A bottle of essential oil with frankincense resin crystals

A bottle of essential oil with frankincense resin crystals.

by Crystal Lauer
Health Impact News

Before the Magi ever traversed the streets of Bethlehem, bearing chests of gold, frankincense and myrrh, following a star and in search of the Christ child, before the historian and botanist, Pliny the Elder penned his Naturalis Historia or Alexander the Great conquered Gaza, a venerable substance- in the form of a humble resin- had stretched its influence over religion, medicine and culture alike for thousands of years already.

Frankincense, also known as Olibanum- from the Arabic word Al-luban meaning “milk”- is an aromatic oleo-gum-resin derived from the genus Boswellia, specifically the Boswellia Sacra and the B. Carterii, B. frereana, B. Serrata, and B. Papyrifera. These scraggily, gnarled trees grow primarily in the Southern Arabian Peninsula, Northeast Africa and parts of India.  

When the dried sap, or resin, is burned, its fragrance is said to be balsamic and spicy with a hint of citrus. The gum is harvested by strategically cutting the Boswellia trees with specialized knives, in the early spring and the fall, and allowing the milky sap to drip down in small tear shapes and slowly dry into a hard resin. 

Palm mats were traditionally laid at the base of the trees and the sap allowed to accumulate until dried. The most highly prized (and expensive) resin is a lighter almost white color, less sought after is the lower quality golden or amber colored varieties.

Legend has it that the Boswellia grew in a deeply foreboding mountainous area, covered by a dense swirling fog.  The trees themselves were purportedly guarded by terrifying winged vipers who would leap upon the unsuspecting soul that dared to approach the trees and impose fatal bites upon them.

Herodotus, the Greek historian, was familiar with the problems inherent in harvesting sap from viper infested trees and he noted that the peoples of the region would smoke out the bad-tempered snakes with the gum of the Styrax tree before attempting to collect the sap.

Certainly, anyone brave enough to harvest the resin of the Boswellia tree has earned the right to charge whatever he wants for it.

Despite the hardships of harvest, the ‘tears’ of the Boswellia tree have been traded across the world, advancing civilizations, technologies and cultures through its import, for millennia. 

Pliny the Elder supposed that it had made the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula, “the richest people on earth,” since, at the height of its renown, it was valued to be worth its weight in gold and often higher. 

Along the “Incense Route”- mostly controlled by the Arabs- caravans counting upwards of a hundred camels, collectively laden down with thousands of pounds of frankincense and its synergistic companion myrrh, stretched across miles of desert on their way to be traded for the silks of the far East and spices from India and Southern Asia.

The transport of frankincense and myrrh had been the impetus for the domestication of the camel, with each camel able to carry well over 700 pounds of material and travel up to ten days without water. Their precious cargo was destined for use in everything from religious ceremonies to medicines and foods, by the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Israelites and others.

The Queen of Sheba was said to have brought saplings of the Arabian Boswellia Sacra to the famed King Solomon of the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem. Frankincense played a significant role in the Hebrew religion.

The Hebrew people blended frankincense with other resins to create the perfume that prepared the temple for worship and the resin was sprinkled, at God’s own instructions, over all the grain offerings made by the priests.  

Frankincense is referenced over 120 times in the King James Bible with the most familiar story being that of the wise men delivering gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus, which is found in the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew. 

For most of us who grew up hearing the Christmas story and setting out the nativity, gold seemed like the valuable gift; while, frankincense and myrrh seemed mostly symbolic of the babes deity and his future sacrifice on the cross. 

Interestingly, frankincense was likely the most valuable gift the wise men from the East would bestow upon the holy child, and truly a gift fit for a king.

The Egyptians, who believed that frankincense was the ‘sweat of the gods, fallen to earth’, recorded the earliest written mentions of the aromatic resin which was a key element in their embalming process and purification rituals. 

Historical Uses of Frankincense for Health Benefits

In the Ebers Papayrus– which dates to the 9th year of the reign of Amenhotep the first in 1534 B.C.E.- frankincense is mentioned as a treatment for throat issues, vomiting and bleeding, while burnt frankincense was used for the kohl eyeliner made famous by the Egyptian women.

Both Egyptians and the Arabs burned frankincense resin as a repellent for a variety of insects, to both protect their crops and to reduce the incident of mosquito borne malaria and other diseases.

The Greek and Roman physicians treated a wide variety of maladies with the gum of the Boswellia tree, including digestive disorders, breathing disorders such as asthma and cough, tumors, ulcers and post childbirth care, to name just a few.

Dioscorides, the Roman military physician, treated the soldier’s wounds with the gummy resin and Pliny the Elder even noted its use as an antidote for Hemlock poisoning.

Both, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicines of India, make use of frankincense in a diverse array of treatments, and in the Syriac Book of Medicines, frankincense is referenced in several remedies from the early Middle Ages.

Rediscovering the Health Benefits of Frankincense

For over 5000 years, frankincense has played an integral part in every aspect of the human story, but for a time it stepped back into the obscurity of history, its value diminished to a footnote in the biblical event of the birth of Jesus; and there it waited to be rediscovered. 

With the rise of Christianity, which in its early incarnation, forbid the use of incense as a pagan rite and the fall of the Roman Empire, which virtually wiped out the incense trade routes, interest and use of frankincense and other resins fell out of favor for a time.

Eventually religious organizations such as the Catholic Church would begin using the fragrant resins in their own specific rites.

Today, there has begun a rebirth of the old ways. A sort of feeling that we should revisit the ancient traditions that have been put away for a time and hold them up to the scrutiny of science, in an attempt to discover if our ancestors knew as much as they believed they did. 

Science is steadily proving the wisdom of traditional ways.

