Frankincense oil is derived from the Boswellia tree. It has a long history in myth and folk medicine. In the Bible, it is one of three gifts offered to Jesus by the wise men, possibly because of its apparent healing powers.
Some supporters of herbal medicine argue that frankincense offers numerous health benefits. These supposed benefits include controlling bleeding, speeding up the wound-healing process, improving oral health, fighting inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, and improving uterine health.
Its most promising use may be as a cancer treatment. Cancer is a leading cause of death, killing 8.2 million people worldwide in 2012. Current research on the effectiveness of frankincense is limited, but early results are promising.
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How might frankincense reduce inflammation?
Frankincense contains boswellic acid, which may help fight inflammation.
Frankincense is steeped in history, but will it work as a modern-day cure?
Inflammation is one of the key processes through which the body fights infection. When tissue becomes inflamed, white blood cells arrive to fight infection. Local inflammation causes redness, swelling, and heat. It can occur with injuries ranging from mild to life-threatening.
Long-term inflammation, especially when it occurs in multiple areas of the body, is associated with a wide range of health issues. Arthritis is an inflammatory disease, and evidence increasingly points to inflammation as a factor in depression.
A 2006 study published in Planta Medica uncovered a number of ways the boswellic acid in frankincense might fight infection. Boswellic acid inhibited 5-lipoxygenase, a chemical involved in inflammatory processes. Researchers also found that boswellic acid might target free radicals and cytokines. Both of these play a role in inflammation.
This has important implications for the fight against cancer. Numerous studies have linked inflammation to cancer. By disrupting inflammatory processes, frankincense could stop cancer before it starts.
The anti-inflammatory properties of frankincense suggest that it might also be effective in the treatment of diseases such as:
Could frankincense fight cancer directly?
Frankincense might not just reduce inflammation. It may also directly attack cancer cells.
Frankincense comes from the Boswellia tree.
One of the challenges of cancer treatment is that, unlike bacteria or viruses, cancer cells are not foreign invaders. Instead, cancer occurs when the body's cells grow out of control, attacking healthy tissue.
This process makes it difficult to fight cancer without also killing healthy cells. In fact, most cancer treatments do kill healthy cells.
Chemotherapy, for example, kills many healthy cells as it fights cancer. This is why cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy often lose their hair, experience nausea, and become more vulnerable to infection.
Some evidence suggests that frankincense might target cancer cells without harming healthy cells.
A 2009 study of bladder cancer studied how frankincense affected cultures of normal and cancerous bladder cells. The oil targeted cancerous cells, but it did not destroy healthy cells.
The results of these studies are preliminary. However, they offer hope that frankincense might one day fight some forms of cancer without the potentially life-threatening effects of chemotherapy.
Future research: Is a cancer cure on the horizon?
Research on frankincense as a cancer treatment has only looked at cell cultures and not cancer growing in a living, human being. Before frankincense can be used to treat cancer, researchers must perform human trials to prove that it works and is reasonably safe.
A number of studies have uncovered substances that can kill cancer cells in a petri dish. Substances ranging from bleach to antiparasite drugs have killed cancer in a lab, but not yet in a human.
Human bodies are complicated systems. Before using frankincense on people, scientists must work out a safe dosage, explore potential side effects, and decide how best to deliver treatment. As research is still in its early stages, it is unlikely that frankincense will become a mainstream cancer treatment in the near future.
Safe use of frankincense
People should talk to a doctor before trying frankincense or any other essential oil.
Frankincense is not an alternative to mainstream cancer treatments. No research currently supports using the oil in place of other cancer treatments. Frankincense may, however, be used as a supplement to medical treatment.
Frankincense has not been approved as a drug for any specific disease, and there are no scientifically proven guidelines for its use.
Essential oil manufacturers suggest a range of uses.
The oil derived from frankincense may help people with cancer. It should not be used instead of conventional treatments, however.
- Using frankincense in skin care products, for example, adding a drop or two of frankincense oil to a favorite lotion.
- Soaking in frankincense in the bath tub. A few drops create an aromatic soak, and the body may absorb some of the oil.
- Using frankincense on pulse points during meditation or yoga, or applying a few drops of oil to a hot compress.
- Ingesting frankincense, but remembering to dilute the oil first. One popular recommendation advises a 10 to 1 ratio of water to frankincense.
People can also add frankincense to honey or another sweetener. They can conceal its pungent taste by adding the sweetener to coffee or tea. It is recommended to limit intake to just a few drops per day and to speak with a doctor for approval first.
Users should watch carefully for side effects, and they should stop use immediately if any ill effects develop. If anyone plans to use frankincense on their skin, they should try testing a diluted version of the oil on a small patch of skin first.
Essential oils can be diluted with olive oil. If someone intends to ingest the oil, they should start with a heavily diluted drop, then gradually increase the dosing over several days.
Frankincense is natural, but like many other natural substances, it can be poisonous. People who are pregnant, lactating, have a history of allergic reactions, or have a weakened immune system, should avoid using frankincense unless their doctor says otherwise.