Common names: Olibanum
Range: Found in Somalia and parts of Saudi Arabia
History: Frankincense is a leafy tree that grows without soil along the rocky shores of Somalia, as well as in China, India and the Middle East. The medicinal part of the tree is the resinous gum obtained when the bark is cut into. This resin, which is collected and allowed to harden in the open air for several weeks, is also used in traditional incense the world over. Species include B. serrata, B. carterii, B. papyrifera and B. sacra.
Frankincense has a long history of ceremonial and medicinal use. Pliny believed that frankincense was an antidote for hemlock poisoning. Frankincense was used extensively in the middle ages to treat dysentery, vomiting and fevers. The Chinese once considered it a cure for leprosy. Today, the spicy, balsamic aroma of frankincense essential oil and resin is prized in aromatherapy and perfumery.
Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrata) is the species most often used for medicinal purposes. In India, where the herb is known as "dhoop," B. serrata has been used as an anti-inflammatory agent for centuries, particularly to address arthritis. It is still used for this purpose today, as well as to counter inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease), asthma and atherosclerosis.
The anti-inflammatory action of boswellia is owing to the presence of compounds that block leukotrienes and other pro-inflammatory chemicals, most notably 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX). Boswellia also reduces tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a), a cytokine and co-enzyme that regulates programmed cell death and plays a role in fighting off infections, as well as cancer. Elevated levels, however, which are often seen in people with arthritis, for example, is a marker of systemic inflammation.
While the powdered resin may be encapsulated as a dietary supplement, boswellia is, unfortunately, not well absorbed in the small intestine. However, there are good quality supplements available that are formulated to enhance bioavailability -- Aflapin® and AprèsFlex® are two patented brands that are good (yours truly takes the latter every day for ulceritis colitis). The essential oil, although wonderful in perfume blends and for topical use in cosmetics, should not be taken internally.
Constituents: Mucilage (12-20%), volatile oils, resins (60%), boswellic acids such as 3-O-Acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid (AKBA)
Cautions: Mild skin irritant. The essential oil should be diluted with a carrier oil, such as jojoba or sweet almond.