What is frankincense?
Frankincense, also known as olibanum, is made from the resin of the Boswellia tree. This tree typically grows in the dry, mountainous regions of India, Africa, and the Middle East.
Frankincense has a woody, spicy smell and can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or taken as a supplement.
Used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, frankincense appears to offer certain health benefits, from improved arthritis and digestion to reduced asthma and better oral health. It may even help fight certain types of cancer.
Health benefits of frankincense
Here are 5 science-backed benefits of frankincense:
1. Frankincense may reduce arthritis
Frankincense has anti-inflammatory effects that may help reduce joint inflammation caused by arthritis.
Researchers believe that frankincense can prevent the release of leukotrienes, which are compounds that can cause inflammation.
Terpenes, including boswellic acid, appear to be the strongest anti-inflammatory compounds in frankincense.
In one 2014 study, both oral and topical boswellic acid reduced cartilage loss and joint lining inflammation in osteoarthritis in mice.
In humans, frankincense extract may help reduce symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
In one 2018 review, frankincense was consistently more effective than a placebo at reducing osteoarthritis pain and improving mobility.
However, the review noted that the quality of most studies was low and more research is needed.
In a subsequent study, participants took 169.33 mg of boswellia extract twice daily for 120 days. Results indicated that the supplement reduced inflammation, joint pain, and stiffness in mild to moderate knee osteoarthritis, without serious side effects.
Another study found that oliban oil, another name for frankincense, reduced osteoarthritis pain when applied to the skin for 6 weeks. However, participants’ ability to do daily activities or participate in sports didn’t show significant improvements.
Combinations of frankincense with other supplements may also be effective.
A 2018 study found that 350 mg curcuminoid and 150 mg boswellic acid supplement taken 3 times per day for 12 weeks was associated with reduced osteoarthritis pain. The combination was more effective than curcumin on its own or a placebo.
Similarly, taking a combination of 5 g of methylsulfonylmethane and 7.2 mg of boswellic acids daily for 60 days was more effective at improving pain and function than taking glucosamine sulfate, a standard supplement for osteoarthritis.
For rheumatoid arthritis, researchers induced arthritis in rats and then treated them with 180 mg/kg of boswellia extract. They found that frankincense reduced inflammation but wasn’t as effective as standard medications.
Overall, more research is needed, particularly for rheumatoid arthritis.
Summary: Frankincense’s anti-inflammatory effects may help reduce symptoms of osteoarthritis and possibly rheumatoid arthritis. However, more high-quality studies are needed to confirm these effects.
2. Frankincense may improve gut function
Frankincense’s anti-inflammatory properties may also help your gut function properly.
One 2017 study found that frankincense, in combination with other herbal medicines, reduced abdominal pain, bloating, and even associated depression and anxiety in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Another study also indicated that boswellia 250 mg tablets taken daily for 6 months improved symptoms in people with IBS.
This resin appears particularly effective at reducing symptoms of ulcerative colitis, one of the main inflammatory gut conditions.
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A study found that boswellia extract taken daily for 4 weeks improved symptoms in people with mild ulcerative colitis in remission.
Boswellia extract also had anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects in rats with colitis.
However, most studies were small or not done on people. Therefore, more research is needed before strong conclusions can be made.
Summary: Frankincense may help reduce symptoms of IBS and ulcerative colitis by reducing inflammation in your gut. However, more research is needed.
3. Frankincense improves asthma
Traditional medicine has used frankincense to treat bronchitis and asthma for centuries.
Research suggests that its compounds may prevent the production of leukotrienes, which cause the bronchial muscles to constrict in asthma.
Frankincense may also affect Th2 cytokines, which can cause inflammation and mucus overproduction in people with asthma.
In one small study, people who took a daily supplement of 500 mg boswellia extract in addition to their standard asthma treatment were able to take fewer inhalations of their regular medications during the 4-week study.
Additionally, when researchers gave people 200 mg of a supplement made from frankincense and the South Asian fruit bael (Aegle marmelos), they found that the supplement was more effective than a placebo at reducing asthma symptoms.
In another study, asthma symptoms in mice improved with boswellic acid, a component of frankincense resin.
Summary: Frankincense may help relieve asthma symptoms and reduce the amount of asthma medication needed. Larger studies should be done to confirm these results.
4. Frankincense maintains oral health
Frankincense may help improve oral hygiene and prevent gum disease.
The boswellic acids it provides appear to have strong antibacterial properties, which may help prevent and treat oral infections.
In one test-tube study, frankincense extract was effective against Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans, a bacteria that causes aggressive gum disease.
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In another very small study, participants chewed gum containing frankincense for 5 hours, with saliva samples indicating reduced numbers of microbes each hour.
The authors suggested that frankincense may decrease sources of infection in the mouth.
However, more research is needed on the effect of frankincense on oral health.
Summary: Frankincense extract may help fight gum disease and maintain oral health. However, more studies are needed.
5. Frankincense may have anticancer properties
Studies show that frankincense may have anticancer effects.
Test-tube studies suggest that the boswellic acids it contains might prevent cancer cells from spreading.
A research review notes that boswellic acids may also prevent the formation of DNA in cancerous cells, which could help limit cancer growth.
