Frankincense oil has been used for thousands of years as a “feel-good” oil. But is has only been since the early 20th century that frankincense and other essential oils have been scientifically examined and used for specific medical targets (Source). In this post, we will first examine what frankincense oil is (Section A), thereafter, we will look at some of its many uses in health-care (Section B). From these generalities, frankincense’s usefulness for cancer will be established. (Section C) Lastly, we will conclude with solid science that supports the claim that essential oils benefits are much more than placebo feel-good sensations. (Section D).
WHAT IS FRANKINCENSE OIL ?
Frankincense resin is obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia (family Burseraceae). Incisions are made in the trunks of the trees to produce exuded gum, which appears as milk like resin. The resin hardens into orange-brown gum resin known as frankincense.
There are numerous species and varieties of frankincense trees, including Boswellia serrata in India, Boswellia carteri in East Africa and China, Boswellia frereana in Somalia, and Boswellia sacra in Arabia, each producing a slightly different type of resin.
Differences in soil and climate create more diversity in the resins, even within the same species. The aroma from these resins is valued for its presumed healing properties and superior qualities for religious rituals since the time of the ancient Egyptians (1), and has been used in incense, fumigants and as a fixative in perfumes.
FRANKINCENSE’S GENERAL HEALTH CLAIMS
Frankincense resin has been considered throughout the ages to have a wealth of health supporting properties. The resins of Boswellia carteri and Boswellia serrata have been used for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases (2) such as Crohn’s disease (3) in traditional medicine of many countries.
Its anti-inflammatory activity has been attribute to the resin’s ability in regulating immune cytokines production (4) and leukocyte infiltration (5,6). Boswellia serrata extract also exhibits anti-bacterial and anti-fungal activities (8). As shown elsewhere, given cancer’s fungus-like behavior, anti-fugal substances are generally useful in the treatment of cancer.
FRANKINCENSE’S USEFULNESS FOR CANCER PATIENTS
As we saw, frankincense oil is prepared from aromatic hardened gum resins obtained by tapping Boswellia trees. One of the main components of frankincense oil is boswellic acid, a component known to have anti-neoplastic properties. In this perspective, it has been shown that these acids possess anti-cancer activities, based on their anti-proliferative and pro-apoptotic activities in rat astrocytoma cell lines (8) and in human leukemia cell lines (9) as well as their anti-carcinogenic activity in chemically induced mouse skin cancer models (10).
In yet another study, extracts from the resin reduced the peritumoral edema in glioblastoma patients (8) and reverses multiple brain metastases in a breast cancer patient (11). These results suggest that frankincense resin contains active ingredients that modulate important biological activities.
FRANKINCENSE’S KEY ACTIVE MEDICINAL MOLECULES AND BIOCHEMICAL PATHWAYS
In search of the active medicinal ingredients of frankincense resins, Chevrier et al. reported that ethanol extract of Boswellia carteri resin comprises 7 boswellic acids (4). Akihisa et al. reported that methanol extract of Boswellia carteri resin consists of 15 triterpene acids, including boswellic acids, and 2 cembrane-type diterpenes (12). 11-keto-β-boswellic acid, the most potent anti-inflammatory component of the resin, selectively blocks leukotriene biosynthesis through inhibiting 5-lipoxygenase activity in rat neutrophilic granulocytes (13) and provides protective effects in a chemically induced mouse ulcerative colitis model (14).
Boswellic acids also prevented endotoxin/galactosamine-induced hepatitis in mice (15). In addition, boswellic acids have been shown to possess anti-cancer activities through their cytostatic and apoptotic effects in multiple human cancer cell lines including meningioma cells (16) leukemia cells (17) hepatoma cells (18) melanoma cells, fibrosarcoma cells (19), and colon cancer cells (20).
In yet another study, it was demonstrated that frankincense oil can discriminate bladder cancer cells from normal bladder urothelial UROtsa cells and suppress cancer cell viability. Based on gene expression analysis, frankincense oil activated several anti-proliferative and pro-apoptotic pathways that might be responsible for frankincense oil-induced cancer cell death. This study’s conclusion is as follows:
“Frankincense oil appears to distinguish cancerous from normal bladder cells and suppress cancer cell viability. Microarray and bioinformatics analysis proposed multiple pathways that can be activated by frankincense oil to induce bladder cancer cell death. Frankincense oil might represent an alternative intravesical agent for bladder cancer treatment.” (21)
Most of these studies including the last one where not performed on human beings. More confirmation via clinical trials are therefore indicated. However, we have enough anecdotal and pre-clinical evidence to support the claim that frankincense is safe and useful for cancer patients as an adjunctive therapy.
Founder and director of the French Pyrénean Holistic Medicine Retreat Center, and the American Advanced Cancer Research Institute, Christian is a former professor of public int’l law, litigator, a holistic oncologist, longevity expert, holistic medicine professor, aromatherapist, organic berries farmer and naturopath from France.
REFERENCE AND PRECISIONS NOTES
1 Maloney GA. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh : an introduction to Eastern Christian spirituality. New York: Crossroads Pub. Co; 1997.
