5 surprising facts about frankincense

Most of us only know frankincense as a gift brought by one of the three wise men to Bethlehem, but it has had many different uses throughout history – in religious rituals, in the perfume industry, and now in medicine.

What is frankincense?

The word frankincense comes from the French for ‘pure incense’, thanks to its fresh and woody scent. Also known as ‘liquid gold’ or boswellia serrata, the resin is extracted from the bark of the boswellia tree that grows in North Africa, India and Southern Arabia.

Ayurvedic medicine traditionally uses frankincense oil to treat arthritis and heal wounds. Today, clinical studies are investigating the medical uses* of this aromatic resin with exciting results.

It may help treat asthma

Leukotrienes are small molecules produced by the body that trigger inflammation. It’s thought that leukotrienes play a major role in the symptoms of conditions such as hay fever and asthma, including difficulty breathing, but frankincense may inhibit or block leukotrienes.

In an Indian double-blind placebo study – neither the researchers nor the volunteers know what is being tested – 70 per cent of asthma patients given frankincense had fewer, and less severe, attacks.

It could relieve inflammatory bowel disease

Frankincense could provide relief in another inflammatory condition. Ulcerative colitis (UC) is an inflammatory bowel disease, where the lining of the large bowel and rectum become inflamed and may develop ulcers.

Frankincense is traditionally used in Iranian medicine to treat UC, and modern trials have revealed similar results. In one study, 82 per cent of patients had improved symptoms, compared with 75 per cent who were taking sulfasalazine, a drug used to treat UC.

It could boost your mood

It’s well known that breathing in certain smells can lift our mood, boosting serotonin; the feel-good hormone in the brain. Now research suggests the scent of frankincense can help relieve anxiety and stress.

An international study found a chemical in frankincense called incensole acetate affects areas of the brain involved in emotions, as well as activating nerve circuits that normally respond to drugs used to treat anxiety and depression. Who know an antidepressant could be right under our noses?!

It can ease arthritis

The inflammation-inhibiting properties of frankincense may also help those with arthritis.

Three major studies investigating its effects discovered boswellia serrata could reduce pain and improve mobility in osteoarthritis sufferers, while a German study found frankincense could help those with rheumatoid arthritis, helping to fight chronic pain and reduce swelling.

It can aid fertility

For centuries, the Jordanian population used frankincense as an aphrodisiac and to boost fertility. Now modern science is backing up their beliefs.

In one animal study, frankincense helped increase fertility levels by activating the hormones involved in sperm production. Although human trials are yet to be done, burning a little frankincense oil in the evenings can’t hurt if you’re trying to get pregnant.

* Do not stop taking any medication without first consulting your doctor.

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This article has been adapted from longer features appearing in Healthy, the Holland & Barrett magazine. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.