Frankincense is considered one of the best essential oils, and has a number of reported health benefits. However, many of the studied benefits are from the solid form rather than in the form of essential oil. Read on to learn more about why frankincense resin extract has many more proven health benefits than frankincense essential oil.
What is Frankincense?
Frankincense is derived from the dried sap of Boswellia trees which include Boswellia sacra, Boswellia caterii, Boswellia frereana, Boswellia serrata, or Boswellia papyrifera.1 Its modern resurgence in popularity has led to it being used in aromatherapy.
Typical studies on the health benefits of frankincense analyze the health benefits of boswellic acid found in frankincense. Unfortunately, when frankincense is processed into an essential oil it contains very little boswellic acids (as well as other compounds in the class of compounds known as terpene or triterpenoids).21-24 This is because the steam distillation process involved in production of frankincense essential oil leaves much of those compounds behind. Many of the studies on frankincense are on the effectiveness of boswellic acids/terpenes/triterpenoids which are found only in small amounts in frankincense essential oil.
How Do You Use Frankincense?
Frankincense is a dried sap. For health purposes, this dried sap can be ingested through the mouth or be processed into an essential oil through steam distillation. An essential oil is an oil which contains the “essence” of the plant’s fragrance.
Frankincense essential oil can be applied topically directly to the skin. The oil can also be used in an aromatherapy diffuser machine which allows you to inhale the oil. 2 In aromatherapy, the oil can be absorbed through the lungs into the body. The inhaled oil can also trigger smell receptors in the nose to the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system has been studied for its connection to areas that control mood, memory, stress, heart rate, and blood pressure.3
Health Benefits of Frankincense Resin Extract
Frankincense resin offers a diverse range of potential uses and health benefits. Take a look at some of the most commonly cited benefits of frankincense below.
Frankincense is known to possess powerful anti-inflammatory properties that may help conditions and disorders caused by chronic inflammation, including inflammatory bowel diseases, Crohn’s disease, and bronchial asthma. Studies have found that compounds in frankincense essential oil can inhibit the biosynthesis and release of leukotrienes and 5-lipoxygenase, enzymes known to cause inflammation.4
The main chemicals in frankincense believed to initiate this reaction are terpenes and boswelic acid, which bind to the leukotrienes to inhibit their proliferation and induce apoptosis.5 Some animal studies also suggest that frankincense may be as effective as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) without the harmful side effects of these drugs.6
Joint Pain Relief
Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and general joint pains often come as a result of chronic inflammation. These disorders are often characterized by painful, swollen joints and reduced mobility. In a review of studies on osteoarthritis, researchers found that formulations containing frankincense were significantly more effective than placebos in relieving pain and improving mobility and general joint function.7
In one study, frankincense extract from Boswellia serrata was found to be an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis for over 260 patients. Criteria for assessment was based on several factors, including joint pain, swelling, stiffness, erytrocyte sedimentation rate, and tolerance.8
While it still requires some further study, frankincense may be effective in reducing symptoms of joint pain, swelling, and stiffness thanks to its anti-inflammatory abilities.
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In some studies, frankincense extract from Boswellia serrata was found to improve gut function. In a randomized, double-blind study, patients with active Crohn’s disease were treated with a form of frankincense extract. Researchers used the Crohn Disease Activity Index (CDAI) to measure changes from the beginning of the study to the end compared to treatment with mesalazine, a NSAID medication commonly used for Crohn’s disease. The results of the study showed greater reduction of the CDAI for the frankincense Boswellia serrata extract compared to mesalazine (90 point reduction versus a 53 point reduction), suggesting that Boswellia serrata extract may be more effective than mesalazine at reducing Crohn’s disease symptoms.9
In another double-blind, randomized study, patients with chronic diarrhea and collagenous colitis (a type of inflammatory bowel disease affecting the colon) were given either an oral placebo or 400 mg of a Boswellia serrata extract three times per day for a period of six weeks. At the end of the study, results showed that the group that had taken frankincense extract from Boswellia serrata extract showed a higher rate of clinical remission than the placebo group with no adverse effects to quality of life.10
Another study looked at the effects of frankincense extract from Boswellia serrata on chronic colitis. Patients suffering from chronic colitis, characterized by lower abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, and diarrhea were given either 900 mg of frankincense extract from Boswellia serrata in three daily doses or three doses of sulfasalazine per day for a period of six weeks. Both groups showed improvements in stool properties and general histopathology. This suggests that frankincense extract from Boswellia serrata may be as effective as a prescription pharmaceutical in reducing chronic colitis.11
Frankincense may promote oral health by reducing bad breath, cavities, toothaches, and mouth sores. This may be an effect of boswellic acids, which have been found to have natural antibacterial properties that may combat harmful oral pathogens responsible for cavities and infections.12
In a test tube study, researchers obtained concentrations of Boswellia serrata and Nigella sativa extracts. The results of the study found that the extracts were effective in neutralizing Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans, the main bacteria known to cause the aggressive gum disease known as periodontitis.13
Numerous studies have found that topical application of boswellic acids from frankincense may help strengthen skin, reduce acne and blemishes, and improve overall tone and elasticity. It may also help to reduce the appearance of stretch marks and scars and generally expedite the healing of wounds. While further study is required to understand the exact compound or mechanism, initial research suggests that these skin soothing and healing properties come from frankincense’s pentacyclic terpenes which have a structure similar to steroidal compounds.14 Steroids are usually used to reduce skin redness and irritation.
A randomized, double-blind study treated 40 patients who suffered from bronchial asthma with a preparation of 300 mg of frankincense from Boswellia serrata administered orally three times per day for a six-week period. By the end of the study, about 70 percent of the participants showed statistically significant improvements noted by a disappearance of physical signs and symptoms of bronchial asthma, including breathing difficulties and number of asthma attacks. A control group of 40 patients was given a lactose supplement three times per day for six weeks. Only 27 percent of the control group showed any improvement in symptoms. This suggests that frankincense extract may help to relieve asthma symptoms by reducing the production of leukotrienes, which may cause the constriction of bronchial muscles, causing constriction that exacerbates asthma.15
Health Benefits of Frankincense Essential Oil
Frankincense has long been used in incenses and aromatherapy for its potential to relieve stress and anxiety. In a rat study, researchers wanted to determine the effects of frankincense essential oil on stress markers, including levels of corticosterone, in sleep deprived rats. Rats were either given one drop of jojoba oil or frankincense oil every hour for five hours. Blood samples were taken at the end of the study and showed that the rats given frankincense oil showed higher wakefulness and improved levels in nearly all metrics. The results suggest that frankincense essential oil may be effective as an anti-stress agent. Another promising result: the mice showed better signs of sleep and compensated for the sleep they lost.17
Potential Side Effects of Frankincense
Frankincense is considered to be safe for most people when used as instructed. Some toxicology studies showed that extremely high servings over 900 mg per pound of body weight in mice and rats were found to be toxic, but such a study has not been conducted with human subjects. Side effects most commonly associated with frankincense use include nausea and acid reflux.19 For topical use, those sensitive to frankincense may experience irritation or an allergic reaction.20
In conclusion, frankincense resin has many more proven health benefits than frankincense essential oil. If your doctor has recommended the use of frankincense for joint pains, consider taking DrFormulas® Joint Supplement, which contains 27 ingredients including frankincense extract in the form of Boswellia serrata to maintain bone and joint development and promote a healthy inflammatory response.
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- Baser, S., Koch, A., Konig, W.A. (2001). "A Verticillane-type diterpene from Boswellia carterii Essential Oil". Flav. Frag" J 16, 315-318