Yes, the holidays are past and the topic of frankincense will probably not be on most of our minds for another year. However, with the increasing popularity of essential oils, frankincense is now the topic of intense research. Many of those raised with Christian traditions grew up hearing the story of the three Magi and their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Although gold may be familiar to most, the value of frankincense (and myrrh) is not well-known. Promising studies indicate that frankincense may be useful in fighting the rapid growth of cancer cells and many other immune and inflammatory conditions. 

Background

Frankincense comes from the resin found in the tree Boswellia.1 While there are four main types of Boswellia, the more common species from which most commercial resin is harvested is Boswellia serrata. Frankincense is a term derived from the French language meaning ‘high-quality incense.’ These trees grow in the harsh terrains of the Middle East, North Africa, and Somalia, and they have been documented in folk literature and as valued trading goods for more than 5,000 years.2 The prized resin is harvested by slashing the bark of the tree and allowing the resin to ‘weep’ and gradually harden. The oils are distilled from these nuggets. 

Science 

One of the more exciting potential uses of frankincense is in the treatment of cancer. Early studies indicate that the mechanism of action may be two-pronged. Frankincense exerts an anti-inflammatory effect that is not cell-specific, so any localized tumor swelling and irritation is reduced. Frankincense also interferes specifically with the development of the cancer cell at several points in the cell cycle, ultimately both reducing the growth of new cells and enhancing cell death of malignant cells. 

One laboratory trial examined the effect of frankincense oil on a line of cultured human bladder cancer cells.3 These cell cultures were divided into a control group that was maintained to simply continue its current growth pattern and the other group was sub-divided into several sets that were subjected to increasing dilutions of frankincense oil. The experimental groups were monitored for increase in cell number and attachment to the tissue medium over time and compared with the control group. Cells exposed to frankincense oil showed dramatic decreases in cell number as well as detachment, or ‘shrinking’ from the tissue culture. Further analysis indicated that cell death and inhibition of new cell growth was due to genetic stimulation of factors inducing cell death.3 

In another study, researchers recruited 44 patients who were receiving radiation therapy for brain tumors.4 The primary endpoint of the study was to monitor the effect of oral frankincense on cerebral edema, a problematic effect of this type of therapy. Results of the trial showed that 60% of patients receiving frankincense had a decrease from baseline in brain tissue swelling in a range of no edema at all to <25%. Interestingly, the researchers also found something that was not listed as an endpoint but could be even more significant. Patients in the study who received the extract were found to have a superior response to the radiotherapy compared to the control patients. 

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