The original Christmas gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh were presented to the baby Jesus by three Magi (Melchior of Persia, Gaspar from India, and Balthazar from Arabia) who traveled far to meet the newborn child. They opened up their treasure chests to present these three highly significant gifts to him (Matthew 2:11).
We all understand what gold is, but do what do we really know about frankincense and myrrh? While these gifts are often associated with spiritual meanings and sacred significance, today we’re taking a look at their underappreciated medicinal benefits.
In the West, frankincense and myrrh are most often used in the form of incense and associated with religious celebrations. But in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, these two tree resins have been used for centuries as natural treatments for both infections and chronic diseases.
What do these ancient civilizations know that we should know? And what do these two plant compounds have to do with cancer? The answers might surprise you.
Frankincense: An Increasing Hard-to-Find Treasure
Often referred to as the “king of oils,” frankincense is derived from the resin of four species of the Boswellia tree commonly found in the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Africa. Unfortunately, these magnificent trees are now on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species.
To some, these resins might be described as “scabs” on trees. But if you think about it, it’s not so hard to realize that this resin is a deliberate and natural method of helping the tree itself to recover from injury.
And these resins can do the same for us.
Throughout history, inhaling the smoke of frankincense resin has been a practice of many both in the Middle East and here in America. Some even chew fresh frankincense resin or drink its extract (source: Kyle Vialli: The Healing Properties of Frankincense Water and How to Make It).
What makes frankincense so healing? For one thing, frankincense has tremendous anti-inflammation properties and as such is often successfully used in the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. It can also decrease pain and help with wound healing,
And when it comes to cancer, the ability of frankincense to distinguish normal cells from cancerous cells is particularly notable. Frankincense essential oil has been shown to both inhibit the growth of cancer cells and induce apoptosis (death) of cancer cells. A landmark study published in Oncotarget (2019) showed that frankincense essential oil suppresses one of the most deadly and aggressive forms of skin cancer — melanoma.
Scientists continue to research the extraordinary benefits of frankincense in the fight against chronic inflammatory diseases and cancer, and even the effects of chemotherapy.
Frankincense is also being studied for its benefits in combatting learning deficits and memory loss.
Myrrh: As Valuable As Gold
The legends of myrrh also permeate religious history. It has been said that Moses was instructed by God to use myrrh for anointing the Tabernacle. Myrrh was consecrated in the First and Second Temples by Rabbis. And who can forget the Three Wise Men, the Magi, whose gifts to baby Jesus included the gift of myrrh, which in those days was as valuable as gold.
Myrrh is a gummy resin from the Commiphora myrrha tree, which grows in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Myrrh is a strong anti-bacterial, anti-parasitic, and anti-fungal compound. So profound is myrrh’s ability to heal damaged tissues, Greek soldiers carried it into battle with them to use when treating skin infections and gangrene.
And just like its relative frankincense, myrrh also possesses strong anti-cancer properties. Modern clinical studies demonstrate myrrh’s anti-cancer effects. β-elemene, for example, has been used effectively in the treatment of various cancers, including glioblastoma.
The Synergistic Effects of Frankincense and Myrrh
The main chemical compounds of frankincense and myrrh are terpenoids and essential oils. For thousands of years in traditional Chinese Medicine, both frankincense and myrrh often appear in the same prescription. The blending of these two powerful substances manifest in a number of changes in their original chemical composition. The result? A significant and measurable increase in their individual potent healing abilities.
According to a study published in Molecules, prescription drugs containing the combination of frankincense and myrrh “have definite curative effects on many chronic diseases, and have been clinically proven.” The study cites the example of Xihuang Pill, a famous anti-cancer prescription known as the “first drug” of TCM that can effectively treat breast cancer, gastric cancer, and liver cancer.”
A Word of Caution
Because these naturally occurring resins are very powerful, it is wise to consult with your physician to be sure they will not react adversely with any prescriptions you may be taking. For example, myrrh should not be taken if you are pregnant, as it may stimulate uterine activity. And if you are currently taking blood thinners, be aware these compounds may inhibit their effectiveness.
The Healing Powers of the Gifts of the Magi
- Bo Cao, Xi-Chuan Wei, Xiao-Rong Xu, et al., “Seeing the Unseen of the Combination of Two Natural Resins, Frankincense and Myrrh: Changes in Chemical Constituents and Pharmacological Activities” Molecules (Sep 2019); 3076. doi: 10.3390/molecules24173076.
- Danyou Hu, Changming Wang, Fengxian Li, et al., “A Combined Water Extract of Frankincense and Myrrh Alleviates Neuropathic Pain in Mice via Modulation of TRPV1,” Journal of Neural Transplantation (2017);3710821. doi: 10.1155/2017/3710821.
- F. Hakkim, H. Bakshi, S. Khan, et al., “Frankincense essential oil suppresses melanoma cancer through down regulation of Bcl-2/Bax cascade signaling and ameliorates heptotoxicity via phase I and II drug metabolizing enzymes,” Oncotarget (May 28, 2019);10(37): 3472–3490. doi: 10.18632/oncotarget.26930.
- “What Is Frankincense?” https://www.livescience.com/25670-what-is-frankincense.html
- “Can Frankincense Treat Cancer?” https://www.healthline.com/health/cancer/frankincense-and-cancer
- “Health Benefits of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh” https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323861.php#1
- Frankincense Health Study, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6544398/
- Myrrh and Frankincense essential oil (study), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3796379/
- “11 Surprising Benefits and Uses of Myrrh Oil” https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/myrrh-oil
- “There Is More to Frankincense and Myrrh Than Meets The Eye” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/chemically-theres-lot-more-frankincense-and-myrrh-meets-eye-180953727/
- B. Barakat, H. Ahmed, H. Bahr, A. Elbahaie, “Protective Effect of Boswellic Acids against Doxorubicin-Induced Hepatotoxicity: Impact on Nrf2/HO-1 Defense Pathway,” Oxidative Med. Cell. Longev (2018);2018:8296451. doi: 10.1155/2018/8296451.
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