This is the time of the year when the story of the three wise men, Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar is often told and how they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. When I was younger, I knew that gold was valuable, but why frankincense and myrrh? The answer is that 2,000 years ago, frankincense and myrrh actually had much greater value than gold because they were effective as medicines.
Frankincense is a resin from trees of the genus Boswellia. It is a common component of incense and perfume. People have been harvesting and using frankincense for more than 5,000 years because of its health benefits. Interestingly, high-quality frankincense is edible and has been used to aid in digestion. In India, frankincense has been used as a topical agent to treat wounds. It can be consumed to treat arthritis pain and balance hormones. It is even employed as a good disinfectant. Burning frankincense apparently keeps mosquitoes away, which is especially beneficial in areas where malaria, dengue fever and other mosquito-born infections are common.
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Modern research on frankincense has confirmed its healthful benefits especially for inflammatory bowel disease. Frankincense also has anti-inflammatory properties and extracts of frankincense have shown significant benefit for Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Medical studies have demonstrated a benefit for arthritis pain and preventing the exacerbation of asthma. Frankincense extracts may also inhibit the growth of certain cancers.
Myrrh also is a resin from a plant native to Africa, India and the Middle East. Like frankincense, it has uses in perfumes and as a medicine to treat many medical conditions and illnesses.
Myrrh is used to relieve arthritis pain and treat a number of female medical conditions like menopause, painful periods and noncancerous uterine tumors. Myrrh also is used restore "aged" skin. Some research has shown that myrrh can reduce blood sugar levels in diabetic patients and reduces pain perception. Myrrh is added to mouthwashes and toothpaste to fight bacteria and prevent gum disease. Topically it stimulates circulation and is often added to liniments for muscle aches. Myrrh also has been used on intestinal parasites.
Overall, myrrh is a pretty good medicine.
In ancient times where there were limited medical care options, frankincense and myrrh offered significant benefits in the treatment of disease. However, these items were difficult to get and purify and transport to the local apothecary was tenuous, making them, 2,000 years ago, more valuable than gold. Fortunately, today, extracts of frankincense and myrrh are surprisingly available and a lot less expensive.
• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network. His website is www.alt-med.org.