Sunday, November 1, 2009

Frankincense: Humanity's Ally for Millennia

(Boswellia carterii)

We may think we know her. Frankincense has accompanied our human race for thousands of years; we have burned her sacred incense for religious ceremonies, we have used her essence for wounds and injuries, her medicine has helped to heal cancers, her very presence has helped human civilization advance and expand, but do we really know her? For as much as she has been by our side for the entire span of our existence, she holds herself in quiet dignity…a stark tree that grows in the arid desert, with us and yet isolated.

Frankincense (Olibanum) is a resinous tree that grows only at the most southern part of the Arabian Peninsula and the extreme northeastern tip of Somalia. Its value as a commodity opened trade routes as far away as China and Europe more than five-thousand years ago according to many sources, and created great wealth for Southern Arabia. The Silk Road, The Incense Road and The Spice Road among other trade routes connected the region to cities and kingdoms more than two thousand miles away and served to enrich cultures, religions and traditions of healing throughout the entire continent.

The domestication of the camel was a necessary innovation for traveling such arduous paths, and it is believed that written communication was also developed and expanded as a direct result of the wide-ranging commerce. Ship-building burgeoned as a new skill, and the talent for that craft augmented trade via shipping routes and further increased prosperity for the country. It has been suggested that greed contributed to the fall of Rome; a high tariff was placed upon Frankincense - up to 25% tax was charged for this precious resin.

In southern Mesopotamia, archeologists discovered Cuneiform tablets dating back to 3200 BCE (before current era), that referred to Southern Arabia, strongly suggesting a trade market for Frankincense. An incense burner from the Bronze Age, (2,200 BCE) found in Oman had residue from burned Frankincense; current speculation dates the use of this sacred resin to 6,000 BCE or even earlier.

Of course, one of the most well known stories of Frankincense involves the blessed birth of a certain Child who was given the gift of Frankincense Myrrh and Gold by three Magi priests. Frankincense was found in the tombs of King Tutankhamen and Queen Hatshepsut not only to preserve the mummified corpses, but as an offering to accompany their souls’ journey to the Other Side.

Boswellia carterii (or B. sacra) had long been used as an embalming agent, not only to cover the unpleasant odor, but to also help preserve the body. To prepare a body for mummification, ancient morticians packed the empty cavities with the resinous tears after internal organs were removed. Frankincense was also quite valued for ritual burials, particularly when a person of high status passed on. At the funeral of his favorite concubine Poppaea, the Roman emperor Nero burned and entire year’s harvest of Frankincense, disrupting trade for several seasons.

The fragrance of Frankincense- mysterious, deep, and pleasant to our senses, is notably unpleasant to insects. The exotic aromas wafting from the garments of people in Arabia serves a very practical purpose: to repel disease-carrying mosquitoes and other insects. It is customary to suspend clothing upon specially crafted frames in order to impregnate the fibers with smoke from the burning incense.

Given the historical associations of this treasured substance, it is no surprise that in China, the name originally ascribed to Frankincense was fan hun xiang, meaning “fragrance to call back the soul.” Later the name was changed to ru xiang, or “fragrant milk,” and was historically used for a variety of ailments including leprosy, tuberculosis and gonorrhea. Frequently paired with Myrrh in medicinal formulas, this valued medicine addressed all levels of pain, trauma and injury, particularly as a topical remedy. The famous formula Qi Li San was known as “Seven-Thousandths of a Tael Powder” for the minute internal dosages that were measured out. This preparation is likely the predecessor of a popular patent formula known today as Yunan Bai Yao.

Frankincense, also referred to as mastic, is still used in modern Chinese herbal medicine for injury, trauma, rheumatic pain and arthritis. Generally applied externally, it has a pronounced Blood-invigorating quality that relaxes tendons, eases pain, reduces swelling, and promotes tissue regeneration. It enhances the flow of Qi (vital energy) throughout the meridians and its energetic warmth is especially welcomed when treating stiff, achy joints that tend to worsen in cold, damp weather.

Its ability to generate the flesh is particularly useful for sores, abscesses and carbuncles, and the pain-relieving properties extend to chest pain, colic, abdominal and epigastric discomfort-especially when the pain is sharp. Encouraging and vitalizing blood circulation makes Frankincense helpful for amenorrhea, dysmennorhea and post-partum issues of Blood-stagnation; obviously this is not an herb to be taken during pregnancy.

Its uses outside of Traditional Chinese Medicine are as an astringent to stop discharges and contract tissues; cosmetically it addresses acne for the youthful and dry, chapped skin for the more mature consumer. The high verbenone content indicates its anti-fungal quality, making it a good remedy for external complaints like athlete’s foot and ringworm as well as certain intestinal, vaginal and other internal fungal infections. Frankincense can stimulate energy, invigorate the mind, strengthen the body and promote feelings of well-being while also relaxing irritability, soothing anxiety and calming nervous tension.

The Clinical and Diagnostic Laboratory for Immunology newsletter (May ’05) reveals that Frankincense has been shown to exhibit strong immunostimulating activity, having a pronounced regulating effect on the immune system. Further study, according to The American Society for Microbiology, indicates that its “chemical structure closely resembles anti-inflammatory steroids.” In their trials, it was suggested that Frankincense prepared by an ethanol extraction actually led to cellular toxicity, while the cleaner preparation had only positive effects. This strongly indicates that it is of the utmost importance to use only the purest, steam-distilled and medicinal-grade essential oil of Frankincense available-generally purchased from a practitioner and not at a retail establishment.

Recent scientific data shows that Olibanum not only powerfully inhibits the growth of cancerous cells; it also promotes apoptosis (programmed cell death) of malignancies. Promising studies are being done that spotlight the ancient resin in the treatment of a variety of cancers including cervical, colon and even Leukemia. Some of the most publicized information to date regarding the use of Frankincense with cancer treatment has been its potent inhibition of bladder cancer.