In recent years, frankincense essential oil and resin have been studied by the scientific community, for its remarkable anti-inflammatory benefits, its analgesic effects, its anti-microbial activity and its immune enhancing capabilities.

It’s even being studied for its cancer fighting abilities and neuroprotective properties. It’s thought to be beneficial for anxiety and depression, to help with decreasing the intensity and frequency of chronic cluster headaches,  and to improve cognitive function.

In a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled cross over study, which sought to evaluate the analgesic effects of Boswellia Serrata, it was found to significantly raise the pain tolerance threshold in its healthy volunteers.

Boswellic acid, a terpenoid compound with similar chemical structure to steroids, has known anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.  The Boswellia Serrata tree, which has a particularly high ratio of this acid, is grown primarily in India. 

A randomized double-blind placebo controlled crossover study involving 30 patients with osteoarthritic knees, used an extract of Boswellia Serrata in an eight-week trial and found that there was a reported decrease in pain, increased knee flexion and increased walking distance.  It was also noted that there was a decrease in the frequency of swelling in the knee.

In a study of Boswellia Serrata extracts, effectiveness and mechanism regarding Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), a chronic inflammatory condition that leads to the destruction of the joints, an oral dose of BSE was administered and researchers found significant reduction in inflammatory mediators and a protective effect against RA.

The extract’s ability to inhibit pro-inflammatory cytokines, along with modulation of the antioxidant status, suggest that the mechanism may be modulation of the immune system.

In a 2006 study written up in the British Journal of Pharmacology, researchers investigated B.Serrata extracts influence on motility in inflammatory bowl disease, concluding that BSE normalized intestinal motility and possessed antidiarrheal activity without slowing rate of transit. 

This is significant as most medications commonly used, have a constipating effect.

Ancient Ayurvedic texts show the benefits of liberal use of Boswellia Serrata- or Salai guggul- for arthritic conditions and inflammatory disease. It would seem that they have been on to something this entire time.

Frankincense essential oil, widely known as the “King of Oils,” is steam distilled from the oleo-gum resin of the Boswellia tree and is highly aromatic. Aromatherapy- also known as essential oil therapy– finds its roots in numerous ancient civilizations, with its use in spiritual, ritual, hygienic and therapeutic modalities.

Essential Oils eBook

Essential oils are a very old, new thing.

Dioscorides writes about plant derived oils in his first century, De Materia Medica and medical use of distilled essential oils is recorded as early as the eleventh century.

The French surgeon, Jean Valnet, even treated wounded soldiers during WWII with essential oils used as antiseptics.

A recent study demonstrated that the inhalation of Boswellia Carterii essential oil showed significant reduction of the intensity of labor pain. 

Aromatherapy is both safe and non-invasive and previous studies have revealed that, dependent on the type of aroma, nerve cells release various neurotransmitters such as, serotonin, endorphins and noradrenaline. 

While these neurotransmitters can decrease pain, it is also noted that corticotropin-releasing hormones are decreased through interaction with olfactory pathways in the hypothalamus which, in turn, alleviates anxiety. 

Anxiety has a direct correlation to labor pain sensitivity and pain tolerance.

In recent years research on Boswellia in all its many incarnations has increased in an attempt to prove this fragrant resins venerated reputation in a variety health related challenges. 

In a study using hydro distillation of Boswellia Sacra gum resin, researchers investigated the oil for its anti-proliferative and pro-apoptotic activities in human pancreatic cell cultures and in reversing tumor growth in mice.

Researchers concluded the distillation of B. Sacra gum resin, may represent a new therapeutic treatment for pancreatic cancer patients. 

Scientists researching Boswellia Serrata, Sacra and Carterii essential oil and extracts, the oleo-gum- resin and the isolated, Acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid (AKBA), as possible therapeutic treatments for a variety of cancers, including breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer and bladder cancer, have consistently found encouraging cancer fighting potential through a variety of mechanisms. 

Personal Testimony in Using Frankincense for Respiratory Health

My own introduction to frankincense began much as I suspect many others have throughout history. After a particularly rough few weeks with a stubborn bronchial infection, a friend suggested I take a supplement that was a pure blend of Boswellia oils and resins, to support my respiratory health. 

Being of a mind to breathe deeply, sooner rather than later, I was willing to try just about anything. Three days later I was practically a new woman. 

I continued to take the aromatic capsules to assure myself that I was good and well, with the results being a vast improvement in my joint comfort, overall energy and my digestive health, as well as perfectly clear breathing. 

Because of this experience, it came as no surprise to me, when I read the study on bronchial asthma– an inflammatory condition I had suffered from for most of my life- which had showed significant improvement of physical symptoms and signs of the disease over a 6-week period, where participants used 300 mg. of gum resin of B. Serrata twice daily. 

Whether you try an extract for inflammation or cellular health, or an essential oil diffused for heightened cognition and reduced anxiety, or even the essential oil blended in your face cream to support your skin health and retain your youthful appearance, the important thing is that you incorporate the benefits of frankincense into your daily regimen.

Before you rush out to purchase your frankincense, be sure to avoid any aromatherapy oil labeled as a fragrance and look for the purest quality essential oil which bare the names: Sacra, Serrata, Frereana or Carterii. 

There are so many benefits to using frankincense on a daily basis and while the price may give you pause, just consider the winged serpents from whom you do not have to personally wrestle the precious resin, and I suspect the cost will look far more reasonable.

I am confident that Benjamin Franklin would agree that frankincense is definitely a substance that proves the axiom that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” even if his original intent was the promotion of fire safety.

Perhaps, the wise men from the East knew exactly the value of the gift they lay before the Christ child, that long-ago day in Bethlehem.

But, I suspect, they couldn’t have imagined the loss of that knowledge and the rebirth of interest that would occur, some 2000 years later.

See Also: