Since ancient times, frankincense, also known as olibanum and Ru Xiang in mandarin, has come across as an aromatic resin that is holy and pretty inspiring. That is the reason why frankincense resin is frequently burned in many ritual occasions. Besides of religious reason, people living in the Mediterranean region views it as one of the best incense sticks as well as the best beauty products; Egyptians had used frankincense for mummification; Chinese use it medicinally to treat skin ulcer, regulate Qi, and promote blood circulation. According to legend, gold, frankincense and myrrh were given as a gift when Jesus Christ was born. As can be seen from the above record in Bible frankincense is a very expensive item since it was mentioned in the same breath with gold and frankincense. So here comes the question as follows.
What is frankincense?
Many trees would secrete liquid grease from the scars to protect themselves once they were cut by knives, damaged by insects, or subjected to fungal infection. This concretionary exudation is usually called resin. Hence, the aromatic resin produced from trees of the genus Boswellia in family Burseraceae is given the name frankincense, which comes from Old French “franc encens”, literally “high-quality incense”, since it is a common raw material in producing perfume and incense. It can be obtained in several Boswellia trees, especially the species of Boswellia carteri, Boswellia sacra, Boswellia bhaw-dajiana (Burseraceae), Boswellia frereana, and Boswellia thurifera. Other names of it include Frankincense Carterii, Boswellia Resin, Resina Boswelliae Carterii, Resina Olibani, and more. They mainly grow, wild or cultivated, in Somalia, Ethiopia and other places in Africa. The frankincense olibanum resin is usually harvested in spring and summer. The steps are to upwards slash the bark of the trunk, let the resin ooze gently out of the cut, wait it to harden, and finally collect the hardened resins a few days later. Medicinally it is used broken and raw, but often fried when orally taken.
Boswellia carterii is a dwarf shrub, usually 4 to 5 meters or rarely up to 6 meters in height. Stout trunk is pale brown, papery, and with smooth bark. Bough bark is scaly and gradually peeled off. Odd pinnate leaf is alternate, 15 to 25cm long; leaflets are 15 to 21 in number, bigger in sizes from down to up, long oval shaped, 3.5cm long, or even 7.5cm long and 1.5cm wide atop, and with obtuse apex, rounded, nearly heart-shaped or truncate base; margin is entire or with crenature. Small flowers sparsely arranged in racemes; cup-shaped calyx is 5-parted and with triangular-ovate lobes; petals are 5, pale yellow, oval, 2 times of the length of sepals, and with acute apex; stamens are 10, grown outside of flower disc, and with short filaments; ovary is superior and with 3 to 4 rooms and capitate stigma that is slightly 3-lobed. Drupe is obovate, about 1cm long, and with 3 edges, blunt end, fleshy pericarp, and 1 seed in each room. Bloom time is in April.
Currently the population of various Boswellia trees is declining sharply due to a number of reasons, such as over-collection, grazing, land reclamation, spontaneous fire, insect attack, political instability in northeastern Africa and the Arab world, and so on. Because of the harsh environment the survivals have hard time bearing seeds. What’s worse, the seeds are less likely to successfully burgeon forth even though they have been borne. As a result, frankincense tree is endangered today. What a pity that it is to witness its extinction comes at some point and we can do nothing to stop it.
It contains 60% to 70% resin, 27% to 35% gum, and 3% to 8 % volatile oil. Main chemical constituents of resin are a, β-boswellic acids, O-acetyl-β-boswellic acids, O-acetyl-a-boswellic acid, dihydroroburic acid, epilupeol acetate, tirucallol, etc. Rankincense gum contains Arabic acid, calcium salt, magnesium salts, bassorin, bitter substances, etc. Pale yellow aromatic volatile oil contains pinene, rac-limonene, a, β-phellandrene, a-campholenaldehyde, cuminaldehyde (cumaldehyde), carvotanacetone, phellandral, o-methylacetophenone, carvone, perillaldehyde, eucarvone, piperitone, nopinone, cryptone, verbenone, γ-campholenaldehyde, thujone, myrtenic acid, myrtenal, pinocamphone, a-amyrenone, 11-keto-a-amyrenone, 5-hydroxy-p-menth-6-en -2-one, 10-hydroxy-4-cadi-nen-3-one, etc.
Frankincense resin benefits
As mentioned previously, this resin comes with a pleasant and soothing aroma. Just like its famous rival of nag champa incense, burning frankincense resin can emit smoke with a distinct scent too. So it is frequently used to make herbal incense for medical purpose since the smoke is quite versatile – drive away mosquitoes, treat respiratory diseases and joint pain, and reduce a depressed or irritable mood. And today some related studies show that it also helps several cancers, such as breast cancer, bladder cancer, brain tumor, skin cancer, etc.
