Many is the schoolkid who wonders at Christmastime what ‘frankincense’ and ‘myrrh’ are, those gifts brought to Bethlehem by the magi from the east.
The answer is plant resins, from the Boswellia and Commiphora genera of aromatic shrubs in the Burseraceae family, that's native to southwestern India and parts of northeastern Africa.
The ancient world used these resins as we do still, for expensive perfume, for anointing oil in religious ceremony, and for burnt fragrance in sacred spaces. This is the ‘incense’ we burn in church.
They also used these resins in medicine. And so do we, sort of. ‘Frankincense oil’ in particular is widely available in commercial formulations these days, and very popular for putting on skin.
The funny thing about frankincense and myrrh is that they do turn out to have some interesting pharmacokinetics, particularly in the skin. They are antimicrobial, for one thing. It’s for that reason that they probably have their traditional reputation for helping in wound repair. They may well keep infection down.
‘Boswellic acids’, moreover, appear to have anti-inflammatory properties across a range of diseases. One of them is erythematous eczema. This was investigated recently. Patients were treated with a topical cosmeceutical containing Boswellia resin extract, and compared to placebo controls. The European Medicines Agency has observed that this particular extract really is classifiable as an anti-inflammatory worth studying. It suppresses leukotriene formation, inhibits leukocyte elastase, and does a lot of other things along the inflammatory pathway. Sure enough, patients who got the cream also got significant improvement in their eczema, while placebo patients did not.
We’re not suggesting that you’ll sort out your medical problems with essential oils. If you have trouble with your skin, you should see your dermatologist about it. But it is interesting whenever data sets emerge about potential new therapies like this. Essential oils are rather like cannabinoids in that respect. We don’t know enough about them to use them as pharmaceuticals yet. And there’s a great deal of misunderstanding and overstatement in popular culture. But, to say it again, it is interesting when bench science turns up something about plant extracts that’s of possible clinical use someday.
It’s probably not without reason that ancient physicians treated ailments with frankincense and myrrh. They were observant people, and they really did see some clinical improvement sometimes, probably. These sweet resins are pleasant to use, and they were rare and expensive 20 centuries ago. That by itself would make them good gifts. But we offer this medical perspective as well, to help explain a little deeper why the three wise men chose to bring these two things in particular to Bethlehem, along with gold.
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