2 Banno N, Akihisa T, Yasukawa K, Tokuda H, Tabata K, Nakamura Y, Nishimura R, Kimura Y, Suzuki T. Anti-inflammatory activities of the triterpene acids from the resin of Boswellia carteri. J Ethnopharmacol. 2006;107:249–253.
3 Langmead L, Rampton DS. Review article: complementary and alternative therapies for inflammatory bowel disease. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2006;23:341–349.
4 Chevrier MR, Ryan AE, Lee DY, Zhongze M, Wu-Yan Z, Via CS. Boswellia carterii extract inhibits TH1 cytokines and promotes TH2 cytokines in vitro. Clin Diag Lab Immunol. 2005;12:575–580.
5 Sharma ML, Khajuria A, Kaul A, Singh S, Singh GB, Atal CK. Effect of salai guggal ex-Boswellia serrata on cellular and humoral immune responses and leucocyte migration. Agents Actions. 1988;24:161–164.
6 Singh GB, Atal CK. Pharmacology of an extract of salai guggal ex-Boswellia serrata, a new non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent. Agents Actions. 1986;18:407–412.
7 Weckesser S, Engel K, Simon-Haarhaus B, Wittmer A, Pelz K, Schempp CM. Screening of plant extracts for antimicrobial activity against bacteria and yeasts with dermatological relevance. Phytomedicine. 2007;14:508–516. doi: 10.1016/j.phymed.2006.12.013.
8 Winking M, Sarikaya S, Rahmanian A, Jodicke A, Boker DK. Boswellic acids inhibit glioma growth: a new treatment option? J Neurooncol. 2000;46:97–103.
9 Hostanska K, Daum G, Saller R. Cytostatic and apoptosis-inducing activity of boswellic acids toward malignant cell lines in vitro. Anticancer Res. 2002;22:2853–2862.
10 Huang MT, Badmaev V, Ding Y, Liu Y, Xie JG, Ho CT. Anti-tumor and anti-carcinogenic activities of triterpenoid, β-boswellic acid. BioFactors. 2000;13:225–230.
11 Flavin DF. A lipoxygenase inhibitor in breast cancer brain metastases. J Neurooncol. 2007;82:91–93.
12 Akihisa T, Tabata K, Banno N, Tokuda H, Nishimura R, Nakamura Y, Kimura Y, Yasukawa K, Suzuki T. Cancer chemopreventive effects and cytotoxic activities of the triterpene acids from the resin of Boswellia carteri. Biol Pharm Bull. 2006;29:1976–1979.
13 Safayhi H, Sailer ER, Ammon HP. Mechanism of 5-lipoxygenase inhibition by acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid. Mol Pharmacol. 1995;47:1212–1216.
14 Anthoni C, Laukoetter MG, Rijcken E, Vowinkel T, Mennigen R, Muller S, Senninger N, Russell J, Jauch J, Bergmann J, et al. Mechanisms underlying the anti-inflammatory actions of boswellic acid derivatives in experimental colitis. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2006;290:G1131–1137.
15 Safayhi H, Mack T, Ammon HP. Protection by boswellic acids against galactosamine/endotoxin-induced hepatitis in mice. Biochem Pharmacol. 1991;41:1536–1537.
16 Park YS, Lee JH, Bondar J, Harwalkar JA, Safayhi H, Golubic M. Cytotoxic action of acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid (AKBA) on meningioma cells. Planta Medica. 2002;68:397–401.
17 Shao Y, Ho CT, Chin CK, Badmaev V, Ma W, Huang MT. Inhibitory activity of boswellic acids from Boswellia serrata against human leukemia HL-60 cells in culture. Planta Medica. 1998;64:328–331.
18 Liu JJ, Nilsson A, Oredsson S, Badmaev V, Duan RD. Keto- and acetyl-keto-boswellic acids inhibit proliferation and induce apoptosis in Hep G2 cells via a caspase-8 dependent pathway. Int J Mol Med. 2002;10:501–505.
19 Zhao W, Entschladen F, Liu H, Niggemann B, Fang Q, Zaenker KS, Han R. Boswellic acid acetate induces differentiation and apoptosis in highly metastatic melanoma and fibrosarcoma cells. Cancer Detec Prev. 2003;27:67–75.
20 Liu JJ, Nilsson A, Oredsson S, Badmaev V, Zhao WZ, Duan RD. 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. 2002;23:2087–2093.
21 BMC Complement Altern Med. 2009; 9: 6. This study is an in vitro one involving J82 cells. Within a range of concentration, frankincense oil suppressed cell viability in bladder transitional carcinoma J82 cells but not in UROtsa cells. Comprehensive gene expression analysis confirmed that frankincense oil activates genes that are responsible for cell cycle arrest, cell growth suppression, and apoptosis in J82 cells. However, frankincense oil-induced cell death in J82 cells did not result in DNA fragmentation, a hallmark of apoptosis. Animal and clinical trials need to confirm these findings.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this educational blog should be construed as medical advise.
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