There is increasing medical literature on frankincense, from its anti-inflammatory properties to a possible role (along with myrrh) in treating cancer.
What is frankincense?
Frankincense’s oil form comes from the gum resins obtained from Boswellia and contains boswellic acid. Since the time of ancient Egypt, this substance has been used for its health properties. Most notably, it has been, for a millennium, a traditional herbal remedy for pain and inflammation; in modern times, it is used to benefit inflammatory conditions such as those found in rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease. As a fragrance in perfumes and religious ceremonies, it has been suggested that it has effects on the neurotransmitter chemistry of the brain. It has also been said to have both antibiotic and anti-fungal properties.
Frankincense and the brain
It has been discovered that frankincense leads to the filling of some opioid receptors, which can help alleviate pain. It also acts on inflammatory precursors and even white blood cells. As such, it has been considered for possible therapeutic benefit not only for its anti-inflammatory properties but also for its ability to affect the imbalance of neurotransmitters thought to be active in depression. As such, when religious burners of frankincense say its beneficial, they could in fact be referring to frankincense’s anti-depressant and anti-anxiety benefits.
What are some benefits that have been attributed to frankincense?
Essential oils, gum, and terpenoids can be found in Boswellia. The terpenoids are the oldest group of small molecular products synthesized by plants and are what is felt to confer frankincense its aforementioned benefits. The terpenoids do the following:
- Inhibit precursors of inflammatory substances in the body by interfering with the cascade of reactions that result in the inflammatory proteins;
- Reduces the migration of inflammatory immune cells to inflamed tissues;
- Disrupts antibody production.
Because terpenoids do not act like the non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), they do not cause the stomach problems and bleeding seen with NSAIDs. They have been found, therefore, to produce the following effects:
- A calming, anti-anxiety effect that can help with depression;
- Anti-inflammation. This happens because terpenoids prevents precursors to inflammatory substances in the body and affect white blood cells;
- Anti-cancer effects; however, this effect selectively affects some cancer cells, such as those in the bladder.
How can frankincense be used?
There are three ways frankincense can be administered.
- Aromatically (inhaled). This is not recommended medicinally, because there is no way to determine how much of the substance is being introduced into the body.
- Topically. This involves the use of pain-relieving creams.
How is frankincense taken internally?
Based on studies sponsored by India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, frankincense taken internally has been shown to be as effective as NSAIDs. It was shown to effectively reduce pain, swollen joints, and morning stiffness and improve grip strength and physical performance.
The dose recommended varies, but typically it can be 150–250mg of either 37.5–65% boswellic acids. For arthritis, the dosage is either 400mg of 37.5% boswellic acids or 200mg of 65% boswellic acids taken three times a day in either case.
How safe it is?
As directed, there are no adverse or outcomes to report. Rare side effects can include diarrhea, skin rash, and nausea.
Where does established medicine stand on the benefits of frankincense?
There is a great divide between established medicine and alternative medicine. Alternative, natural, and Eastern therapies have been slow to catch on in the West due to the association established medicine has with the FDA and scientific medical literature. Regardless, a substance whose effects have not been disproven in over 4,000 years is worth a look. However, there has been little research done into the benefits of frankincense. When research was done, there were findings with implications for autoimmune diseases, inflammation, chronic pain, and even cancer.
What about depression?
If there are endorphin-like effects, it’s likely that frankincense may help with depression. Also, the depression-pain link can be treated with novel approaches, including the terpenoids found in frankincense. Additionally, in assessing the risk versus the benefit, anything that may mitigate depression is well worth the very small risk of diarrhea, especially since the most frequent cause of suicide is depression.
Because of the great divide between established Western medicine and the medicine from herbal sources and the East, it’s going to be difficult to find scientifically accepted data on remedies from the alternative medicine world. Frankincense is one such remedy. Because of the traditional success attributed to frankincense, it is about time a thorough investigation is initiated on a wide scale into frankincense’s effects.