This is an updated and revised version of my “Medicinal Frankincense FAQ” from 2 years ago. You can find the original here. Since I have spent the past few years studying and working with Frankincense resin, essential oils, extracts, trees and harvesters, my knowledge on the subject is a little 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 tend to be complacent, seeking and accepting authority and “expert” opinions online 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. Take the time and do it right. Read the fine print. Don’t blindly trust anything you read online. Not even what I write here.
Frankincense and Cancer-What you need to know
Just in case you don’t have the patience to read all the way through, let me tell you now that the anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory Boswellic acids are not present in the essential oil of Frankincense.
In fact, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the resin of Frankincense is “cooked” to remove the essential oil before it is added to a formula or taken internally.
It looks like the popular belief that Frankincense essential oil cures Cancer is a myth started by one of the large essential oil companies. Whether intentionally or unwittingly, this bit of misinformation is perpetuated by companies and individuals who sell Frankincense essential oil. If you don’t take the time to drill a little deeper into their claims, links and references you can easily purchase the wrong product for your needs which will only benefit the vendors.
There are 2 types of misleading studies that are referenced by those who sell Frankincense essential oil.
- One set describes how “Frankincense oil” kills cancer cells and many people assume they mean Frankincense essential oil, which is not the case. The Frankincense oil in the studies they refer to in many online shops is either a solvent extraction of whole Frankincense oleoresin that includes the Boswellic acids, or an essential oil to which the resin and Boswellic acids have been added. The essential oil of Frankincense contains no anti-cancer Boswellic acids. The only way to benefit from the Boswellic acids is to utilize the resin of Frankincense, not the essential oil.
- The other set of contradictory studies that claim Frankincense essential oil kills cancer are authored by a core group of people at the head of a large essential oil company. These “studies” directly contradict the hundreds of other research papers that indicate only the resin of Frankincense contains cancer killing Boswellic acids. Not the essential oils. I urge you to look more closely at these studies and their authors.
Medicine for the masses and a lucrative market for Frankincense products
With a growing, ageing western population, a worldwide increase in chronic inflammatory diseases and cancer, the need for “natural” anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer remedies has skyrocketed the past few decades.
Big Pharma, corporations and companies that market herbs, supplements and essential oils, online advisors and private health authorities are all on board making the most of this trend. It is important to keep in mind that their primary function is to sell us products, not educate us.
Frankincense essential oil is no more anti-cancer than many other essential oils. Frankincense resin however, contains Boswellic acids which show broad anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory activity in the laboratory and have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years.
To benefit from these healing compounds one must use the resin of Frankincense. Not the essential oils. There are no Boswellic acids in the essential oil of Frankincense. In fact, powdered whole Frankincense resin has many times more Boswellic acids by weight than any essential oil of Frankincense.
What is Frankincense?
A short answer is- Frankincense and Myrrh are the oleo gum resins exuded by the Boswellia and Commiphora trees respectively, 2 members of the Burseraceae plant family which is sometimes dubbed “The incense tree family”. They all have a network of resin-bearing ducts that produce and distribute fragrant oleo gum resin. When these trees are damaged the oleo gum resin rises to the surface of the tree where it dries and is collected.
Frankincense and Myrrh have been used for medicine, perfume and incense for thousands of years. Where they grow is what I like to call the Boswellia Belt which reaches from the West coast of Africa, through the horn of Africa and southern Arabia up through India to Pakistan. There are 17-18 types of Frankincense trees at last count but only 8 or 9 of them provide us with a marketable resin.
What are the traditional uses of Frankincense?
- Off the top of my head, a short list of traditional therapeutic applications associated with Frankincense would include- treating arthritis, rheumatism, ulcers, asthma, bronchitis, gastrointestinal disorders, tumours, cancers, infertility, moods, anxiety/depression and memory loss, improving brain function, addressing ageing skin and flagging libido.
- 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. It can be made into an oil, lotion or creme for external applications.
- In Arabia Frankincense has been chewed for millennia for oral care, ulcers and general physical/mental well-being. It has been used as an aphrodisiac and to treat infertility in both men and women. It is taken sometimes as a tea steeped in boiling water overnight and sipped during the day for inflammations, coughs, congestion, and colds.
- In traditional Iranian medicine, Frankincense is still 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 tumours, head injuries and stroke. It kills the H.pylorii bacteria which causes stomach ulcers. It is valued as a traditional 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 as is done in many churches), 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.
- Whole Frankincense, not the essential oil of Frankincense, has been used in the Traditional Medicine systems of Asia, Europe, Arabia and Africa for thousands of years.
What are Boswellic acids?
One group of compounds in Frankincense has shown powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer activity in laboratory studies. They are the Frankincense resin acids which are pentacyclic triterpenes and formally named Boswellic acids since they are found in the Boswellia, or Frankincense family. Though there are other therapeutic compounds and acid resins in Frankincense, the Boswellic acids have caught the eye of big Pharmaceutical companies who are investing in the research.
- 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, (Fat soluble), and mostly dissolve in vegetable oils, alcohol and petroleum distillates.
