I was surprised today to find a medical review of the esteemed Christmas herb, frankincense, in the British Medical Journal (December 17). Not only is it famed for having been one of the gifts of the Magi, but it is an important medicinal herb, incense and perfume ingredient.

As incense it has been used in religious ceremonies by Jews, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and other ancient religions and is still used today in the Catholic Mass. Frankincense, also called olibanum is the gum resin tapped from Boswellia (Boswellia serrata mainly) trees found in Arabia, Africa and India.

Forty seven studies met the criteria for inclusion in this systematic review done by E. Ernst at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in the UK. Inclusional studies had applications to asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, osteoarthritis and collagenous colitis. What all these diseases have in common is that they are all related to inflammation. All studies showed clinically positive results leading the authors to conclude that collectively these results are ‘encouraging but not compelling’. They note that not enough of these studies were large, randomized controlled trials.

Frankincense has traditionally been used to treat diseases of inflammation as well as to promote digestion and used as a skin restorative. Active ingredients in frankincense such as alpha and beta boswellic acid have been shown to affect the pro-inflammatory enzymes lipoxygenase and cyclo-oxygenase as well as the compliment pathway. The lipoxygenase enzyme will convert essential fatty acids into leukotrienes which are can contribute to the inflammatory response in a number of ways. Cyclooxygenase (COX) promotes the formation of prostaglandin H2, another inflammation mediator, from arachadonic acid.

So although frankinsence is probably not the fountain of youth as many websites might have you believe, extracts from this resin certainly may play an important role in preventing inflammatory or treating inflammatory diseases.

Ernst, E., Frankincense: systemic review. BMJ 2008;337.