Frankincense: More than an Ancient Herb

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The Wise Men brought three gifts to present to the infant Jesus.

Much is made of the first one listed--gold. But the middle one has a lesser fame, though not lesser importance.

How this ancient herb connected with the life of Christ is a story rich in history, and how that frankincense became part of modern medicine is a tale that deepens that history.

From "Frankincense" to "Boswellia"

The Magi traveled hundreds of miles over harsh terrain to seek the young boy Jesus. After all, His star said that He was of regal stature. Meeting Him demanded gifts of rare quality - not only gold and myrrh, but that elusive frankincense.

Frankincense had been used for many centuries prior in the Jewish temple as part of worship. No dummies, the Magi would have understood the connection between frankincense and worship. They responded, as recorded in Matthew 2:11, bowing down and worshipping him.

In those days, frankincense was often as valuable as gold. That value would have helped this poor family journey to Egypt.

Joseph had a dream warning him to take his wife and child to that country to avoid the evil plans of the ruler Herod, who wanted to kill Jesus. Today that frankincense which honored the Messiah in worship and wealth is known as boswellia.

Boswellia originates in the arid parts of the Middle East. The frankincense plant is actually a tree. To gather the frankincense/boswellia, workers cut into the bark in multiple places, and allow the gum to ooze out. They then collect that resin later on for further processing.

Dr. Sunil Pai is an Albuquerque, N.M., physician who received medical training in the use of herbs. One key one for his practice is boswellia.

He says the herb was used in ancient India, Greece and China.

"With all these different modalities and cultures, they use it for very similar ailments from rheumatism to healing wounds to digestive disorders to gynecological problems and pain," he said.

Later on the noted Persian physician Avicenna found it useful.

"He used it for treating tumors as well as ulcers and dysentery. Later on it was even used in the 16th century in France," Pai added.  "That was Ambroise Paré who used frankincense in battlefield medicine. A devout man, he coined the phrase 'I treated him, but God healed him."'

And it's not just tradition, there's now scientific confirmation. On the government's PubMed website there are over 150 studies on boswellia.

An Alternative to Asprin, Ibuprofen

The herb is most commonly used for arthritic conditions.  Boswellia is especially good at reducing inflammation -- a common factor in disease.

Maureen Sutton, is the massage therapist at Pai's clinic. She developed inflammation in her hands, the tools of her trade.

"My hands would be swollen and a little achy. So to keep myself going, I started taking the boswellia internally. And using it more in my treatments, too," she said. 

Pai and Sutton say boswellia works well for those with inflammation in muscles and even the lungs. Plus she says that same benefit makes it ideal in facial and skin products as an anti-aging factor.

And boswellia may have advantages over common anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen. These NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) work by blocking an inflammation pathway.

Pai finds boswellia does that and more.

"We now see with the research for boswellia," she began, "is that it blocks other things in other pathways and also has beneficial effects for prevention down the line."

Directions and Dosage

Pai has some general guidelines for boswellia doses. To get a good dose, a pill should have 150 milligrams or more of boswellia. The pills need to be standardized to have at least 65 percent of boswellic acids, the active ingredients. He prefers 85 percent.

The most important of the boswellic acids is AKBA. Some products like 5-Loxin use only the AKBA portion. Dr. Pai prefers products containing the range of boswellic acids and having AKBA standardized to at least five percent.

Pai often combines prescribing boswellia with the herb curcumin, also known as turmeric. He finds they work well together. The turmeric should also be standardized to 90 percent or more curcuminoids.

Pai is pleased with boswellia's excellent safety profile.

"We see in animal studies, particularly toxicity studies that, we can use doses up to 2,000 times higher than what we recommend now in humans," he said.

That doesn't mean a person should take huge amounts. Even more serious conditions like cancer or inflammatory bowel disease may only require three tablets or capsules of a quality brand.

In fact, before taking boswellia, a person would do well to consult a "wise doctor" familiar with botanical medicine.

After all, the "Wise Men" had a good eye for the value of frankincense long ago.

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Gailon Totheroh

Gailon Totheroh

CBN Science & Medical Reporter

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