It’s Not Just For Wise Men Anymore: the Modern Health Benefits of Frankincense
If you’re at all familiar with the Nativity story, then you’ve undoubtedly heard of the three wise men bringing gifts of frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child’s manger. But chances are, you’re not entirely sure what frankincense and myrrh even are. And you probably didn’t know that both are still around today, celebrated not only for their magnificent fragrances but also for their medicinal properties. In fact, the therapeutic benefits of frankincense, recognized in homeopathic practices for centuries, are now coming to the attention of modern physicians and scientific researchers. Read on to learn more about how this ancient herb is taking center stage in 21st-century medicine.
Botanical Name: boswellia sacra
Other Common Names: arbre a encens, bible frankincense, ru xiang
Habitat: Abundant in Oman in arid woodlands and in Somalia.
Turning Down the Heat
One of the most promising uses of frankincense is in the treatment of myriad inflammatory diseases, from rheumatoid arthritis to Crohn’s Disease. While the exact mechanisms aren’t yet known, researchers suspect that the herb reduces the cells’ production of various types of inflammation-producing enzymes called cytokines. The result is less swelling, tissue damage, and pain across several types of bodily systems. Frankincense has also had an anti-inflammatory effect on arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
Like New Again
Whether in the wrist, elbow, knee, shoulder, or some other exotic location, if you’ve ever experienced tendonitis, you know the pain can be spectacular. Worse, this pain most often comes from overuse of joints, muscles, and tendons. That means tendonitis most often strikes busy, active people—precisely the people who don’t want to be sidelined by injury or pain. Enter frankincense; it is strongly associated with the treatment of tendonitis, not only helping to relieve the pain but also to support the healing of inflamed, overworked tissues.
Pain Relief Without the Risk
The fact that frankincense is a go-to herb used to treat the pain and inflammation not only of tendonitis but of significant, chronic auto-immune disorders, such as RA and Crohn’s speaks to its powerful benefits. And when it comes to controlling pain, that means a lot, particularly in the wake of the opioid epidemic, which claimed more than 130 lives in the United States each day in both 2016 and 2017.
When you turn to frankincense to relieve your pain, you are turning to a natural substance with proven analgesic and mildly sedating effects. If you turn to synthetics, what you’re getting is not a product of nature, but a product of a pharmaceutical lab. Our bodies have simply not evolved to accommodate these new, synthetic compounds in the same way they have natural herbs like frankincense. When our brains get a hit of those synthetic opioids, they produce an unusual neurological reaction, the kind of response our brains just weren’t meant to have.
After that initial hit, the brain craves more. It compels users to take more and more of the drug, trying to replicate that first neurological response. But the more opioids you take, the less reactive the brain becomes, and yet you are still driven by that physiological craving for that massive, explosive response you felt the first time. And so you begin to take more pills at higher doses, to try to get a reaction something like the one you got the first time. Worse still, the brain can even lose its ability to produce dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical, on its own. Soon, you’re chasing the drug just to feel somewhat “normal.” Thus, an addiction is born.
And if you are one of the millions of Americans with a predisposition to addiction, you may not need repeated exposure to send you into this spiral. One encounter with a synthetic opioid may be all your brain needs to get hooked. Soon, you’re popping pills like candy, not to relieve your pain, but simply to feel human.
With frankincense, this cascade can’t happen. No, you won’t get the high, or even the buzz, of a synthetic opioid. But what you will get is relief and calm, without the risk.
A Little Bit of Chronic
Maybe one of the most attractive benefits of frankincense is that, unlike most other pain relievers, you can use it on a routine basis. The sad fact is that synthetic opioids are not the only pain-relieving medications that can hurt or even kill you. Non-opioid pain relievers, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), can cause serious, even fatal side effects, ranging from liver and kidney failure to lethal internal bleeding, especially in the brain and the gastrointestinal tract.
Unfortunately, if you are one of the more than 25 million American adults who has an injury or illness that results in chronic pain, the health risks associated with both NSAIDS and synthetic opioids can make your situation seem hopeless. You may feel consigned to either a lifetime of addiction or one of suffering.
Frankincense, however, can provide an important third option. It produces a proven, mildly sedative effect that can be essential in managing the stresses that inherently come with chronic pain. And when you are calmer, you not only have less pain, but you are also better able to deal with the pain you do have.
Many chronic pain conditions are also linked to inflammation throughout the body. Frankincense reduces inflammation at the cellular level, calming the body’s systems, soothing tissues, and basically making your organs, muscles, and nerves less hot, angry, and hurtful.
Best of all, you can use frankincense routinely, multiple times a day if needed, without risking addiction or a decrease in effectiveness. Be sure to first consult with your healthcare provider to determine how frankincense will work best for you—and whether you have any contraindications. Stick to the dosages recommended by your doctor, pharmacist, or herbalist, and be sure to inform your healthcare providers that you are taking frankincense, and any other herbal supplement, how often, and how much.
A Treatment for Cancer?
Cancer is the great scourge of human health. For centuries, humans have feared it. Countless time and treasure are spent trying to find it, trying to locate the magic bullet that will end this great plague once and for all. While frankincense is not that magic bullet, it has nevertheless been used for centuries to treat those afflicted. And, once again, science is starting to take note. Though there is little data to confirm the effectiveness of frankincense in treating cancer, the research compiled so far has yielded some exciting results.
Preliminary studies suggest, for instance, that frankincense might have not only anti-inflammatory but anti-tumor characteristics as well. For example, a 2009 study found that frankincense oil targeted and killed cancerous cells in the bladder while leaving healthy cells untouched. A similar result occurred in a 2015 survey of the use of frankincense in treating breast cancer. The breast cancer study even found that frankincense inhibited the growth of new cancer cells. Scientists also speculate that frankincense could be beneficial in the treatment of leukemia.
One of the most promising uses of frankincense to treat cancer is in the herb’s ability to target and eliminate cancer cells. Studies suggest that frankincense can trigger cell death, a process called apoptosis, in cancer cells, and prevent or slow the growth of new ones.
By contrast, the most common form of cancer treatment, chemotherapy, cannot typically differentiate between healthy and cancerous cells. Chemotherapy depends on the introduction of toxic substances to the body in the hope of killing the malignancies. In the process, however, healthy cells are also, inevitably, destroyed. Thus the reason for the sometimes horrific, even dangerous, side effects associated with chemo.
With frankincense, scientists hope, we can blast the cancerous while leaving healthy cells alone to thrive and to help heal the body as it fights for its life.
There may well be a reason why frankincense features so predominantly in one of the greatest and most widely-told stories in human history. The ancients well knew what we moderns are only just learning, that frankincense is as powerful as it is fragrant. Its effectiveness in treating a range of serious illnesses, from rheumatoid arthritis to Crohn’s disease, is being confirmed by scientific testing. As a pain reliever, frankincense may even prove to be a significant weapon in today’s fight against opioid addiction. Most exciting of all, frankincense is even showing promise in fighting a variety of cancers, from leukemia to breast and bladder cancer. No wonder frankincense is the gift of wise men (and also, it seems, of wise women too).