By Dr. Summer Beattie, ND | There are many health and environmental reasons I avoid synthetic fragrances that I’ll share with you another time; the holidays are notorious for aromatic gifts such as perfumes, colognes, candles, etc. so I’ll just leave you with: please choose pure essential oils. For this article, as thoughts turn to Christmas and one of my favorite scents fills our home, I want to share a little about the essence of an iconic seasonal aroma – frankincense. Boswellia carterii is the Latin name for one species of tree that produces a distinctive and evocatively fragrant resin. Known as olibanum or “Oil of Lebanon”, it is most often recognized as frankincense, the name believed to have been derived from the Frankish (French) Knights of the Crusades who first brought the coveted product to Europe.
Boswellia is found in arid climates of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. It grows in soil or rocky cliffs that are rich in limestone. While the plant does produce delicate, often white flowers, it is cutting the scraggly, knarled bark of the shrub like tree that produces a thick resinous sap for harvest. During the months of May through September, cuts are made in the bark. As the sap flows, it hardens into “tears” of resin which are later scraped from the tree. The essential oil is usually extracted via steam distillation. While very fine quality resins used for fragrance and cosmetics may have a light yellow to golden brown color, the most pure resin appears almost translucent. It is the pure resins, those free of black or brown spots that are edible for internal medical use. Frankincense, which has been used medicinally and religiously for over five thousand years, is once again gaining popularity.
Frankincense is thought of during the Christmas season because it is one of the three gifts brought by the Magi to the baby Jesus. At this time in history, Frankincense was perhaps more valuable than even the gold they brought – a gift certainly befitting the new King of the Jews. This gift would also have been clearly recognized as an act of worship as Jewish priests had long been burning frankincense in temple ceremonies. This tradition carried over into Roman Catholicism where the use of frankincense in liturgy went through periods of disfavor and renewal. Frankincense was also used by many Middle Eastern civilizations in religious ritual, including the ancient Egyptians and Islamic cultures. When burned, it was a symbol of prayer rising to heaven. Today the oil is still used by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic worshipers to anoint newborn babies or individuals moving into an experience of new spiritual birth.
Ancient Ayurvedic, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese cultures have a rich history of using Frankincense to treat a vast range of conditions from plague to baldness. Most popularly it was used for digestive complaints, wound healing, and for balancing female hormones. Egyptians are noted to have used the sweet smoke of burning frankincense in between bathing to mask bad odor and then crushing the ash to be used for the infamous black eyeliner seen in their drawings – kohl. It has long been used in topical skin care to decrease redness, sooth dry and irritated skin, and decrease fine lines. Practitioners continue to recommend the use of Frankincense oil in massage, baths and as diffuse aromatherapy.
Despite this prolific use as a healing remedy, it is the often religious use that may have lead to one of the most significant modern medicinal research findings concerning this plant resin. Israeli scientist, Arieh Moussaieff and his team discovered that a chemical compound, incensole acetate elicits a profound effect on an ion channel in the brain whose effects had been previously unknown. What these researchers found was that this ion channel influenced the parts of the brain involved with emotion. Incensole acetate had a prominent anti-anxiety and mood enhancing effect. This finding is exciting because it bridges our understanding of the scientific and belief in the spiritual effects of Frankincense.
I love Frankincense for its spicy, balsamic aroma, the way its alluring fragrance warms during this winter season while being fresh. I find it possesses a comforting bouquet of tones that are also elevating and exciting. The knowledge of why it makes me feel this way only lends to my appreciation of this magnificent oil. The new scientific research is inspiring because, it honors the importance of tradition, ceremony and the sacred, while also giving hope that we can take this new information and apply it in healing ways to neuro-psychiatric conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s – conditions that break the body and spirit. So, this Christmas season, I encourage you to give a gift with pure organic Frankincense to someone you love.
Dr. Summer Beattie, ND is a graduate of Bastyr University. She has over 8 years experience as a Naturopathic Doctor specializing in women’s health with an emphasis on environmental medicine. Having served two terms on the board of directors for the Washington Association of Naturopathic Physicians, she has also worked in the medical aesthetics field since 2008. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or