May 17, 2021 by D.Fathia
Updated May 17, 2021
Frankincense: fragrance, taste, and health benefits
As someone native to North Africa and has strong historical, religious, and cultural ties to the Middle East and the Arabian peninsula, I have to confess that our heritage is full of exquisite, unique, and exotic spices and fragrances.
Most western drama would picture the Arabian night as a time of pleasure, magic, and romance in an atmosphere overwhelmed with incense and hypnotizing scents. Well, this might not be the exact picture today, but it surely was decades ago.
Ancient Arabs and other civilizations were known for extravagant gatherings and celebrations. Those ambiances were opportunities to showcase unique possessions and exotic spices.
The old Silk Road tied the Arabic peninsula to Asia and the Horn of Africa. India and the Horn of Africa supplied local spices and plant crops. These were used for different purposes by Arabs; the range extended from beauty-related extracts to bodily treatments. Among these spices and crops, one item stood out; frankincense was a truly fascinating discovery.
Let’s see how people used it and whether or not it is worth the hype, for certain voices have been rising concerning this gum’s utility and potential benefits.
What is frankincense?
The word frankincense derives from Old French ‘franc encens’ meaning 'high-quality incense. It is known by other names in different languages, for example in Persian it is Kondoor, and in Arabic, it is al-libān, while in Somali it is Foox. Labels might differ like in any other object, but most people are still asking what is frankincense?
It is an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia in the family Burseraceae. It is also known by the nameolibanum. The following are the chemical compounds of the species:
- 6 % of acidresinwhich is soluble in alcohol
- 30–36 % of gum
- 3-acetyl-beta-boswellic acid
- alpha-boswellic acid
The trees start producing resin at around eight to ten years. Harvesting olibanum is truly a fascinating activity. Incisions are made into the barks of the trees during the dry season. The resin will slowly seep out of the tree; it will solidify in two to three weeks’ time. Once it becomes dry it is harvested and made ready for further processing. The crop is named frankincense tears; a metaphor for the leaking sap from the trees.
Origin, trade, and myths:
Olibanum originates in the Horn of Africa, and particularly in Somaliland. Soudan, Eretria, India, Oman, Yemen, and parts of Western Africa are also known for the trade of frankincense. It was traded to different parts of the world for over 6000 years. It was one of the main items that journeyed along the Silk Road.
It was brought to Europe by Frankish Crusaders. The high demand for this spice is threatening the existence of the species. Overexploitation is the main reason for the potential extinction.
Frankincense is now exported to most world countries because of the multiple increasing uses. The incense has been considered a useful item in ancient civilizations.
Chinese ancient medicine considered it to be effective for relieving pain, removing blood stasis, promoting blood circulation, and treating deafness, stroke, and abnormalities in women's menstruation. They believed it has antibacterial properties. Persian medicine as well thought highly of it. They used it to treat diabetes and stomach problems, whereas Egyptians used it in the mummification process along with other items. Whether these myths still have credibility today with the advancement of science or not, remains to be explored.
Olibanum was and is still used in religious rites and folklore celebrations. People adhering to any of the three Abrahamic religions use this spice to cleanse negative and evil energy, as in exorcism. It is also used by the church and its rites and by Muslims in their own religious celebration and everyday life actually.
This fragrant resin was gifted to baby Jesus; now it is gifted to brides, the elderly, and is widely consumed. Most people would just chew it as gum; however, it is used in a more varied way. Burning it for the fragrant smell is one way. Medicinal usage would be our next exploration.
What is frankincense used for?
This fragrant spice has been used for different purposes as we have already mentioned. Recently it has been given much scientific attention. Research and studies have been conducted to either prove or denounce myths about it and o figure out whether or not it does really has beneficial effects on health. So, what is frankincense used for?
Science has suggested the relevance of olibanum in dealing with various diseases, from simple pain to cancer and chronic diseases.
Terpenes and boswellic acids are among the most prominent compounds, they give their anti-inflammatory properties. That’s why olibanum has a high potential for treating arthritis. One recent study proved that people given one gram of frankincense for eight weeks experienced less joint pain than those who were given a placebo.
This resin is considered to have high potentials for helping the gut function properly. Its anti-inflammatory properties might help reduce symptoms of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which are two inflammatory gut illnesses. Studies have supported these claims.
Two studies have proved that this resin is useful for treating asthma. The first study relieved the symptoms of 70 % of the participants. The second revealed that olibanum reduced asthma attacks in people with a chronic condition and improved lung capacity.
People in ancient civilizations and even today chewed frankincense. It turned out to be highly beneficial. Thanks to its antibacterial properties provided by the boswellic acids, the resin is good for preventing bad breath, cavities, and mouth sores.
In the efforts to find out what is frankincense used for, scientists have been testing its effects on cancer. Test tubes have revealed promising results. The resin resulted in reducing the symptoms of certain cancers and limiting the growth of other cancer cells.
The most distinguished results of all revealed that frankincense oil might have significant effects on cancer. Test tubes showed that this oil can identify cancerous cells and eliminate them while leaving the healthy ones.
The hard resin can be treated to extract frankincense oil. Ancient wisdom combined with recent science to outline several uses for this oil. It is believed that smelling this oil or absorbing it through the skin sends messages to the limbic system, an area in the brain that influences emotions and the nervous system. This essential oil is used in perfumes and body care lotions and creams.
Aromatherapy uses this oil to treat coughs, colds, anxiety, and other conditions. Essential oils are believed to affect stress levels, heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing.
Olibanum oil is believed to have rejuvenating effects on the skin, that’s why it is used in cosmetics and beauty products. However, if you wish to apply it on your own you need to follow the dosage guidelines as defined by experts. It might cause allergies to some individuals, hence it is recommended that you consult your doctor first.