Let me open by saying there is no special “medicinal’ type of Frankincense. Don’t be fooled by marketing catch words like “Medicinal” or “Therapeutic”. All Frankincense is medicinal, in fact, everything nature produces is medicinal. Your morning oatmeal, the banana you take to work, the dandelions and “weeds” in your yard. We don’t need corporations to re-brand, re-market and sell us what is already ours to use. What we do need is reliable unbiased information, a little independent thinking and some guidance on how to best use plants to enhance our lives.
I will also mention here that there is no type of Frankincense that is more sacred than another, regardless of the name a botanist gave it. Nature, in her seamless orchestration of planetary life and brilliant diversity, offers no single facet or expression of Herself that is more, or less sacred than another. Just saying.
Since I have spent the past few years studying and working with Frankincense resin, essential oils, trees and harvesters, my knowledge on the subject is a bit more than average. If I am considered an expert in this area it is a relative thing. I continue to learn and grow daily, as do you, as do the recognized “experts” in any field.
I mention this because as a group, we can be complacent, seeking and accepting authority and “expert” opinions without question. This is one way we give away our power and effectiveness in the world. I urge you to research and study all topics independently and reach your own conclusions.
All the information of all our cultures and ages is at our fingertips in our new global brain, the internet. Nurture your own expertise and knowledge and share it authentically with others. Test whatever you learn against your experience, logic, and your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t. You can quote me on that. Also, You will always be the leading expert on You. Get comfortable with it. Explore it.
Medicine for the masses
With a growing, aging western population, a worldwide increase in chronic inflammatory diseases and cancers, the need for anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer “cures” has skyrocketed. Big Pharma is hot on the case and investing millions in the search for patentable molecules it can own and sell back to us. In some cases, it will simply repackage and resell us what we already have in our backyard. The appearance of new medicine, mostly sourced from traditional ethnic pharmacopoeia, is driven by profit and not transparency. This has led to some inaccuracies and bits of misinformation that are conveniently geared to sell certain products. I will try to correct some of them here.
OK, on to Frankincense…..
What is Frankincense?
A short answer is- Frankincense and Myrrh are the oleo gum resins exuded by the Boswellia and Commiphora shrubs/trees respectively, 2 members of the Burseacae, a plant family that includes aromatic trees such as Palo Santo, Ylang Ylang, Proteus and others. They all have a network of resin-bearing ducts that distribute often fragrant oleo gum resin used by the plants for defence against insects and fungi and the repair of damaged tissue.
Frankincense and Myrrh have been used for incense, perfume and medicine for thousands of years in Asia, Europe, Arabia and Africa.
Off the top of my head, a short list of therapeutic applications traditionally associated with Frankincense would include- treating arthritis, rheumatism, ulcers, asthma, bronchitis, gastrointestinal disorders, tumors, cancers, infertility, moods, anxiety/depression and memory loss, improving brain function, addressing aging skin and flagging libido.
What are Boswellic acids?
- All types of Frankincense are composed of varying proportions of water-soluble gum, resin, and essential or volatile oils. These resins and volatile oils are lipophilic and dissolve in non-polar solvents such as vegetable oils, alcohol and petroleum distillates.
- Boswellic acids are resin acids and make up between 30% to 60% of the resin portion of Frankincense. They can be compared to the rosin we use on violin bows and in paints and lacquer. Though Pine rosin is made up mainly of Abietic acids and contains no Boswellic acids, neither is soluble in water.
- Recent studies have indicated that the Boswellic acids in Frankincense possess anti-inflammatory and anti-Cancer properties. Some of the cancer cells they have shown promise and effectiveness in treating are prostate, late stage ovarian, bladder, colorectal, brain tumors and many more.Take the time, do the research, you will find these studies online.
- Boswellic acids are only present in the resin portion of these oleo-gum-resins, not their essential oils. Though all essential oils can be said to have therapeutic properties, the essential oils of Frankincense contain only trace amounts of Boswellic acids. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boswellic_acid
- You can literally knock yourself out with Frankincense essential oil without getting a meaningful amount of Boswellic acids.
Which types of Frankincense contain Boswellic Acids ?
- So far, research has shown the following species of Frankincense contain Boswellic acids-
- Boswellia Carterii-Somalia
- Boswellia Sacra-Arabia
- Boswellia Serrata-India
- Boswellia Papyrifera-Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya
- It is more than likely that Boswellia Thurifera from the Red Sea area and B. Elongata from Socrata also contain these compounds though analysis of the resin has not been done to date.
What do Boswellic acids do?
- Boswellic acids have been found to inhibit leukotriene synthesis and act as anti-inflammatories. They modulate/regulate the behavior of Leucocytes which are one of the body’s responses to trauma which create inflammation and subsequent pain.(http://bme.virginia.edu/ley/).
- Boswellic acids have been shown in studies to be anti-prolific and may also cause apoptosis, (death), in a wide variety of cancer cells in the laboratory. There is, however, little “In vivo” research at this point. They need to be tested on people.
- Though one resin acid in particular, AKBA or acetyl-keto-beta boswellic acid has been the focus of anti-cancer studies, I believe our use of isolated molecules such as AKBA extracted from complex compounds is what has gotten us into a lot of trouble already.
- All the compounds in Frankincense have their role to play and indeed likely play more effectively together than separately. In my opinion, we are better off using the whole oleo gum resin therapeutically than dosing ourselves with high amounts of concentrated and isolated compounds.
What is the best way to use Frankincense and Boswellic acids for their therapeutic properties?