- Resin acids make up most of the resin portion of these oleo gum resins and Boswellic acids are the main type of resin acids found in Frankincense. These resin acids make up the non-volatile portion of Frankincense, which means they cannot be distilled or found in the essential oil of Frankincense.
- Boswellic acids have been found to inhibit leukotriene synthesis and act as anti-inflammatories. They modulate/regulate the behaviour of Leucocytes which are one of the body’s responses to trauma which create inflammation and subsequent pain.(http://bme.virginia.edu/ley/). This makes them valuable in the management of pain.
- 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, it is only one of many resin acid compounds in Frankincense that have their role to play and indeed likely play more effectively together than separately.
- To be clear, if a little repetitive, Boswellic acids are only present in the resin portion of these oleo-gum-resins, not their essential oils. Though all essential oils have therapeutic properties, the essential oil of Frankincense contains 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 resins of the following species of Frankincense contain Boswellic acids.
- Boswellia Carterii-Somalia
- Boswellia Sacra-Arabia
- Boswellia Serrata-India
- Boswellia Papyrifera-Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda.
It is more than likely that most other types of Frankincense contain Boswellic acids. Many have not yet been studied or analysed.
In my opinion, there is no one type of Frankincense listed above that is therapeutically “better” than the other. They mainly differ in their volatile oil composition which contributes to their different aromatic profiles and has nothing to do with their content of resin acids.
How can we best use Frankincense and the Boswellic acids for their therapeutic properties?
To benefit from the therapeutic actions of the Boswellic acids, we must work with the oil/alcohol soluble resin portion of Frankincense. Here is a list of products that will deliver the Boswellic acids with instructions for preparing your own.
- An oil infusion/extract of Frankincense, since the resin is lipophilic and dissolves in warm oils. a 1;3 infusion of Frankincense in warm oil is an excellent topical application and can be taken internally if it is prepared with good quality vegetable oils. This makes an excellent base for a Frankincense rejuvenating “Serum” or creme and salves for arthritis and painful joints, See how to make your own here-
- A resin extract of Frankincense. This is a Frankincense product created by washing away all the water-soluble gum and evaporating some of the essential oil. This is also the product that is left over after steam and hydrodistillation of Frankincense. This pure resin is often thrown away because everyone is so obsessed with the essential oil of Frankincense. It can be powdered and taken internally or dissolved in oil for topical use. It has a higher concentration of Boswellic acids but also delivers the rest of the therapeutic resin compounds which haven’t gotten into the spotlight yet. See instructions for preparing a resin extract here-
- Powdered whole Frankincense, can be taken internally to deliver the Boswellic acids in their natural form. Studies show that the Boswellic acids are absorbed to a much greater degree in the blood when they are consumed with fatty or oily foods. Remember, as mentioned above, the resin acids are lipophilic and dissolve in oils. The presence of oily food in the stomach facilitates the breakdown and absorption of these resins in the body. I personally take 1/2 to 1 level teaspoon of finely powdered Frankincense with food 3-5 times a day when needed. See instructions for making your own powder here-
- A Boswellic acid extract. There are a growing number of extract brands on the market. I can’t recommend one over the other.
- An alcohol tincture of Frankincense. A tincture can be taken directly, or added to food or beverages. A tincture of Frankincense made with 96% alcohol will deliver the resin and essential oils of Frankincense while a tincture that has a lower alcohol content will contain a relative proportion of water-soluble gum. Each has its benefits. Be aware that Glycerin does not act as a solvent for the resin and only an alcohol tincture will contain the important bits. Learn how to make different tinctures from Frankincense here.
- A tea, or “Aqueous solution” of Frankincense is a traditional home remedy in some parts of Arabia. Though water does not dissolve the resin portion, the grounds left over after infusing Frankincense overnight are often consumed. You can find instructions for making a Frankincense tea/infusion here-
Ethics and sustainability of our medicinal and aromatic plants
- 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, the health of our flora and fauna and the quality of life of those who tend to this big Apothecary’s garden that supplies all our natural medicine. This can happen lightning fast if enough of us care to make a difference.
The demand for Frankincense essential oil is putting an increasing stress on the trees that produce them and on the harvester communities that collect them.
The increased market demand for these medicinal and aromatic oleoresins is already exceeding the amount trees can comfortably supply in some areas. Over-harvesting, improper harvesting methods, agricultural encroachment, fires and grazing animals, have reduced the number of mature trees in the wild, the 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 sustainably collected. These are traditions and practices that need to be encouraged especially through preferring these sources to those where trees are heavily tapped.
Another critical issue that we are ignorant of is the quality of life of the harvesters. These often remote and isolated communities are the true stewards of our medicinal and aromatic resources. In many communities, these trees are an integral component of socioeconomic structures and are treated with reverence and respect. These are the traditions and communities we need to encourage and support.
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 Frankincense and Myrrh resins and essential oils is only going to grow. We need to apply a little forethought and foresight now in establishing conservation and stewardship programs before it is too late.
There are many ways you can contribute to establishing healthier trade in these resins. Foremost by educating yourself, making informed choices and informed purchases.
Ask your supplier whether their Frankincense is sustainably harvested and fairly traded. If we all demand this from our herb and resin providers they will do their best to comply.