Incense has wafted through homes, ritual sites, and burial grounds since the dawn of human existence. While most commonly associated with providing an aromatic air, there is also evidence different incenses were used as medicine, during ceremonial work, and for their psychoactive effect.


The burning of various plant resins, leaves, and roots for their scent have prevailed across the world. However, certain botanicals have laid fame within ancient texts and their influence has lasted until the present day. One such example is frankincense, or olibanum, an aromatic resin from Boswellia spp. tree used for natural medicine, incense, and perfumes.


The resin of Boswellia species is mentioned in many ancient texts as incense alone or mixed with other fragrances. It was used by the ancient Greeks, and in Jewish, Islamic, and Christian ritual ceremonies. Religious texts cite the resin being burned by rabbis in the temples of Jerusalem. The Prophet Mohammed was reputed to prescribe it for treating various ailments. In Ancient Egypt, ashes of frankincense were used as eyeliner and the resin was tucked inside of tombs of queens and Pharaohs.[1] It was also a staple in ancient Chinese medicine.


Frankincense was considered a valuable commodity carried in caravans in the ancient Middle East and is still a major export for the region in the present day. The plant resin was considered as a key commodity for barter and trade along with ivory and gold. [2,3]


Frankincense incense symbolized prayer lofting into the heavens like smoke. It’s counterpart, myrrh, symbolized death as it was commonly used in embalming practices. Scholars believe that the frankincense presented to baby Jesus by the Three Kings represented his eventual role as a high priest, while myrrh symbolized his death. It is believed that the pre-crucifixion drink given to Jesus had frankincense within it. In the Talmud (the Jewish religious text dating to 300–600 C.E.), the plant resin was dissolved in wine and given to prisoners before their execution in order to “benumb the senses”. [3,4]


Cannabis also has biblical reference, which is a hotly debated topic. Conventional bible scholars attribute the mention of “kaneh-bosm” in ancient Hebrew versions of the Old Testament to calamus, or “Sweet flag.” According to author Chris Bennett, this is a misconception, as the plant does not have the same value or attributes that the text refers to. Bennett attests that Kaneh-bosm is in reference to cannabis. He notes that cannabis is mentioned five times throughout the Old Testament and that the plant is alluded to “both as incense, which was an integral part of religious celebration, and as an intoxicant.” [5] A recipe for holy anointing oil bequeathed to Moses from God cites a mix of cinnamon, cassia, olive oil, myrrh, and that good old “kaneh-bosm”- literally translating to “aromatic cane”. [6]


Cannabis has many modes of administration, including the less commonly discussed use as an incense in ancient times. When excavating tombs in a cemetery in the Pamir mountains of western China, researchers found a set of wooden incense burners with “biomarkers of cannabis” with high levels of THC residue as well as CBN (cannabinol), the compound that forms after THC metabolizes. This finding was the oldest discovered artifact with cannabis, estimated to have originated around 500 BCE.  The remains of cannabinoids found in the incense burners indicated that “the burned cannabis plants expressed higher THC levels than typically found in wild plants.” Trace amounts of CBD were also discovered, but in a very small quantity. Therefore, it was concluded that the ritualistic use of cannabis in this context was primarily for psychoactive effect. It is believed that their ceremonies may have included “flames, rhythmic music, and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind.” [7]


Cannabis use in this context was burned as incense and inhaled as a result of being in close proximity. In fact, there is no clear evidence of the inhalation of cannabis through pipes in Central Asia before the modern era. Smoking cannabis is believed to have been introduced to there from the New World. [8]

Parallels Between Cannabis & Frankincense

Frankincense and cannabis have several attributes in common, including modulating some of the same receptor channels in the body. Not surprisingly, Raphael Mechoulam, the “Father of Cannabis Research” who helped identify THC and has been instrumental in cannabis research spanning four decades, has also conducted various studies on Boswellia species. Below are various ways that frankincense shares similar properties with cannabis.

