Herb of the Month: Frankincense

The story of the Wise Men coming from the East bearing gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh, is long associated with the Christmas season. A sticky substance from the gummy sap of trees growing in Africa and the Middle East, frankincense may well have been worth more than gold in Biblical times! It has been valued in human history for thousands of years.

Frankincense was burned as incense for religious ceremonies in ancient Greece, Persia, Babylonia and Assyria. It was known for its ability to slow and deepen breathing, enhance feelings of calm and purify the air. In the Temple of Jerusalem, it was one of the sacred oils used for making sacrifices. In Europe, it was one of the holy oils used to anoint kings and queens when they were crowned. It is still in use as incense today; its fragrance may still be found in some Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Frankincense was well known in Indian Ayurvedic medicine as part of the Guggul botanical family. It is still used as an anti-inflammatory in the treatment of arthritis, nervous system disorders, skin conditions and obesity. In ancient Egypt, it was used in the mummification of pharaohs. The Ebers Papyrus, dating from the 16th century BC, listed it among its 877 prescriptions and recipes. The only female Pharaoh, Queen Hatshepsut (1490-1468 BC) popularized its use in perfumes and cosmetics.

Three Wise Men carry frankincense, gold and myrrh

Another name for frankincense found in old medical records is Olibanum. This is thought to derive from the Latin words “oleum libanum,” meaning “oil from Lebanon.” The name “frankincense” is based on the Medieval French words for “real incense.” The botanical name is Boswellia, which has five main varieties, all of which have similar therapeutic values. It was named in honor of the Scottish botanist John Boswell (1710 – 1780). Because it is actually a resin, many books on herbal medicine do not include it.

Health properties

To date, a total of nine compounds have been isolated from it, which are all thought to contribute to its antiviral, anti-inflammatory properties. The research on it is persuasive, so that even conventional MDs may recommend it for conditions such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Studies have shown that its anti-inflammatory properties are likely due to boswellic acids, which can cross the blood/brain barrier. So it may be useful in the prevention of Alzheimer’s, which is an inflammatory condition of the brain.

It is widely used for its impact on the respiratory system, as it is one of the best antiseptics for the lungs. It is especially effective with chronic bronchitis and with asthma because of its calming influence. It is also an expectorant and can calm a cough. It can be used effectively in inhalations, in a bath, or as a massage oil.

Using broad massage strokes that open the chest area can help to calm and deepen breathing. Because of its effect on breathing, frankincense is also helpful in situations where there is anxiety. It is also an antidepressant and a muscle relaxant.

Frankincense is useful for UTIs (urinogenital tract infections) as well for heavy periods. It is safe to use during pregnancy. There has been promising research evaluating it for anti-tumor, anti-cancer activity. There have also been positive studies about its effectiveness with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. It can be taken as a dry extract standardized for boswellic acids in tablet or capsule form.

Although Boswellia does not have a GRAS certification (Generally Regarded as Safe) from the FDS, it is available in the US under the DHEA regulation of 1994 (Dietary Health and Education Act).

Frankincense has been called the King of Essential Oils.

7 Ways to Use Frankincense Essential Oil

Frankincense is safe to apply directly to trigger points and reflex points without a carrier oil

  • Use in a diffuser to uplift the spirit, enhance focus and concentration
  • A few drops in bath water is calming and restorative
  • Apply to reflex points on the feet that correspond to problem areas
  • Added to serums and creams, it is beneficial for aging skin
  • Apply to the joints to ease arthritic pain
  • Massage it into aching muscles
  • It can help with insect bites, allergic reactions and sciatic pain

Victoria O’Rielly, ACN (Applied Clinical Nutritionist) is the Office Manager at Integrative Dentistry in Encinitas.

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