Contributed by David Brochstein, L.Ac., O.M.D.
It is befitting of the holiday season to mention a couple of Earth’s well-known treasures: frankincense and myrrh. Many are familiar with the story of the three wise-men who brought these fragrant resins to the infant Christ as a gift. Ancient Egyptians used myrrh for embalming the bodies of Pharaohs, while frankincense has been used at places of worship in India for hundreds of years. What some may not know is that frankincense and myrrh are also powerful Chinese herbs used to treat pain, trauma, and blood disorders.
Shrub trees of the family Burseraceae produce a liquid when the bark is punctured. That liquid or resin is then dried and cooked with vinegar or honey for medicinal uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Boswellia sacra (common origin of Frankincense) and Commiphora myrrha (common origin of myrrh) both originated in the Arabian Peninsula. These species arrived in China by 400 AD, where the exploration of their medicinal properties began.
Traditional Chinese Medicine recognizes frankincense and myrrh as blood regulating herbs that complement each other. They invigorate the blood, dispel blood stasis (a condition of the blood accredited with causing many forms of disease), reduce swelling, relieve pain and promote healing of wounds. It is more than coincidence that myrrh is commonly used in TCM for menstrual irregularities, and myrrh is used to treat liver conditions. TCM theory emphasizes the importance of liver blood for regular and healthy menstrual function. Stagnant liver blood causes painful periods and other gynecological disease.
The tree that produces frankincense resin also produces Boswellic Acid. Researchers have identified Boswellic Acid as a potent anti-inflammatory agent. This acid inhibits the 5-LOX (lipoxygenase) system, which is involved with enzymatic pathways that produce leukotrienes and thrombaxanes (inflammatory molecules) from fatty acids. (Following all of this?) Drugs that inhibit this pathway are normally used to treat arthritis, asthma and ulcerative colitis. Frankincense is a powerful source of natural inflammation relief!
Unlike conventional NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen, the accepted Western treatment for pain and inflammation, prepared boswellia doesn’t cause stomach irritation in small doses, it does not damage the kidneys, and it does not cause liver damage like acetaminophen does.
Guggulsterone is the active substance within the myrrh resin. After many years of research, guggulsterone, also known as Guggul, has become popular in the United States for its cholesterol-lowering properties.2 Guggul inhibits the FXR gene in the nucleus of liver cells; this process leads to the more efficient excretion of cholesterol in the liver, thus lowering serum cholesterol levels. It is amazing what powerful medicines come from a scrubby desert tree!
Because there are many different compounds which contain this amazing duo it is important that you consult with an acupuncturist (or Oriental medical doctor) who specializes in herbal medicines. He or she can advise you about which preparations are appropriate for your condition. Frankincense and myrrh are two of the most potent pain relievers in TCM formulation. However, they can be a potentially dangerous combination for someone who is already on a blood thinner or other medications. Only a TCM practitioner who is well educated in herb-drug interactions should prescribe a formula containing either of these compounds. This is one time we strongly advise against self-treatment!
Given the compelling folk histories, vast experience in TCM clinics, and even the more recent scientific evidence regarding these two Chinese herb resins, we can be certain of their potent medicinal properties.
It certainly is amazing that nature has provided such powerful medicines for menstrual cramps, trauma, arthritis, cholesterol and pain. Nature has had a remarkable way of providing for our needs, today and in ancient times. Let us be thankful!
2.(Tripathi YB, et all Thyroid stimulating actions of z-guggulsterone obtained from Commiphora mukul. Planta Med 1984;1:78).
 Also known as the Torchwood family, or the incense tree family.