Psychoactivity:

Our ancestors of old were altering consciousness in a variety of ways and frankincense’s psychoactive properties have been recognized since ancient times. The smoke of frankincense produces a mind-altering substance known as trahydrocannabinole. [9] The plant’s resin has been found to contain over 200 active compounds and some of which have inspired various research studies. [3]


Data supports that frankincense resin can affect emotional states and behaviors. This is due to its action as a potent TRPV3 agonist that causes antidepressant and stress relieving effects. The TRPV3 channel is affects emotional and behavioral processes in the central nervous system and is also known to give the perception of warmth (via regulation of body temperature). In a mouse model, incensole acetate, a compound in Boswellia, induced psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain. Since Frankincense is known to heighten the euphoria during religious rites, his action within TRVP3 receptors may “provide a biochemical basis for the millennial and widespread use of Boswellia containing incense. [9]  


CBD is known to also bind to receptor channels in this receptor family, specifically TRPV1 receptors. This action is also shared with capsaicin—the spicy compound of hot peppers, and the endogenous cannabinoid anandamide. Activation of TRPV1 can influence the perception of pain. [10]


Another parallel that active compounds in frankincense have with CBD is the influence on Cytochrome P450. Boswellic acids have the ability to non-selectively inhibit the drug metabolizing cytochrome P450 enzyme family.3 CBD also inhibits CP450 in sufficient doses. This means that these compounds can change how different medications are metabolized. This could influence those taking painkillers, blood thinners, insulin, statins, and others. [10] Those taking CBD and Boswellia with prescription medications should be aware that smaller doses would be required and to notify their healthcare provider.  

Anti-inflammatory action

Another parallel with cannabis is frankincense’s reputation as a potent anti-inflammatory. The anti-inflammatory properties of Boswellia spp. are associated with boswellic acid and similar compounds.11 Additionally, major components of frankincense, such as incensole acetate and its derivatives, are believed to be responsible for its anti-inflammatory effects due to inhibition of nuclear factor-kB (proteins that control inflammatory response within the body). [3]


The longstanding use of traditions Boswellia resin inspired research in this area. However, frankincense extracts have demonstrated biphasic effects, sometimes increasing and other times decreasing inflammation. Several studies demonstrated that the activity of whole plant Boswellia resin is more advantageous than purified boswellic acids. These data suggest that entourage effect may be at play, and that frankincense’s anti-inflammatory activity is likely influenced by multiple constituents. [3]


Boswellia preparations have also been found to prevent the release of leukotrienes, compounds that cause inflammation. This action can lead to a reduction of inflammation for those with irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, sinusitis, asthma, and bronchitis.12 In a human clinical trial, frankincense was found to reduce the amount of NSAID medication taken and lowered morning pain for those with rheumatoid arthritis. [13]

Anti-cancer properties

Boswellic acids have demonstrated antiproliferative effects on tumors in laboratory tests. Compounds in the plant encourage the death of cancer cells and alter the formation of disease’s DNA in order to keep it from spreading. Specific research has found that these compounds inhibit the proliferation of glioblastoma, melanoma, liver cancer, and leukemia cells. Some laboratory tests have demonstrated that frankincense oil may be able to target and kill cancer cells while leaving normal, healthy cells intact. [12,14]


The majority of tests on frankincense for cancer have been conducted in test tubes, but there has been one clinical study on the effects of the plant for managing the side effects of glioblastoma (a brain cancer). A group of 44 glioblastoma patients were given either frankincense or placebo, and 60% of those in the frankincense group experienced reduced edema (accumulation of fluid in the brain), as compared to 26% of the placebo group. A decrease in edema is likely due to the anti-inflammatory properties of the plant. [15] These findings are promising and worthy of deeper examination.

