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The Untold Story of Frankincense and Essential Oils

Naturopathy and alternative medicine have been a hot topic over the past several years, and with good reason. With the increased mistrust developing in western medicine, many people are seeking new (or old) methods of healthcare. One of the most popular areas that people have explored, specifically within the field of aromatherapy, is the application of essential oils. While there are many benefits from the use of essential oils, a good number of myths also came along with the package. As a result, some misunderstanding has developed not only with the therapeutic application of some oils, but also in the production of some of the most popular products alternative medicine practitioners use today.

But before we get into these issues, let’s break down what essential oils are.

So What Are Essential Oils?

In the world of aromatherapy (and in the plant world altogether), the wonderful scents we’re accustomed to smelling from roses, lavender, patchouli, mint, and many others, stem from the essential oils of the plants. In most cases, these fragrances (terpenes) can be found on the leaves, stems, and flowers of the plant and herbs in question. Within their environments, fragrant plants give off their aroma to attract pollinators like bees and hummingbirds, repel insects like beetles and mosquitoes (or attract, depending on the plant), and even act as a form of communication between plants within their environment. Just like mycelium, which acts as a “nervous system” for fungi to communicate with one another within the ecosystems like the forests here in the Hudson Valley, the aromas released from these plants help maintain a type of equilibrium in our natural environment.

In-home Norway Spruce Oleoresin distillation.

The most common method of extracting essential oils occurs through steam distillation. This setup consists of a still, which holds the water and plant material set to boil, a condenser to cool and condense the steam into liquid form, and a collector which separates the essential oil from hydrosol (also known as fragrant water). It’s also important to note that hydrosol naturally contains essential oil, which you can see floating on top of the water, and even smell from the water itself. Hydrosol has a lot of use in the cosmetic world, acting as a skin toner or linen spray, and can be added to cremes and lotions.

In short, what’s actually happening is that the “essence” of the plant is being extracted into a simple oil that has a wide range of application. Essential oils have become widely popular both for at home use and professionally, such as in aromatherapy, yoga, Taichi, and many other areas within the field of health and wellness.

Out of many herbs and botanicals in this arena, one plant that’s rapidly grown in popularity is Frankincense.

What is Frankincense?

Frankincense (Boswellia Sacra) Tree

With a history in traditional medicines, religious ceremonies, and even cosmetics, Frankincense (Boswellia) has a long history that can be traced through different parts of the world which include the Middle East, Africa, India, and even parts of Asia. Many cultures through this region cherished the benefits of the Boswellic family, which includes their anti-inflammatory, expectorant, antiseptic, and even anxiolytic and anti-neurotic properties. Today, many people often hear of wondrous results from the use of Frankincense essential oil which includes improved respiratory function, reduced stress levels, improved skin appearance, reduced pain and inflammation, and hormone balance. There’s also much chatter about other miracles achieved through this plant (some being questionable, and with good reason) which include the treatment of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and even various cancers in the body. But what makes this plant such a potent healer to the human body? The answer lies in a not-so commonly discussed feature of the Boswellic family.

Boswellic Acids

Although many people highlight the wonderful benefits of frankincense, not enough attention gets drawn to the inner workings of what makes Frankincense such a potent substance for the human body. Boswellic Acids are a group of triterpenes within these trees that have contributed to the both the well-known benefits of Frankincense, and according to research, to also the more questionable result, which include the treatment of arthritis, colitis, reduces cerebral edema, reduces skin damage due to radiation, and even the prevention and treatment of various cancers.

Now, this is where a great deal of misunderstanding comes into the story (this one may blow a few fuses out there).

Boswellia Sacra Tree

Due to the ever increasing popularity of this tree's essential oil, which commercially has been produced through the distilling of the tree's leaves and bark, much of the frankincense in the world has been over-harvested, with little to no breaks in between harvest seasons. What most essential oil producers of this product fail to understand is this important fact: Boswellic acids, at their structure, are too heavy to be extracted through steam distillation, and thus are not present in the essential oils. These acids are only found in the oleoresin of the tree, and only within 4 of the Boswellia family members. These members are B. Papyrifera, B. Serrata, B. Sacra, and B. Carterii.

Boswellia Papyrifera Oleoresin (Pearls)

As a result of this misunderstanding, the over-harvesting of the Boswellic family over the years has led them to now be on the endangered species list. In addition, many people who hold this essential oil in high regard for its healing benefits aren’t even receiving the marketed benefits whatsoever, and those responsible for the harvesting throw out both the used parts of these tress and the resins (where all the Boswellic acids are found).

