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The Demand for Frankincense Built Global Trade

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

frankincense benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Frankincense was once as common in households as toothpaste and deodorant are now; it has been traded for nearly 5,000 years and is responsible for the development of trade routes from Asia to Arabia that first used camels to transport goods
  • Frankincense is harvested from the sap of the Boswellia tree twice a year for five years before the tree is then allowed to rest. There are 30 species of Boswellia; frankincense is harvested from the B. sacra tree but other, similar resins are harvested from two others
  • Frankincense supports neurological function, reduces the effects of Alzheimer's disease, reduces brain atrophy in multiple sclerosis and has a positive effect on peripheral nerve regeneration. It also reduces inflammation, fights photoaging, boosts immune function and improves oral health
  • The essential oil may be added to a carrier oil or used undiluted after testing your skin for an allergic reaction. A few drops may be added to your bathwater after being mixed with full fat milk to keep it from floating on the surface of the water, or it may be added to an essential oil diffuser

Frankincense, which is also known as olibanum,1 was once as common in households as toothpaste and deodorant are today.2 High quality oil or resin is a product of the Boswellia sacra tree, commonly found along the Arabian Peninsula that is home to several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.3

There are 30 species of the Boswellia plant4 and frankincense is harvested from the B. sacra tree. The gum resin of the plant contains a volatile oil used in perfumes and incense.5

The incense continues to be used in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and the resin is used in skin care products and in aromatherapy. Farms in East Africa and countries in the Arabian Peninsula have flourished where frankincense is routinely harvested and shipped around the world.

Frankincense has a long and storied history. The Bible records three Magi who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts to the Christ child.6 Pliny the Elder wrote it may be an antidote to hemlock poisoning. Avicenna, an Iranian physician, used it to treat a wide variety of ailments. It has traditionally been used in the Middle East to treat ulcers, high blood pressure, fever, indigestion and chest colds.7

Frankincense Supports Neurological Function

The widespread use of frankincense was in part related to the health benefits users experienced. Research published since 2000 shows it offers much more than a fragrant scent. In one study8 it was demonstrated that the resin from the Boswellia incites anti-inflammatory activity, inhibition of neurodegeneration and a beneficial effect on practical outcomes after a closed head injury in an animal study.

Authors of a second study9 confirmed these results and suggested incensole acetate, an element of the resin, may be a therapeutic treatment for ischemic neurological injury. Researchers have found frankincense is helpful for those who have central neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's.

They concluded that consistent use of frankincense may improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s-type dementia.10 In another study, in which scientists evaluated the central effects of frankincense, it was suggested:11

“The effect of frankincense is remarkable in increasing the number of dendritic segments and branching in the neuron cells of hippocampus, causing more synaptic connections in that area and, therefore, improvement of learning and memory.

Extensive studies on frankincense and its effect on neurophysiology could be a right approach in finding a possible new complementary or alternative natural medicine to control, cure, or prevent some kinds of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.”

The administration of frankincense extract was also found to reduce brain atrophy and have a beneficial effect on those suffering from relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.12 The effect of frankincense extract on peripheral nerve regeneration also yielded positive results in an animal model.13

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More Health Benefits of Frankincense Oil

Author Connie Strasheim writes about the benefits she personally experienced from using frankincense essential oil,14 including “killing Lyme-related infections, especially mold; reducing Lyme disease symptoms like inflammation in my brain, and for helping to put me in a better mood when I have battled depression due to inflammation.”

Arthritic pain is another common condition suffered by those with Lyme disease. Research shows the extract of a rare Boswellia species — frereana — stops the production of molecules that break down cartilage.15 Authors of an article reviewing three studies16 by the Arthritis Foundation found frankincense was safe and effective for those with osteoarthritis, but the results for rheumatoid arthritis have been mixed.

Many have provided anecdotal and case study results supporting the health benefits associated with frankincense essential oil. In addition to the studies on arthritis, I’ve written about other benefits in my past article, “Top 11 Reasons to Start Using Frankincense Oil;” the substance notably:

Speeds wound healing17

Fights the appearance of photoaging, fine lines and skin roughness18

Reduces inflammation associated with bronchial asthma19,20

Reduces stress21 through the effects of a major element, alpha-pinene22,23

Boosts immune function24

Improves oral health by reducing plaque25 and oral microbes26

Reduces the buildup of phlegm and congestion in allergic rhinitis27

Improves digestion and treats digestive disorders such as chronic colitis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease28

Fights cancer29,30,31

According to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, there have been two reports of side effects from the use of frankincense extract. The first was allergic contact dermatitis and the second was the development of a gastric bezoar in a 17-year-old girl with celiac disease who ingested a large amount.32

Frankincense oil is not recommended if you're pregnant or nursing33 because not enough is known about it. There's limited information on youth and children,34 too, so it is not advisable to consider frankincense oil in this age group either.

How to Grow a Boswellia Sacra Tree at Home

The Boswellia sacra tree may grow up to 25 feet tall, and it tolerates temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. You may choose to grow one from seedlings, which have a low germination percentage, or from cuttings.35 Cuttings should be taken from the sprouts at the base of the plant with the roots or they may be taken using a diagonal cut 8 inches from the tip of any healthy stem.

Use a pot with good drainage and fill it with one part sand and one part seed-starting mixture. Soak the seeds for 24 hours, then sow them while they’re damp. Sprinkle a light amount of soil and cover the top of the pot with plastic to keep it moist. Once the seeds have germinated, place the pot near a window or grow light and keep the soil slightly moist.

As the leaves form, transplant each into their own pot filled with one part marble chips and one part bonsai soil. Water once a week in the winter months and twice a week in the spring and summer. Place the pots indoors in an area with filtered light.

The trees grow best in 80 degrees F and appreciate fertilization once a week during the growing season (but none during the winter months). Keep the pots away from hot areas outside, such as the cement or blacktop, as this could cook the roots.

How to Use Frankincense

Frankincense essential oil may be used in a number of different ways at home. For example, you can:

  • Add a drop or two to a teaspoonful of your favorite carrier oil, such as moringa oil or coconut oil, for application on your skin. Keep in mind that while frankincense can be used undiluted, other types of oils must be diluted with a carrier oil before applying to your skin.
  • Apply a drop or two of frankincense on your pulse points or to a hot compress.
  • Add a few drops of the essential oil to your bath to create an aromatic soak. Your body may also absorb some of the oil. To prevent the oil from separating and floating on the surface of the water, first mix it with a small amount of full fat milk.
  • Use the oil in a diffuser or vaporizer made specifically for essential oils (do not add to standard humidifiers).

+ Sources and References