The story behind frankincense, and why it has been treasured for millennia.

The story behind frankincense, and why it has been treasured for millennia.

Frankincense essential oil is a star ingredient in two of our products: Frankincense & Orange Body Cream and Sesame & Frankincense Body Oil. It has a woody, spicy aroma, and its calming and meditative benefits are much valued by our customers.  Whenever I catch the scent of frankincense, I am reminded of its 5,000 year-old history as a precious and healing substance for a range of cultures. When frankincense was presented by the three wise men as a gift to the newborn Jesus, it was as highly valued as gold. Modern science is now beginning to unravel some of the reasons it has been so treasured over the millennia.

What are the benefits of frankincense?

 Frankincense was used widely in religious ceremonies where it was thought to promote contemplation and enhance spiritual experiences. The ancient Egyptians used it in the mummification process, and the belief that it could fumigate the air meant it was sought after during disease outbreaks, for example during outbreaks of the plague.  In medicine it was used to treat a variety of diseases, including skin wounds and skin inflammation, gum disease, asthma, urinary tract infections, arthritis and gastrointestinal diseases.

Modern science is now gaining an understanding of how frankincense exerts these effects. Here is what we discovered:

Frankincense has potent anti-microbial properties

 In a recent study, both the essential oil and the burned incense were shown to significantly reduce the levels of microbes in the air. Burned incense was most effective, killing up to 90% of bacteria and fungi, with the essential oil not far behind. (1). The essential oil is also thought to have broad antiviral activity (2). It seems, therefore, that burning frankincense to disinfect an area after disease outbreaks was well grounded.

Frankincense as an anti-inflammatory

Recent studies have shown that frankincense essential oil can reduce the levels of pro-inflammatory molecules, which explains why it was a popular treatment for a range of chronic inflammatory diseases.  It was also able to slow down the growth of fibroblasts, the cells that produce scar tissue, suggesting that frankincense might be helpful at reducing scar formation during wound healing (3). 

A systematic review of clinical trials showed frankincense to be effective in the treatment of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, osteoarthritis, multiple sclerosis and collagenous colitis, all of which are diseases of chronic inflammation (4). More recently, a study showed that frankincense or frankincense- like drugs could be developed for the treatment of psoriasis, an inflammatory skin condition (6).

Frankincense as an anti-cancer agent

In tissue culture studies, frankincense essential oil was able to induce the death of some cancer cell types, including melanoma, breast, pancreas and liver cancer. However these studies, although promising, have not yet shown frankincense to be effective in cancer patients (3).

Effect of frankincense on the mind

Since ancient times, frankincense was used in ceremonies to promote meditation and enhance religious experiences. A recent study showed that frankincense has both anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effects. It acts through a brain receptor that is known to be involved in the perception of warmth. The overall effect of frankincense was considered to be a mild, positive, emotional effect accompanied by the feeling of warmth - a fine combination to enhance a religious experience! The receptor activated by frankincense is not a target of any known drugs, which means new therapies for depression and anxiety could be developed based on frankincense (5).

Benefits of frankincense for the skin

Frankincense has often been touted to have an anti-ageing effect on the skin, although conclusive studies are difficult to find. However, it is clear that frankincense has potent anti-inflammatory properties, and inflammation in the skin is now considered to be one of the leading drivers of ageing - not just in the skin, but in our whole bodies (read more about this here). Keeping the skin calm and well nourished while protecting the skin's barrier function is key to healthy, young-looking skin. Frankincense is therefore a potent addition to the anti-ageing arsenal.

Where does frankincense come from?

Frankincense is harvested from 5 species of tree of the genus Boswellia that grow across northern Africa and India, mostly in harsh, dry, desert conditions. It is harvested by cutting the outer bark of the trees to release the resin, which is later harvested and extracted for essential oil, or burned as incense. Each tree starts producing resin at about 10 years of age, and is harvested around twice each year.

In recent years there has been concern about over-harvesting, with increased stress on the trees reducing fertility and replacement rates. This, combined with pressure on their ecosystem by both climate change and encroachment by cattle, means that numbers and viability of trees may decline in coming years (7).

At Mokosh, we use only certified organic frankincense essential oil. This is our guarantee that the oil has been sustainably harvested, and not contaminated with oil that has come from stressed, over-harvested trees. We recommend that if you purchase frankincense resin or essential oil, ensure it is sustainably harvested, and preferably certified organic. Although it will be more expensive, it will help protect this precious resource for generations to come.

Our frankincense is extracted from Boswellia carterii, the most expensive and therapeutic frankincense oil and, incidentally, probably the one the three wise men gifted around 2000 years ago.

References

 1. Grbic, M.L. et al (2018) "Frankincense and myrrh essential oils and burn incense fume against micro-inhabitants of sacral ambients. Wisdom of the ancients?" J. Ethnopharmacol. 219: 1-14

2. Gomaa, A.A. et al (2021) "Boswellic acids Boswellia serrata extract as a potential COVID-19 therapeutic agent in the elderly." Inflammopharmacology 29:1033-1048

3. Han, X. et al (2017) "Biological activities of frankincense essential oil in human dermal fibroblasts." Biochim. Open 4:31-35

4. Ernst, E. (2008) "Frankincense: a systematic review." BMJ 337:a2813

5. Mousaieff, A. et al (2008) "Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain." FASEB Journal 22:3024-3034

6. Halim, S.A. (2020) "Diterpenoids and triterpenoids from frankincense are excellent anti-psoriatic agents: an in silico approach." Front. Chem. 10.3389/fchem.2020.00486

7. Dancey-Downs, K. (2018) "A sustainable future for frankincense and forests?" The Ecologist

 


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