- Frankincense Serrata is used traditionally, whole, in powder, pill, poultice and oil, for arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, asthma, ulcerative colitis, bronchial issues various cancers and as an ingredient in skincare and beauty products.
- In Arabia Frankincense has been chewed for millennia for oral care and general physical/mental well-being. It is taken as a tea, often steeped in water overnight and sipped during the day for inflammations, coughs, congestion, and colds. The grounds should be consumed to benefit fully from the oleoresin. The recipe is 1 teaspoon course ground Frankincense, in a covered cup,steeped overnight in room temperature water.
- In Islam Frankincense is traditionally consumed by pregnant women to increase the intelligence, (and bravery), of their offspring, and is generally considered to contribute to one’s mental acuity, emotional stability and spiritual clarity. It is sometimes used as a general tonic and restorative.
- Boswellia Sacra, B. Carterii and B. Frereana from Somalia have also been used to address issues of fertility in men and considered aphrodisiacs. Arabian lore indicates that large testicle shaped Frankincense tears, (sometimes called Dakkar, from the Arabic word for masculine), are sexual tonics and aphrodisiacs for men, while pieces more vulvic in shape are believed to have similar effects on women.
- Though Boswellia Frereana from Somalia does not contain Boswellic acids, it is also a powerful anti-inflammatory used traditionally to treat inflammations of joints, the GI tract and arthritis. Laboratory studies show it can reduce brain inflammation due to tumors, head injuries and stroke. It kills the H.pylorii bacteria which causes stomach ulcers. It is valued as a high-end chewing gum for oral and gastrointestinal health and is one of the most expensive frankincense types available.
- Boswellia Papyrifera from Ethiopia/Eritrea/Kenya and Sudan, which is a source of Boswellic acids, also contains Incensole acetate which is considered a psychoactive compound that crosses the blood-brain barrier, reducing anxiety and eliciting feelings of heightened spirituality and well-being. The incensole and Incensole acetate are delivered to us when using the whole oleoresin internally, through pyrolysis, (burning as an incense), and when using the diluted essential oil externally.
- Boswellia Thurifera from the shores of the Red Sea has been shown in the laboratory, to increase the size of rat testicles and raise their sperm count. True :-)!
- Frankincense is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. I don’t have any expertise or information on that subject. However, the Chinese are currently one of the biggest importers of Frankincense in the world.
- There are extracts of Boswellic acids available on the market. I can’t recommend one over the other. Most state they are extracted using ethanol and water, suggesting one can extract them relatively easily at home by removing the water-soluble gum and essential oils.
- Personally, I believe it is best to keep things simple and the most direct and effective way to utilize this fragrant potent medicine is by ingesting the powdered whole fresh oleo gum resin. It is useful and clever to take things apart and understand how they work, however, there is more to the art of healing than funneling orphaned molecules into our bodies. There are many interconnected complexities in Nature that we simply have not the tools to measure or discern.
- I take 1/2 to 1 level teaspoon of finely powdered Frankincense with water 3-5 times a day when needed. For instructions and some tips on easily powdering and storing Frankincense see my post-“How to grind Frankincense and other Oleoresins”.
- To incorporate the Boswellic acid type Frankincenses in oils, salves and cremes, I use one of the following methods
- How to make an extract of frankincense and other oleoresins.
- How to extract the resin and its Boswellic acids from Frankincense
Ethics and sustainability
- I’m really glad you asked. We are quickly losing our aromatic and medicinal plants around the world through mismanagement. If we don’t start addressing this, future generations will have no Frankincense or Myrrh. If we made educated and responsible choices as global consumers, we could have a huge impact on the world, improving the environment and the quality of life of our brothers and sisters who tend to the garden we rely on. This can happen lightning fast if enough of us care to make a difference.
- The increased market demand for these medicinal and aromatic oleoresins is already exceeding the amounts trees can comfortably supply. Over harvesting, improper harvesting methods, agricultural encroachment, fires and grazing animals, have reduced the number of mature trees in the wild, viability of their seeds, and the ability of trees to reproduce. If I recall correctly, seed germination rate has fallen from 81% to 18% in over-tapped trees. This is alarming.
- There are areas in Kenya, Somalia and Namibia where Frankincense and Myrrh trees are not tapped and the oleoresins are collected in a most sustainable manner. These practices need to be encouraged especially through preferring these sources to heavily tapped trees.
- Another critical issue that we stay ignorant of is the quality of life of the harvesters and stewards of our medicinal and aromatic resources. We pay a premium price for their products, yet they often see a minute percent of that price and live with financial hardship, often without proper shelter, food, water, education or medical care. A plan of stewardship could pay harvesters directly, cutting out some of the middlemen, upping their income and reducing the need for excessive tapping. There is no good reason for any person in the world to have a lower quality of life than you or I. There is a flaw in our system, a fly in our Frankincense ointment.
- Frankincense and Myrrh trees are extremely easy to propagate. Large branches will spring into root with barely a word of encouragement. Planting and stewarding new trees in the wild would ensure a sustainable and lucrative future for the harvesters and guarantee the consumer an ethical, fair trade and sustainable product. How perfect is that! The market for both Frankincense and Myrrh resins and essential oils is only going to grow and we need to apply a little forethought and foresight before it is too late.
- I currently work with harvesters in Kenya and Somalia setting up ethical, fair trade and sustainable community-oriented co-ops. These are ongoing projects that will take a few years yet to get up and running smoothly.
- There are many ways you can contribute to establishing healthier trade in these resins. Foremost by educating yourself, making informed choices and informed purchases. Knowledge is power.
- You can find suppliers of fairly traded, sustainably sourced products online, or purchase them through my shop.