Frankincense was a staple in the medicine of ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and China, and even then it was a bit of a wonder. Also known as luban and olibanum, frankincense resin comes from five varieties of the boswellia plant: sacra, carterii,frereana, serrata, and papyrifera. Each has distinct properties, but all have been a source of medicine and trade for over 6,000 years. As people look for more holistic health remedies, science is finally catching up to what ancient apothecaries and herbalists already know.
A couple of studies show that the boswellic acid in frankincense boosts immunity defense. In one, lowered doses increased lymphocyte production. Another shows that in conjunction with its synergistic partner, myrrh, frankincense’s antimicrobial properties are effective against Cryptococcus neoformans, a microscopic fungus that can create infection in immunocompromised individuals. It also worked against Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a drug-resistant pathogen that causes blood infections that can wreak havoc in multiple environments, including hospitals.
Incensole acetate is a resin in certain boswellia plants, and research shows that it can help with depression. In a study of dominant-submissive relationships in mice, the submissive subjects were given the resin. Results showed that they became less sensitive to corticotropic releasing factor, a stress hormone, after three weeks of administration. As a result, the mice were less submissive and exhibited more positive behavioral effects. The antidepressive response led clinicians to consider frankincense as a possible treatment for depression and similar disorders.
Global statistics estimate that well over three billion people will become infected with the herpes simplex virus, and in the U.S. approximately half to three-quarters of the population have oral herpes. A study showed that triterpenoids, isolated from both B. carterii and B. serrata resins, displayed significant antiviral activity, demonstrating a 100 percent reduction in the number of plaques caused by herpes. This means that frankincense could be a viable treatment for the virus.
Irritable bowel syndrome is an umbrella disorder of the large intestines that causes gas, cramping, constipation, and other uncomfortable and painful symptoms. Research into boswellic acid from B. serrata shows that individuals with mild IBS need less medication and fewer medical evaluations after six months. Subjects experienced a significant reduction in the oxidative stress responsible for inflammation in the intestines. This is important because digestive tract inflammation affects the functionality of the entire body, including the ability to absorb nutrients.
Due to aging and increasing rates of obesity, experts expect cases of osteoarthritis to rise. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, and it is debilitating for millions worldwide. A clinical trial for a supplement made from the gum of B. serrata shows that individuals living with knee pain for at least three months experience between 24 and 49 percent improvement in pain, function, and stiffness.
In traditional medicine, frankincense has been used to treat the respiratory system and asthma. Research found that a preparation of B. serrata taken three times a day over six weeks inhibited leukotrienes, which cause smooth muscle contraction and sustain inflammation during allergic and asthmatic responses. Seventy percent of subjects with bronchial asthma found their symptoms, like difficulty breathing and attack frequency, decreased significantly or disappeared.
Inflammation takes many forms, including heart disease. Atherosclerosis is the build-up of plaque in blood vessels, resulting in blocked and hardened arteries. AKBA, a powerful boswellic acid, inhibits a pro-inflammatory factor responsible for creating atherosclerotic lesions. This puts Boswellia in the running as a viable alternative treatment for heart disease.
Short-term and long-term memory problems can increase as people age. According to a pair of studies, frankincense can increase learning and memory power. One of the studies showed that when pregnant rats ingested B. serrata, their offspring had higher dendritic branching density, which increases synapses key to creating and recalling memories. The more synapses you have, the better the neuronal connections. In the second study, rats with hypothyroidism experienced learning and memory improvements with the help of olibanum oil.
The prevalence of diabetes has nearly doubled worldwide since the 80s. Research suggests Boswellia extracts could be beneficial to people with diabetes. Extracts of the Boswellia roots and leaves lower blood sugar and HbA1c levels after a couple of weeks of continuous use. In subjects with type 1 diabetes, the anti-inflammatory properties of B. serrata resin protected kidneys and liver.
By 2040, new cancer cases will reach almost 30 million; many hope these climbing numbers prompt a deeper look at treatment alternatives. The triterpenic acids in frankincense have a significant inhibitory effect on leukemia cells and could induce cancer cell death. In prostate cancer cells, triterpenoid in B. serrata inhibited vessel endothelial growth of cancer cells, while tirucallic acid in B. carterii is a prostate cancer cytotoxin.