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Threatened Frankincense Trees Provide Health Benefits


It is appropriate that the plight of the threatened frankincense trees be highlighted during the Christmas season, as the resin was reportedly one of the gifts the three wise men brought to Jesus. Hopefully action will be taken on the threat to the tree from which the gum is produced, as frankincense has health benefits that could be important for humankind today.

Frankincense continues to offer health gifts today

Frankincense is a resin derived from the boswellia papyrifera tree, which is found primarily in Ethiopia. According to a new study in the Journal of Applied Ecology, the trees are disappearing dramatically, with up to 7% of the trees dying per year and an estimated decline of 90% in the next half century.

While the decline and loss of any species is tragic, those that can provide medicinal benefits, as has frankincense since ancient times, is an especially significant loss. Much of the frankincense used for healing purposes today is associated with traditional Chinese medicine.

In fact, of the reported 400 tons that are imported by Europe each year, about half is sent to China for use in traditional medicine, according to Fran Bongers, the study’s lead author. The study appears in the new edition of the Journal of Applied Ecology.

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In addition to the concern about the decline of the trees that supply frankincense is the associated loss of the resin for health purposes. Numerous research studies show frankincense possesses properties that may prove helpful to human health, including the fight against cancer.

For example, a recent study from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center reported on the use of the gum resin of boswellia serrata against human pancreatic cancer in a mouse model. The researchers found that an agent of the gum resin suppressed the growth and spread of pancreatic tumors.

Prostate cancer was the focus of another study, in which researchers found that an active component of boswellia suppressed human prostate cancer growth in the lab. In a University of Oklahoma study, investigators reported that frankincense oil appeared to be able to distinguish cancerous from normal bladder cells and suppress the cancer cells, indicating that “frankincense oil might represent an alternative intravesical agent for bladder cancer treatment.”

In another study recently appearing in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, the authors reported that a water extract of frankincense demonstrated anti-inflammatory and pain-killing abilities in an animal study. Yet one more study in Dermatologic Therapy reported that a cream containing boswellic acids, used by female volunteers in a double-blind study, seemed to reduce fine lines and other signs of skin photoaging.

If the loss of the trees that provide frankincense is allowed to continue, the world will lose a treasure that has meaning on several fronts, including historic, ecologic, religious, and medicinal. Some efforts are being made to preserve the integrity of the species and sub-species, which can also produce frankincense.

Calzavara-Pinton P et al. Dermatologic Therapy 2010 Jan-Feb; 23 Suppl 1:S28-32
Frank MB et al. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2009 Mar 18; 9:6
Groenendijk P et al. Journal of Applied Ecology 2011 Dec; online. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2011.02078.x
Pang X et al. Cancer Research 2009 Jul 15; 69(14): 5893-900
Su S et al. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2011 Dec 13