Frankincense Tree: The Amazing Desert Treasure with a Story to Tell
Imagine yourself, for a moment, coursing through a windy pathway that carves out an ancient woodland grove in the south of Arabia along the Red Sea. As you walk, you take in the many sights, sounds, and scents of this pristine and sacred environment. It's likely that your ears would be tickled by a gentle chorus of chirping birds; your eyes would be flooded with a sun-drenched tapestry of desert-native flora and fauna; and your nose would breathe in the distinct aroma of one of the world's most fascinating plant species – the frankincense tree.
Known as Boswellia in the scientific literature, frankincense boasts a unique, rich history throughout the Middle East. Its legacy even spans into modern times, and into every corner of the globe. Beyond its elegant, low-flowing branches and bright, perky flowers, the frankincense tree produces a powerful resinous sap. Today as it has in the past, this precious substance sets frankincense apart from most other plants. Frankincense resin is valued for its uses in everything from religious incense and perfume, to decorative jewelry, toothpaste, deodorant, and even folk medicine.
In part because of its rarity (frankincense grows naturally at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, and almost nowhere else) the sap of frankincense has been a prized treasure throughout much of the world for thousands of years. At one time valued more highly than gold, frankincense is viewed by many as one of nature’s special blessings. So precious is frankincense, in fact, that the Magi from the well-known Biblical account who trekked across the arid desert to visit the newborn Christ brought some of it with them as a priceless gift fit for a king.
Where Does Frankincense Oil Come From?
So why is frankincense so special, and where does it come from? Incisions (“wounds”) are cut into the Boswellia tree and the tear-shaped droplets of sap that escape are carefully scraped off and dried. These “tears” solidify into an alluring mass of silver, golden, and amber colors that, in and of itself, are a sight to behold.
The hardened frankincense gum is either burned or processed into essential oil or oil extract, depending on the intended use. These conversion methods release the various aromatic terpenes locked inside frankincense, which unleashes that intoxicating, fragrant bouquet that typifies this unique and incredible plant.
As part of their burial rituals, many ancient civilizations, including the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Israelites, would use these various frankincense extracts to embalm their dead as part of a holy laying-to-rest ceremony. The earthy, sweet-smelling aroma of frankincense is nothing short of pungent, after all, helping to deodorize and freshen nearly anything to which it's applied. Frankincense can even function as a type of insect-repellant, according to both historical and modern accounts, helping to ward off mosquitos and other flying insects.
The pleasant scent of frankincense can be used to both calm and invigorate. As an essential oil, frankincense is commonly used to promote relaxation and peace of mind, with many likening its effects to mental and spiritual enlightenment. Reported uses of frankincense in this vein include stress reduction, anxiety relief, and mood improvement – all benefits with timeless and universal relevance and appeal.
Frankincense: Where Cleanliness Meets Godliness
Like pleasant aromas, cleansing is another all-encompassing ritual that never goes out of style and frankincense holds a prominent spot in the personal care lineup as well.
Many soaps, shampoos, toothpastes, and deodorants with authentic base notes contain frankincense because its aroma is both soothing and long-lasting.
When applied to the body, frankincense is widely recognized as helping to moisturize and freshen the skin, while some people even chew its resin whole because they say it helps to keep their teeth and gums clean – a purification tradition with ancient roots.
In aromatherapeutics, civilizations since practically the beginning of time have used frankincense to purify the air by diffusing it with that characteristically fresh and piney scent exclusive to this particular resin.
In a peer-reviewed animal study published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, researchers from Hebrew University in Jerusalem stumbled upon perhaps another purifying facet to frankincense: its ability to "purify" the body when inhaled by lifting one’s emotions out of a toxic state.
In a separate published article "Frankincense Oil: The rainbow bridge," researcher Peter Holmes explains how frankincense has long been regarded as "the scent of purification," not only in physical sense, but also in an emotional and spiritual sense. By allegedly helping to clear the mind and soul of damaging weights and burdens, frankincense may help to facilitate a spiritual cleansing or rebirth, aiding in the rejuvenation of the senses. 1
What About Frankincense and Health?