For brain tumors, Frankincense helps to hinder growth and reduces cerebral edema. In the treatment of colitis, Olibanum has been shown to be a better choice than the popular drug sulfasalazine. It is also one of the top three CAM choices (complementary and Alternative Medicine) for the treatment of Irritable Bowel Disease in Germany along with acupuncture and probiotics.

On a spiritual level, Frankincense slows and expands breathing, calms the mind and facilitates deep meditation. Her spirit allows one to become completely present and frankly aware of one’s senses. Her fragrance encourages peace, opens the mind and stimulates the higher chakras, while resonating a calm tranquility deep within. Inhalation of her divine perfume comforts grief and can connect ones heart and soul to the love of their departed. Access to higher realms of consciousness demonstrates why the smoke from her incense carries prayers to Heaven.

Burning the sacred incense was once a ritual shared by most religions, and the demand for Olibanum was unbounded; Dhofar at one time exported 3,000 tons annually. The Babylonian Temple of Baal burned 2 ½ tons of Frankincense a year and over-exploitation began to lessen the population of trees. Boswellia needs to be at least eight years old before it begins to produce resin, and a tree needs to be rested for a while if it has been tapped for more than 6 years. When a tree is frequently tapped, germination ratios for their seeds drop dramatically from 80% viability in the seed of an untapped tree to only 16% in the seeds from tapped trees.

Today, most Frankincense going to commercial markets is harvested in Somalia. The range of Olibanum’s habitat, dependent upon specific ecology and climate, is also subject to political climate for its distribution to consumers. The religious demand for the holy incense has certainly declined since its peak some two thousand years ago, however Frankincense has recently been seeing a resurgence in popularity; perhaps our return to natural medicines is driving that demand.

The name Frankincense is simply descriptive of what it is: true or real incense. This authentic incense is wild-harvested by indigenous people using the same methods that have been used for millennia. Twice a year, January-March and again from August-October, careful incisions are made into the outer bark of the mastic tree with a blade called a mingaf. Sap oozes out of these cuts, collects into larger lumps and often falls to the base of the short tree. The sun dries the pellets of resin and these “tears” are gathered approximately two weeks later. It is necessary for the luban (tears) to be completely harvested before the start of the monsoon season in April or May.

A medicinal-grade essence of Frankincense is produced by steam-distilling a resinous block of these tears, and this thin essential oil is marvelous for the treatment all types of pain, injury and swelling. Additionally, it has been found to be a potent adjunct in any complementary cancer protocol. Perhaps most significantly, her serene spiritual presence is more than palpable when her sweet aroma is inhaled.

Frankincense has maintained a frank and deliberate presence in our collective consciousness for the past several thousand years. Her significance in our history cannot be denied nor be dismissed as folklore, myth or erroneous religious belief. We have only been married to the predictability and false security of logical reason for a few hundred years, obsessively so for less than fifty. Many people are coming to realize that a balance between reason and enchantment creates a much more fulfilling existence. By allowing a space for Frankincense in our hearts we may at last penetrate her secrets and completely open our spirits to holier realms where peace presides.

Lisl Meredith Huebner, Dipl.CH (NCCAOM), RH (AHG) is a nationally board certified Chinese Herbalist, and a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild. Lisl is also a certified Medicinal Aromatherapist, a level II Reiki practitioner, an Acupressurist, an Auriculotherapist, a photographer, a renowned diagnostician, a teacher and a published writer in private practice for over a decade. She is available by appointment.
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  1. wow, lisl i am in awe of everything you have posted about frankincense! i am especially interested in the reference you made to brain tumors and edema. i have a friend who has a benign tumor of the cerebullum, and she gets just horrible headaches that she only gets relief from when the docs drain the fluid. she isn't too bed as long as she can get weekly drainings, but she can only afford it once a month, so suffers greatly! i guess i will have to much research and see how frankincense is used for this application. i feel so very sorry for her and only felt comfortable offering her a lavender face mask as she is being given strong pain killers by her doc. so sad:( thank you so much for sharing and givng me an idea at least on a direction i might be able to head her, with the help of a trained herbalist, if i can find any closer than three hours away, which so far, i haven't been able to find!

  2. Fascinating post. I had no idea that Frankincense and mastic gum were the same thing. I was particularly interested in the ability of frankincense to promote apoptosis. Looks like there is a bit of research time ahead for me.

    Thanks for sharing,

  3. The reference to Frankie/mastic was in the Chinese Herbal Materia Medica (Bensky & Gamble)

    Re: Brain tumors: I would try using the medicinal grade steam distilled Frankie neat on her crown...20 drops @ time 3 times daily. Call me, I can order it for you...

  4. great posting...learned a lot, as usual...

  5. Nice post! I am quite interested in the references you used, particularly anything that points to historical usage and its trade to China. This and myrrh were some of the first "herbs" to come from the "West" to China and be incorporated into Chinese medicine, this this is of particular interest to me for my research.
    Thanks for any sources you may be able to provide. Again, nice blog post.

  6. Thanks Tom!
    My references were all over the place... several books and internet sites. I had my original notes somewhere, but I think I ended up recycling them, D'oh!
    For certain I could say Bensky's MM, the 2 vol Holmes, Hoffman, and the DK books by Chevalier and by Bown...I also used a couple of little herb/spice reference guides from the 70's that I found in a used bookstore. Most of the other information (esp the brain research) was found online. I'll look for the old book titles for you... they're likely o.o.p.

  7. Best of Frankincense is Oman and Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the way its use to the problems of the brain: soak in a little cup of warm water for a whole day and then drink with honey only, you will see amazing :)
    We use hundreds of years.