Frankincense is loved by many. It is referred to as the "King of Essential Oils". We read about it in the bible as being a gift offered to Jesus by the wise men. Indeed it is an amazing essential oil.
Many people take frankincense to fight or ward off cancer or for health and healing. Others take frankincense supplements that tout the anti-inflammatory benefits of frankincense resin extract (in powder form). Is it all just the same thing? Does the stuff really work?
Frankincense essential oil and frankincense resin extract are different and research suggests they offer different benefits. Frankincense essential oil is steam distilled from the resin. Steam distillation limits the size of molecules that can be collected. Typically smaller volatile molecules are collected via distillation (with molecular weights below 300). 10-15 (rarely 20) carbon molecules are more typical of what we see in essential oils. This limits the array of molecules present in the essential oils.
The resin extract contains larger molecules such as Boswellic acid, a 30 carbon with molecular weights in the range of 450-500, that research suggests has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Despite claims to the contrary it is unlikely that the essential oil contains any or significant amounts of boswellic acid due to the size of the molecule.
Beta-boswellic acid, keto-beta-boswellic acid, and acetyl-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA) have be reported to induce apoptosis of cancer cells (1). Acetyl-boswellic acids also have been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory behavior by inhibiting leukotriene synthesis (2).
Frankincense essential oil, which is often rich in a-pinene is excellent for skin care, focus, and meditation and often used for respiratory support. There are some studies that focus on using frankincense essential oil against cancer cells in vitro (in a dish) with some success but the molecule alpha pinene was shown to be less effective against cancer cells that other compounds from plants such as garlic or turmeric. Boswellic acid has been suggested to have antitumoral properties but is not present in the essential oil due to its size.
So yes frankincense is amazing and beneficial but the essential oil and extract are not the same. For inflammation it is suggested to take 600- 900 mg Boswellia extract (standardized to 60 to 65% boswellic acid) per day. For digestive support, arthritis, osteoarthritis, asthma, pain, inflammatory bowel disease, or injury a dose of 900-1200mg per day is suggested.
Frankincense essential oil can be enjoyed via diffusion for respiratory support and focus. Add to lotion or body butter for skin support. Research shows that alpha-pinene, present in frankincense essential oil, is anti-inflammatory (3), anti-bacterial (4), anti-fungal (5), anti-spasmodic (6), anti-viral (7), and prevents bone loss (8).
So indeed frankincense essential oil and frankincense resin extract appear to be beneficial and promising. But they are quite different in their make up and actions. It is wise to consult a knowledgable health care practitioner when looking to understand the benefits and risks of natural products. When using essential oils or plant based supplements there is a lot of advice available from individuals and the internet but check their education and background -- have they studied herbal or aromatic medicine or simply like using a product?
To learn more about research on frankincense essential oil and resin visit Robert Tisserand's site to see his review of frankincense oil and cancer: http://tisserandinstitute.org/frankincense-oil-and-cancer-in-perspective/
If you have questions about aromatherapy, essential oils, frankincense EO or resin contact Tricia
1Liu, J.-J.; Nilsson, A.; Oredsson, S.; Badmaev, V.; Zhao, W.; Duan, R. (2002). "Boswellic acids trigger apoptosis via a pathway dependent on caspase-8 activation but independent on Fas/Fas ligand interaction in colon cancer HT-29 cells". Carcinogenesis. 23 (12): 2087–93. doi:10.1093/carcin/23.12.2087. PMID 12507932.
2 Ammon, H. P.; Safayi, H.; Mack, T.; Sabieraj, J. (1993). "Mechanism of antiinflammatory actions of curcumine and boswellic acids". Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 38 (2–3): 113–9. doi:10.1016/0378-8741(93)90005-p. PMID 8510458.
3 Martin S, Padilla E, Ocete M A, Galvez J, Jimenez J, Zarzuelo A (1993),Anti-inflammatory activity of the essential oil of Bupleurum fruticescens
4 Deans SG, Svoboda KP (1988) Antibacterial activity of French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus Linn.) essential oil and its constituents during ontology. Journal of Horticultural Science 63:503-508
5 Xia Z, Mao X, Luo Y (1999) Study on antifungal mechanism of alpha-pinene. Hunan Yi Ke Da Xue Xue Bao 24:507-509
6 Camara CC, Nascimento NR, Macedo-Filho CL et al (2003) Antispasmodic effect of the essential oil of Plectranthus barbatus and some major constituents on the guinea-pig ileum. Planta Medica 69:1080-1085
7 Astani A, Reichling J, Schnitzler P (2009) Comparative study on the antiviral activity of selected monoterpenes derived from essential oils. Phytotherapy Research.
8 Muhlbauer RC, Lozano A, Palacio S et al (2003) Common herbs, essential oils, and monoterpenes potently modulate bone metabolism. Bone 32:372-380