The good news is, there is a growing number of research to support this discovery, and with that, more and more people are educating the masses on this matter. But change is a slow process in a world where money talks, and it’s going to take more than doing just a bit of research to save these trees from completely getting wiped out (if you think that’s an exaggeration, look up the value of Oud/Agarwood as a result of over harvesting). Get to know your product, the producer of your frankincense essential oil, and as the old saying goes, vote with your dollar.

Now, let’s get into how people traditionally received the benefits of Boswellic acids, and how you can do that today.

Method #1: Make A Tea

By far the oldest known method practiced by various cultures for thousands of years. Traditionally, the oleoresin from Frankincense has been made into a tea for consumption both in religious ceremonies and for therapeutic purposes which include stimulated brain function, increased fertility for both men and women, as a home cough remedy, and many other benefits that I’ll refrain from mentioning here for legal reasons. Nonetheless, I highly encourage anyone who is seeking to understand and receive the benefits from these trees to do some diligent research. Don’t hesitate to dive into the literature! (I'll include links to some articles that will expand on the science in ways that I could only dream of doing.)

The method of making a tea with the oleoresins is rather simple:

1. Place a teaspoon of the Frankincense resin of your choice (remember it must be one of the 4 members mentioned previously) in a container containing 4 cups of water. Be sure that each resin “pearl” is no bigger than the size of a lentil before immersing it into the water. Should the resin be larger than a lentil, you can reduce its size by crushing it via mortar and pestle, or by placing the resin in a Ziploc bag, where you can crush the resin little by little with a hammer or something with weight.

2. Cover the container overnight. You’ll notice that the water the next morning will take on a milky or white hue. I typically use a mason jar that can hold 4 cups of water.

3. Begin by drinking small amounts of this tea throughout the day. Be careful not to move too fast with how much tea you consume at first. Like anything new to the body, it’s important to understand how you feel and how your body works when trying anything new. Keep notes, and builds up gradually. The most common known side effect of consuming too much of this tea is digestive problems. If that ends up happening, stop consuming, take a break from the tea, and moderate your intake.

This is by far the simplest method of receiving the benefits of Boswallic acids. As a sidenote, from my experience, the flavor of the tea will taste just like how the resin smells (choose Papyrifera and Serrata for vanilla and honey notes, or Sacra if you’re looking for more spicy notes). The resin used in this method can be reused for one more additional batch of tea.

Method #2: Burn the Resin

A time tested method very similar to the tea, burning this resin in the form of incense has been a tradition long practiced in the Orthodox Churches of Ethiopia. When choosing this method, be sure to select Boswellia Papyrifera, as it’s distinguished from the other members of the Boswellia family for these two unique Boswellic acid compounds: Incensole and Incensole Acetate. Studies have demonstrated the benefits of these compounds through the method of burning the resin, which results in the psychoactive benefits of frankincense. In other words, inhaling the fragrance of the smoke provides the brain the cognitive benefits that Boswellic acids are known for, with benefits which include reduce stress, heightened feelings of well-being, and improved memory function.

It’s best to burn this resin over charcoal, beginning with one pearl at a time. Take it from my experience, burning several pearls at once could be a bit too much for anyone to smell on their first try.

Method #3: Chew the Resin

As intimidating as it sounds, this practice has been going on for longer than I could even imagine. Just like with frankincense resin, this practice has been done with resin gathered from pine and spruce trees in the Americas by the natives for thousands of years. These resins have been used as a natural chewing gum, act as a breath freshener, aid in respiratory function, and in the case of Boswellia, enable the direct ingestion of the desired acids. You can simply take a bit of resin and chew it as is, but if I had to give a recommendation, chew the resin already used to make the tea in Method #1 for a less potent flavor.

The Bottom Line

Now more than ever, is it important for us to do some diligent research with the very products we use on a daily basis. In the case of frankincense, ask the manufacturer (or artisan if produced in small batches) about the process they took to distill your essential oil. Inquire whether or not the essential oil was produced through the resin, rather than the leaves and bark of the tree. Remember that terpenes are present within the leaves/needles, bark, and even roots of different plants, but for the sake of plants such as frankincense, knowing your product could make the difference in the future of this species.

As of the time of this writing, Seven Resins has started producing small batch, artisan-distilled essential oils in-house. Whether if it's Boswellia Sacra or Norway Spruce (harvested in the Hudson Valley), you can be certain that the essential oils of such fragrant trees are produced through the distilling of their resin (unless noted otherwise). Although these oils are added into some of the soaps produced here, be on the lookout for a new product line in the near future!

Below are some articles for further research into the wondrous function of the Boswellia family:

Benefits to the Reproductive System

Antimicrobial Benefits

As a Cancer Inhibitor

Aid in Memory Impairment

Assistance in Autoimmune Challenges

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