The agarwood Files
Medicinal and Traditional Uses
Copyright Tony Burfield and Kendra Kirkham 2005
Medicinal uses of the heartwood, bark, resinous stem, resinous wood and aloeresin, prepared from Aquilaria spp., have been recorded in traditional medical systems including Chinese (TCM), Tibetan, Ayurvedic (Indian) and Unani (Greek derived Islamic). External and Internal preparations have been used citing a variety of Aquilaria species.
These traditional medical systems have been used for indigenous health-care for thousands of years and can stand up on their own merits, because of the general non-scientific ‘universal truths’ on which all these systems are based, there are inevitably similarities in some major classifications. We can therefore also see similarities in uses:
TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) herbs are classified by the way that they reorganise the body constituents to a state of balance (Qi, moisture and blood) and classified into five tastes (closely linked to smell) not disimilar from the five basic odour classifications of agarwood incense listed in the previous section, of sour, bitter, sweet, spicy and salty. TCM recognises primal forces which govern the body of which fire is the force that has an eliminative action which discharges qi downwards.
Likewise, Tibetan medicine recognises similar primal forces that govern the body but has six tastes sour, bitter, sweet, salty, hot and astringent. Selections of herbs are made based on their taste and potency with regard to the primal forces for re-balancing and restoring health – fire being the force that transforms.
In Ayurveda, there are five primary categories of matter (which combine to create 3 doshas or forces), five attributes and five elements. Fire is the element that transforms. Ayurveda recognises six tastes - sour, bitter, sweet, salty, pungent and astringent.
Unani medicine recognises the four humors which have elements, body substances ~ blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile and qualities ascribed to each humor. These classifications are based on temperament both of people and the humors themselves. Temperaments of humors and person need to be diagnosed so that humors of plants can be prescribed to bring the body back to a state of balance.
Aquilaria-derived formulations in general seem to relieve spasms and other forms of stagnant or stuck energy particularly in the digestive (stomach, kidneys, liver, bowel) and respiratory systems. The warming properties of Aquilaria derived medications has been noted. In TCM it warms the kidneys (Subhuti Dharmananda), In Ayurveda it is similarly recognised for It’s warming properties, In Tibetan medicine and in the Unani system It is balancing.
Shizen Li notes that agarwood [Aquilaria sinensis (Lour.) Gilg.] is mentioned in ancient Chinese Herbals in 1596 (Li, 1596), being sought after for it’s physical therapeutic and energetic applications. Hsu (1996) notes that Aquilariae Lignum (aloeswood) in his Chinese Materia Medica consists of the heartwood containing the dark-brown resin which is derived from:
Its use was first recorded in Ming i pieh lu, Agarwood being the heartwood that emits fragrance and sinks in water, from which the drug gets its name. The Revolutionary Health Committee of Hunan Province (1995) considered a decoction of A. agallocha to have slight warming properties, to lower energy (activity), reinforce the kidneys, to regulate the central organs and to alleviate pain. The authors recommend use in abdominal pain, tightness of the chest, vomiting and regurgitation, diarrhoea and asthma. [Authors note – the statement ‘lower energy’ above is a poor translation, rather: ‘to move energy down towards the kidneys where it can continue to be utilised efficiently by the body’].
Similarly, in the Indian Ayurvedic healing system, the burning of agarwoods has a warming and centering effect on the chakras and promotes a deep meditational state.
Agarwood heartwood is used in various Ayurvedic formulas including Chyavanprasha, Arimedadi Taila and Mahanarin Taila (Anon 1978: The Ayurvedic Formulary of India Vol 1). Its uses [“A. malaccensis Lam. syn. A. agallocha Rox.”] have been described as a cardiac tonic, carminative & refrigerant (Natarajan & Purushothaman 1991). In the Unani herbal medicine it is used as a stimulant, stomachic, laxative (purgative in large doses) and as an aphrodisiac. It is also used in the Ayurvedic system against skin diseases (Anon 1985: The Wealth of India - Raw Materials Vol 1), and powdered heartwood is given for treatment of diahorrea, dysentery, vomiting and anorexia (Anon 1969: Bhava Prakash Nighantu, pub Chaukhamba Vidya Bhawan, Varanasai pp195-6). Agarwood oil, mixed with essential oil from Piper betel is used against bronchial asthma (ibid) [ - through Indian Medicinal & Aromatic Plants Facing Genetic Errosion – CIMAP, Lucknow 1978]. It is also reported as being used by the traditional vaidyas as a contraceptive (Nagarjun 1979-80 23,9), and the leaves boiled in oil used to remove fish bones stuck in the throat (Bull. Bot. Surv, India 1980 22,161).
Tibetan Medicine & Ethinic Psychiatry.
Oleoresin, wood and oil are used in Tibetan medicine and incense, especially prized is “black aloeswood”, (Aquilaria agallocha) which Clifford (1984) describes as being relied on by contemporary Tibetan doctors for treatment of a whole range of nervous and emotional disorders. Clifford further describes black aloeswood as the most commonly used minor tranquilliser.
Although there are fewer documented folk-uses of agarwood essential oil in Western medicine, Franchomme & Peneol (1990) in their treatise on aromatherapy consider the oil of “Aquilaria agallocha Roxb. agospirolifera” to be a decongestant for the lymphatic and venous systems, and to be indicated for venous insufficiency & malaria. Miller and Miller (1995) in their book Ayerveda Aromatherapy describe the energetic warming, balancing effects of oud (:oil of A. agallocha), and its’ energy purifying and balancing, relaxant, rejeuvinative, transformative, clairvoyant and transcending actions.
The use of agarwood as an incense ingredient is recognised in written works from Japan, China and elsewhere but in the main, it is through the means of oral tradition that the secrets that accompany use of materials such as agarwoods lie. From welcoming ancestors long departed, to stilling the mind, through to stopping the spread of infection where large groups of people are gathered, Incense is burned for energetic, cleansing, mental, physical & spiritual effect. As is the case with certain grades of musk and ambergris, the high prices that can be achieved internationally for certain grades of gaharu is often based on availability rather than quality. Krishnan (1997) describes traditional ood attar made from wood from Assam fetching Rs 15,000 to RS 20,000 per tola (11.62g).
Please see Agarwood Bibliography at the end of Agarwood files Database database for references.