So far, test-tube studies suggest that frankincense may fight breast, prostate, pancreatic, skin, and colon cancer cells.
It may also help reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
In one study of people being treated for brain tumors, 4,500 mg of boswellic acid extract taken each day helped reduce brain edema — an accumulation of fluid in the brain — while also lowering participants’ regular medication dose.
However, more research on humans is needed.
Summary: Compounds in frankincense may help kill cancer cells and prevent tumors from spreading. However, more human research needs to be done.
Common frankincense myths
Although frankincense is praised for multiple health benefits, not all of them are backed by science.
The 7 following claims have very little evidence behind them. Yet, while very little research exists to support these claims, very little exists to deny them, either.
Until more studies are done, however, these claims can be considered myths:
- Helps prevent diabetes. Some small studies report that frankincense may help lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, and a recent research review also indicated that frankincense may help control diabetes. Still, other studies have found no effect, and more research is needed.
- Reduces stress, anxiety, and depression. Frankincense may help to lower depressive and anxious behaviors in mice and reduce stress in rats. However, more studies on humans need to be done.
- Prevents heart disease. Frankincense has anti-inflammatory effects that may help reduce the type of inflammation common in heart disease. Some research has suggested heart-protective effects from frankincense, but more studies are needed.
- Promotes smooth skin. Frankincense oil is touted as an effective natural anti-acne and anti-wrinkle remedy. A recent study suggested that frankincense essential oil may have the potential for skincare, but little other research has been completed.
- Improves memory. Studies show that large doses of frankincense may help boost memory in rats. However, more research needs to be done on humans.
- Balances hormones and reduces symptoms of PMS. Frankincense is said to delay menopause and reduce menstrual cramping, nausea, headaches, and mood swings. One recent study found that some essential oils increased the amount of estrogen in women’s saliva, which could be linked to reduced menopause symptoms. However, frankincense was not found to have this effect, and research is needed to confirm any benefits of frankincense on menopause.
- Enhances fertility. Frankincense supplements may increase fertility in rats, but few studies are available.
Summary: Frankincense is used as an alternative remedy for a wide array of conditions. However, many of its uses are not currently supported by research.
How to use frankincense
Frankincense can be used in several ways to treat a variety of conditions. You can take it as a supplement in the form of a capsule or tablet, or use it in skin creams.
It is also available as an essential oil for aromatherapy or topical use. It’s important to dilute this form with a carrier oil before applying it to the skin and to avoid ingesting it.
Frankincense is generally safe to use, but as with any supplement, it’s important to talk with a healthcare professional before taking it.
Summary: Frankincense is often taken as a supplement, used on the skin, or inhaled. It’s generally safe but you should check with your doctor if you decide to use it.
Effective dosage for frankincense
The optimal dosage of frankincense is not well understood and may vary by person or condition. The amounts listed below are based on doses used in scientific studies.
Most studies use frankincense supplements in tablet form. The following dosages have been used in human research:
- Asthma: 200 or 500 mg per day
- IBS: 250 mg per day
- Osteoarthritis: 170 mg, twice per day
- Ulcerative colitis: 250 mg per day
Aside from tablets, studies have also used frankincense in gum for oral health and creams for arthritis. That said, no dosage information for these creams is available.
If you’re considering supplementing with frankincense, ask a healthcare professional about a recommended dosage.
Summary: Frankincense dosage is not well understood and may vary based on the condition you’re trying to treat. In studies, dosages typically range from 200–500 mg per day. But consult a healthcare professional to find out what might work for you.
Possible side effects of frankincense
Frankincense is considered safe for most people.
It has been used as a remedy for thousands of years without severe side effects, and the resin has low toxicity.
One study found that doses up to 1,000 mg/kg were not toxic in rats. This is equivalent to almost five times the typical maximum dose for humans of 1,500 mg per day.
Still, more research is needed on toxic doses of frankincense in people.
Side effects reported in scientific studies have included indigestion, constipation, and nausea.
Some research reports that frankincense may increase the risk of miscarriage in pregnancy, so pregnant people or those trying to become pregnant may want to avoid it.
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Frankincense may also interact with some medications, particularly blood thinners like warfarin and possibly nonsteroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen.
If you’re taking any of these medications, discuss frankincense with your doctor before using it.
The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) cautioned in a 2020 report that some supplements, including frankincense, may interfere with the body’s inflammatory response during a COVID-19 infection.
On the other hand, some research has suggested that frankincense may be an effective complementary therapy for COVID-19 due to its anti-inflammatory properties. More research is needed on its safety, effectiveness, and reactions to other medications.
Summary: Frankincense is likely safe for most people. However, pregnant people, those wanting to become pregnant, and those taking certain types of medication may want to avoid it. It’s still unclear whether frankincense might be a safe and effective complementary treatment for COVID-19. More research is needed.
Frankincense is used in traditional medicine to treat a wide variety of medical conditions.
This resin may benefit asthma and arthritis, as well as gut and oral health. It may even have anti-cancer properties.
While frankincense is likely safe for most people, it may cause side effects in pregnant people and people taking certain medications.
As with any supplement, it’s best to speak with a healthcare professional before trying it.