Digestive issues

Due to the Boswellia’s potent anti-inflammatory properties, it has been researched as a potential treatment for various digestive ailments. In a study of 102 Crohn's patients, Boswellia serrata extract was found to be as effective as the pharmaceutical drug mesalazine and also exhibited less side effects. [16]

Frankincense has also been looked at for ulcerative colitis. In a small study of 30 patients, 20 were treated with Boswellia gum resin, and 10 were given sulfasalazine, a prescription anti-inflammatory drug. Of those who took frankincense, 90% experienced a reduction in symptoms and produce minimal side effects. [17] Another double blind, placebo controlled study of 31 people with chronic diarrhea reported that those taking Boswellia went into remission at a higher rate than those who took placebo. [18] Research with larger groups of participants are needed to further confirm the treatment potential of frankincense for digestive issues.

Other parallels

Both cannabis and frankincense have demonstrated neuroprotective properties, meaning that they may shield nerve and brain cells from damage.  Incensole acetate, a sesquiterpenoid in frankincense, was shown to have strong neuroprotective effect after brain trauma in a mouse model. [3] CBD and has also been found to help reduce damage after head injury. Cannabinoids have been shown to counter several aspects of neurodegenerative diseases, overall protecting the neurons within the body. [19] Compounds in both frankincense and cannabis have also been investigated as potential options for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer disease. [20, 21]

Frankincense has been known for its ability to help heal wounds for a very long time. Boswellic acid has shown potent antibacterial properties and the ability to help fight cavities. [22] Plant extractions of Boswellia serrata extracts have been evaluated for antimicrobial activity against various antibiotic resistant bacteria such as Staph, step, E. coli, and others. The results from a 2014 study demonstrated that frankincense has a comparable ability to combat bacteria as ciprofloxacin, a pharmaceutical antibiotic that is becoming less effective. [23] This is in tandem with research on CBD, GBG and other cannabinoids for their ability to target antibiotic resistant superbugs such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). [24]

Reverence for Endangered Medicine

Frankincense is highly prized across the globe. And now with more research coming out about its healing potential, it has even more mass appeal. It is essential that plant lovers keep in mind the availability of the resources acquired from nature. Boswellia is a good reminder of this, as many varieties of the plant are endangered across the world. Current research has indicated that frankincense species are on the brink of collapse. A recent study reported that if there isn't an intervention now, half of the frankincense forests used to produce medicine won’t exist 20 years from now. [1]  


Thousands of tons of frankincense are exported around the world each year. As consumer demand increases, overharvesting is resulting in a degradation of the ecosystems where the plant grows naturally. In order to collect frankincense incense, workers tap the trees by slicing the their wood and waiting for sap to flow out and harden into a resin. The resin is then harvested and turned into incense or oil.


The strain on frankincense population is due to unsustainable harvesting methods caused by the pressures of free trade. In the example of Boswellia payrifera, which is responsible for the majority of the world’s frankincense, farmers in impoverished countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Darfur, and Eritrea resort to taking as much resin as they can in the shortest amount of time possible. These producers rely on frankincense for their livelihood but make a very small percentage of the profit. As a result, frankincense trees are over-harvested and become stressed and vulnerable to pests and disease. While healthy frankincense trees produce an abundance of seeds, researchers aren’t seeing many new, young trees. Others are too weak for seed production. And since mature trees are required for harvesting, the demand for resin is far surpassing the supply. [1]


What can be done? The answer is essential to the current times we live in, and frankincense is not alone. As with any other tree species, efforts for replanting would be of benefit. Considerate harvesting techniques should be implemented, which may result in limiting international trade. Consumers should be aware of the sources where their frankincense comes from and only buy products that have been created with sustainable intent.


One organization, called Save Frankincense, is working towards the preservation of this important botanical. The organization is working to establish best practice for frankincense harvesting and well as creating a sustainable supply chain. Workers in Boswellia producing countries must be empowered and have the ability to make a living while using sustainable cultivation practices.


The goal isn’t to outline the beneficial properties of the plant and then discourage its use. But our consumption of medicinal plants should not be detrimental to their ability to survive. Hopefully spreading knowledge on their worth to humanity can be what saves them.



Sources:

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