Even more well-documented in the scientific literature are the non-metaphysical effects of frankincense. Asian, African, and Ayurvedic systems of medicine have long held frankincense in high regard for its health-promoting benefits, with plenty of empirical evidence to back its recognized uses in supporting a healthy immune system and cellular function. Here's just a taste of what's been reported in peer-reviewed scientific studies about the potential health benefits of frankincense:
- Researchers from Cardiff University in the U.K. decided to investigate the reported pain-relieving properties of frankincense. As reported in Science Daily, lead researcher Dr. Ahmed Ali stated that "The search for new drugs to alleviate the symptoms of conditions like inflammatory arthritis and osteoarthritis is a priority area for scientists. What our research has managed to achieve is to use innovative chemical extraction techniques to determine the active ingredient in frankincense. Having done this we are now able to further characterise the chemical entity and compare its success against other anti-inflammatory drugs used for treating the condition." 2
- In a paper published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers concluded that an essential oil blend containing frankincense may help inhibit the spread and proliferation of viral cells associated with influenza. The study's authors wrote that the oil "decreased direct infection of the cells," adding that frankincense oil specifically "possess[es] anti-inflammatory activity through inhibition of immune cytokines production and leukocyte infiltration." 3
- For patients with digestive troubles, the use of Boswellia has shown positive results in a number of
studies, including in a human trial involving 20 patients who “suffered from chronic colitis characterized by vague lower abdominal pain, bleeding per rectum with diarrhoea and palpable tender descending and sigmoid colon.” The patients in the study “were given a preparation of the gum resin of Boswellia serrata (900 mg daily divided in three doses for 6 weeks) and ten patients were given sulfasalazine (3 gm daily divided in three doses for 6 weeks) and served as controls.” 4
According to the paper published in the journal Planta Medica in 2001, “Out of 20 patients treated with Boswellia gum resin 18 patients showed an improvement in one or more of the parameters … In conclusion, this study shows that a gum resin preparation from Boswellia serrata could be effective in the treatment of chronic colitis with minimal side effects.” 5
- Numerous studies have likewise investigated the use of frankincense for improving a range of health outcomes in patients with the "Big C:" cancer. Just one example is a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2009 which concluded that frankincense oil “appears to distinguish cancerous from normal bladder cells and suppress cancer cell viability. Microarray and bioinformatics analysis proposed multiple pathways that can be activated by frankincense oil to induce bladder cancer cell death. Frankincense oil might represent an alternative intravesical agent for bladder cancer treatment.”6 (Note: “Intravesical” is a type of therapy where a liquid drug is injected directly into the bladder via a cathether)
While none of these benefits or outcomes are guaranteed from the use of frankincense oil, their cited presence in the scientific literature are worthy of consideration. There's a reason why frankincense has been so pronounced throughout history as a natural substance worth its weight in gold – and then some.
Whether in times past, present, or future, one thing is for sure: the frankincense tree and its fragrant resin really is one of nature’s treasure with sacred significance, and shouldn't be ignored.
Frankincense essential oil is one of 3 ingredients (along with myrrh and turmeric essential oils) of Magi-Complex blend from Epigenetic Labs. This breakthrough supplement is the first of its kind to incorporate three of the world’s best nutritional ingredients that support a healthy immune response — the Magi’s gifts to Jesus — all under one cap.
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- A Wise Man's Treatment for Arthritis: Frankincense?
- Protective Essential Oil Attenuates Influenza Virus Infection: An In Vitro Study in MDCK Cells
- Effects of Gum Resin on Boswellia Serrata in Patients with Chronic Colitis
- Frankincense Oil Derived from Boswellia Carteri Induces Tumor Cell Specific Cytotoxicity
- A Wise Man's Cure: Frankincense and Myrrh
- The Story of Frankincense
- Frankincense Oil: The 'King' of Oils
- Frankincense and Mirth