But in different regions, the frankincense uses are different. In ancient time, the Egyptians and the Hebrews burned frankincense resin in the ritual in order to worship God in the temple. In fact, this traditional, ancient custom is still practiced today in some churches. In addition, viewed as the life energy focus of Boswellia tree, it could be used to fumigate and disinfect the patients in order to expel the “sickness demons” out of the body.
As everyone knows frankincense oil is distilled and extracted from its resin. It is colorless or pale yellow in color and deep, refreshing in odor that smells like camphor. As a matter of fact, as early as ancient Egypt, the Egyptians already knew how to extract its essence from wood and bark by distillation and exerted frankincense essential oil to make beauty products, for example skin rejuvenation lotion.
It is generally acknowledged that aroma is where frankincense’s real medical value is rooted in. And Chinese found its amazing healing properties in the treatment of scrofula and leprosy. However, it is not the end of its story.
Modern pharmacological actions of frankincense
1) It is capable of relieving pain, reduce inflammation, and increase low white blood cell count;
2) It can accelerate the excretion of inflammatory exudate and then promote the healing of wounds;
3) Contained pinene has expectorant effect;
4) It can significantly reduce aspirin, phenylbutazone, reserpine-induced gastric mucosal injury and stress-induced mucosal injury and lower the ulcer index of pylorus ligation and free acidity of gastric juice.
5) Frankincense essential oil is particularly suitable to help aging skin, fade scars, remove wrinkles, get rid of acne, cure inflamed skin, and condition dry, aging, and dull skin. In addition, as a fungicide for lung bacteria, it can help relieve cough, sore throat, and bronchitis, enhance immune function, and treat colds, influenza and other discomforts.
Sample frankincense recipes on herbal remedies
According to the record of the Chinese Materia Medica, it is bitter and pungent in flavor and slightly warm in nature. It acts on meridians of heart, liver, and spleen. Essential functions are activating vital energy and blood circulation, inducing menstruation to relieve menalgia, decrease swelling, and promoting granulation tissue. Main frankincense resin uses and indications include aching heart, abdominal pain, wind-damp causing arthralgia, amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, traumatic injury, boils and carbuncles, appendicitis, and non-healing sore. Recommended dosage is from 3 to 10 grams in decoction, pills, or powder. Besides, other related products include frankincense candles, cologne, extract, granules, and so on. And Frankincense and Myrrh have been a good team since ancient time. This simply because the former can serve as an agent that stimulates sexual desire and the latter is able to make a sexually exciting atmosphere. Therefore, they often appear in pair, for example, frankincense and myrrh incense cones, frankincense and myrrh soap, frankincense and myrrh perfume, and more.
1) Chou Dao San from She Sheng Zhong Miao Fang (Marvelous Formulas for the Health of the Multitudes). It is coupled with Hu Jiao (Black Pepper) to treat acute heartache;
2) Huo Luo Xiao Ling Dan from Yi Xue Zhong Zhong Can Xi Lu (Records of Heart-Felt Experiences in Medicine with Reference to the West). It is combined with Dang Gui (Dong Quai), Dan Shen (Salvia Miltiorrhiza), and Mo Yao (Myrrh) to cure stagnation of qi and blood, gynecological mass in abdomen, heartache, abdominal pain, soreness in arms and legs, etc.
3) Tuo Li Tang from Sheng Ji Zong Lu (Complete Record of Holy Benevolence). It is used together with Lu Dou Fen (Mung Bean Powder) to treat carbuncle on the back or in nape, all noisome and grievous sores, etc.
4) Ru Xiang Ding Tong San from Wai Ke Fa Hui (An Elucidation of External Medicine). It is matched with Myrrh, Han Shui Shi (Calcite Stone), Hua Shi (Talcum Powder), and Bing Pian (borneol) to treat unbearably painful sores.
5) Xing Xiao Wan from Wai Ke Quan Sheng Ji (Surgery Life-Saving Collection). It is equipped with Myrrh, She Xiang (musk), Xiong Jing (realgar), and yellow rice to cure cellulitis in the lower leg and others.
6) Ru Xiang Liu Huang San from Shang Han Quan Sheng Ji (Life-Saving Collection for Typhoid Fever). It is joined with Liu Huang (Sulphur powder) and Ai Ye (Mugwort) to heal non-stop hiccup in patients contracted typhoid fever.
Frankincense side effects and contraindications
Because of the irritating effect on gastrointestinal tract, frankincense resin can cause vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, etc. Besides, it still results in allergic reactions, manifested as epigastric discomfort, fatigue, fever, trouble sleeping through the night, skin flushing, itching rash, irritability, red swollen ear, and so on. Hence, clinically it shouldn’t be used during pregnancy and in cases of patients with dyspepsia or ruptured ulcer. If adverse drug reactions occur, atropine, vitamin c, and fluoride faction acid are recommended to treat gastrointestinal irritation. In addition, allergy medication and hormone drugs can be used too if necessary. As for frankincense drug interactions, there is no information available as of this writing.