely to leave a dark area and explore a bright area, a test often used to measure anxiety levels in animals.
The rats seemed to show less anxiety, as determined by several behavioral tests. The extract also appeared to help reduce depression and stress.
A few things to keep in mind
None of the studies mentioned above used burned bay leaves as part of their research. The same substance can have a slightly different effect when used in different ways.
Since extracts found in essential oils are typically highly concentrated, they may have greater potency than other forms of the same compound.
It’s also important to note that while bay leaves do contain linalool, they contain a much lower amount than lavender does. Lavender essential oil is around 25 percent to 38 percent linalool. Bay leaf essential oil, however, is typically less than 7 percent linalool.
Even lavender, with its higher concentration of linalool, doesn’t always improve anxiety on its own.
This doesn’t mean bay leaves have no benefit for anxiety symptoms, though. Aromatherapy works for many people when combined with other approaches. If you enjoy the fragrance of bay leaf smoke, bay leaf burning can be a good tool to have in your belt.
Again, there hasn’t been any research looking specifically at burning bay leaves.
That said, limited evidence from animal studies does suggest bay leaves in general could help with a range of health issues, including:
- breast cancer
- kidney stones
- type 2 diabetes
Bay leaves have also traditionally been used for:
- indigestion and other gastrointestinal complaints
Bay leaves are considered safe for most people, but you’ll want to use caution if any of the following scenarios applies to you:
- You have diabetes. Bay leaves may affect your blood sugar. Check in with your healthcare provider before using them.
- You’re allergic. If you’ve ever had a reaction to bay leaves in food, avoid burning bay leaves or using essential oils containing them.
- You’re having surgery soon. Avoid using bay leaves for medicinal purposes 2 weeks before having surgery. They can affect the function of your central nervous system, especially when combined with the anesthesia typically used in surgery.
- You have asthma or other respiratory issues. Inhaling smoke of any kind can irritate your lungs and mucus membranes. If you’re interested in using bay leaves medicinally but have respiratory issues, consider using other methods, like essential oils.
- You’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Again, since there isn’t any research about burning bay leaves, it’s best to check in with your healthcare provider first, just to be safe.
First things first, you’re going to be burning dry plant matter in your home, so basic fire safety is a must. Before getting started, make sure you have a big glass of water nearby, just in case.
Here’s how to burn bay leaves safely:
- Collect your leaves. Use dried bay leaves, since fresh ones won’t burn easily. You can purchase bay leaves in the spice section of most grocery stores.
- Use a fireproof bowl. An ashtray, glass, or ceramic dish will work well. Lining it with aluminum foil can help catch ash and keep your dish clean.
- Carefully light the end of one leaf with a match or lighter. As soon as the flame catches, quickly blow it out. You want the leaves to slowly smolder, not quickly burn.
- Place the leaf in the fireproof dish. Keep the burning leaf near you, out of reach of pets or children. Don’t let the leaves burn unattended.
- Crack a window. This can prevent bay leaf smoke from setting off your smoke alarm. Just avoid setting the dish of burning leaves next to the open window. If it’s a windy day, the breeze might send bits of burning leaf or ash through your home.
- Let the leaves smoke for 10 to 15 minutes. If the leaves stop burning, you can light them again. It may take a few tries to get a good smolder going, especially if your leaves are still a little fresh.
- Dispose of the ash carefully. Let the ash completely cool before throwing it away or composting it. It never hurts to splash it with some water first.
Bay leaf burning is an ancient tradition that’s said to help with everything from anxiety and stress to diabetes and breast cancer, thought scientific evidence around the method is lacking.
Still, it’s relatively safe for most people try try. Just make sure to keep an eye on the leaves as they smolder so things don’t get out of hand.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.