Frankincense (Boswellia) is best known as incense to most folks. It’s been used for thousands of years as a wonderful aid for mood, medication, ritual, and prayer. As such, frankincense was extremely valuable in the ancient world and was a key part of the spice trade 2000 years ago, making the folks who controlled frankincense trees in the Southern Arabian Peninsula and East Africa extremely wealthy (1).
Frankincense is also great support for the digestive tract. More on this in a moment…
First, what, exactly, is this chunky stuff we call frankincense? Technically it’s an “oleo-gum-resin.” The “resin” part is a sticky blend of stuff that turns solid in contact with air and can’t be dissolved in water. The “gum” part is a thick mix of large sugar chains (polysaccharides) that do dissolve in water. The “oleo” part is the volatile oil…the essential oil distilled from frankincense. In fact, the types of frankincense most valued for scent, such as Boswellia sacra, have over 2 dozen different chemicals that make up the essential oil (3).
The oleo-gum-resin is secreted as a whitish liquid from frankincense trees when the bark has been sliced. The liquid hardens into “tears” and then is collected. It’s first aid for the tree—an anti-microbial bandage sent out to cover and protect the wound—much like pine resin is.
Frankincense for inflammatory gut issues: tradition & studies
In Ayurvedic medicine from India, frankincense (called Salai Guggul in that tradition) has been used for a very long time as a remedy for issues involving inflammation, spasm, and pain (2). Inflammatory disorders in the gut—Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, Collagenous Colitis, chronic colitis, etc.—are characterized by just such issues as a result of damage to the intestinal lining. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, frankincense is used for pain and in Traditional Iranian Medicine, it’s used for inflammatory bowel diseases.
A number of small clinical studies and multiple mechanistic studies in cells show that frankincense extracts help promote and protect the health of the intestinal lining in the face of these disorders, decreasing the problems associated with these various gut issues. In one clinical trial of using frankincense extract for 6 weeks in cases of collagenous colitis, more folks went into remission (meaning that symptoms went away) using frankincense compared to placebo (63% for frankincense versus 27% for placebo). In another small trial, frankincense was more effective for remission than a standardly used drug. These studies involve taking frankincense orally. It’s commercially available as liquid extracts, encapsulated extracts, and powder. Some folks experience digestive upset when taking it due to its resinous nature. Taking it with food may help in that case.
At least part of the effects of frankincense are due to components called boswellic acids that are a large part of the resin. Boswellic acids reduce the production of multiple chemicals in the body that cause inflammatory damage to tissues, including the intestinal tract. They also have antioxidant properties (protecting cells from free radicals) and inhibit enzymes called “proteases” that damage tissues.
Boswellic acids aren’t the only part of frankincense that provides some support for the gut. The essential oil of frankincense doesn’t contain boswellic acids but may provide some comfort during episodes of gut inflammation if diluted in a carrier like olive oil and rubbed on the belly. It combines well with lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil for this. Or, you can make an infused oil of frankincense tears and use this as a belly rub. Don’t use the essential oil internally.
Additional gut support from frankincense
Stress has an impact on gut function, something many of us have experienced at one point or another (during all of grad school for me!). The aroma of frankincense is calming, and this by itself may be helpful when used regularly as part of a larger approach.
Frankincense may provide some support for the gut in fending off unwanted critters via its significant antibacterial activity. Some initial studies suggest that it may even help inhibit the biofilm production that makes some bacterial infections in the body hard to treat. The biofilm work was done in a “test tube,” not in actual people, so whether this applies to the real world remains to be seen.
Some final notes…
The essential oil from several species of frankincense is high in components that easily go bad, so store your oil light-protected in the fridge (3). Finally, some inflammatory gut disorders can be severe or even life threatening. Work with your healthcare provider…don’t go it alone. And if taking medications, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before adding on any herb, frankincense or otherwise.
- Watt, M & W Sellar (1996) Frankincense & Myrrh. The CW Daniel Company, LTD.
- Khalsa, KPS & M Tierra (2008) The way of Ayurvedic herbs. Lotus Press.
- Tisserand, R & R Young (2014) Essential oil safety, 2nd edition. Elsevier.