What is So Special About Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?

IMG00567-20111209-1242The season is upon us. Many have already begun their celebrations and many more are preparing and planning for theirs. In my blog at Saratoga.com, I provide hints on how to deal with the roller-coaster emotions1 that may occur and tips for holiday stress.

The past few weeks, I’ve been busily sorting through all my references and putting the finishing touches on my book while musings of “Holiday-to-dos” were dancing in my head. As a result, you may have noticed some really geeky postings on oil references popping up on my BreakFree Medicine Facebook page. I also gave a holiday gift for those anticipating the release of my book, BreakFree Medicine, by posting on valerian essential oil!

For your holiday listening pleasure, I am releasing a quick webinar on the three precious gifts of the season. Below are some of the key takeaways from it and a copy of it and the PowerPoint will be posted here in the next few days. It may surprise you to know that the “gold” mentioned in Biblical times has been rumored to be an essential oil instead of the metallic monetary unit.

So, here’s the rundown on the science behind the magical essential oils associated with the Christmas season.


Sacred Frankincense (Boswellia serrata)

The resin of Boswellia species have been used in religious, cultural, and medical ceremonies since ancient times.3-4 Frankincense belongs to the family of Burseraceae which consists of 17 genera and over 500 species. It is estimated that 25 known species belong to the Genus Boswellia, which is located mostly in Arabia, the northeastern coast of Africa, and India. There are three species that are considered ‘true Frankincense’ producing trees, Boswellia sacra, Boswellia carterii, and Boswellia frereana. Interestingly, Boswellia serrata, has gotten the most attention and may be considered the fourth species. Boswellic acids are believed to be the main active constituents. According to a 2011 review of Boswellia serrata:3

The resinous part of Boswellia serrata possesses monoterpenes, diterpenes, triterpenes, tetracyclic triterpenic acids and four major pentacyclic triterpenic acids i.e.B-boswellic acid, acetyl-B-boswellic acid, 11-keto-B-boswellic acid and acetyl-11-keto–boswellic acid, responsible for inhibition of pro-inflammatory enzymes. Out of these four boswellic acids, acetyl-11-keto-B-boswellic acid is the most potent inhibitor of 5-lipoxygenase, an enzyme responsible for inflammation.

It is the resin that seems to contain the boswellic acids, and some have said they may too large to be found in essential oils. This is controversial, but may relate to the method of distillation and species. One study reported, “Since triterpenes including boswellic acids could not be detected by the described GC-MS protocol used in our laboratory due to their extremely low volatility, an HPLC method was used to determine total boswellic acids contents in the four fractions. We found that boswellic acids contents depended on hydrodistillation duration and temperature.”5

I was able to speak via email with the director of research and development of one essential oil company. He explained, “…B.sacra only comes from Oman and Yemen. B. carterii and b. frereana come from Somalia and b. serrata comes from India. If a product is labeled .sacra and does not come from Oman/Yemen, the label is wrong. If a product is labelled either b. carterii or b. frereana and the country of origin is Oman, the label is wrong.”6 Another abstract demonstrates differing components in Boswellia sacra and Boswellia cartarii:7

Abstract : Major botanical and scientific references currently identify two species of frankincense, Boswellia carterii and Boswellia sacra, as being synonymous. We evaluated the Somalian (B. carterii) and Omani/Yemeni (B. sacra) species by chemical analyses to determine if there were any minor or major differences between the two species of frankincense. Components identified with their average percent for B. sacra are alpha-thujene (0.6%), alpha-pinene (68.2%), camphene (2.1%), sabinene (2.9%), beta-pinene (2.0%), myrcene (0.7%), limonene + beta-phellandrene (6.2%). Components identified with their average percent for B. carterii are alpha-thujene (7.9%), alpha-pinene (37.3%), camphene (0.8%), sabinene (4.9%), beta-pinene (1.8%), myrcene (7.3%), limonene + beta-phellandrene (14.4%). Initially, GC-MS analysis did not reveal major statistical differences. However, optical rotation values, B. Sacra (+30.1 degrees) and B. carterii (-13.3 degrees), demonstrated a greater significant difference. Enantiomeric ratio (+)/(-) values of alpha-pinene for B. sacra and B. carterii are 8.24 and 0.68, respectively, were also calculated aiding our conclusion that B. sacra and B. carterii are not synonymous but rather two distinct and individual frankincense species.

Both of these species have evidence of tumor suppression in cellular lines.5, 7-9 The oil is high in monoterpenes, terpenes, and specifically alpha-pinene. Alpha-pinene has been demonstrated to have activity on inflammation via a different mechanism than boswellic acids. It is through manipulation of NF-KB, a potent transcription factor in the regulation of pro-inflammatory pathways.10 Alpha and beta-pinene are also thought to be phytoncides, which are responsible for the stress relieving effect of “forest bathing” and the increase in natural killer cells.11 Finally, the synergism of essential oil contains other components including limonene, a potent constituent with many health benefits.

I wrote a whole series on all the benefits of various frankincense species here and here for your geeking out pleasure.


Women and dogThe Not-to-Be-Put-Aside “Side Kick” Myrrh

Why, why, why are some of the underdogs put in the corner like Baby? It seems, myrrh always get a mere side glance due to its perceived sidekick role to frankincense. However, this dynamic duo shouldn’t be viewed as one oil being better than another. As I wrote about previously, these two healing oils work best together.13

To quench my thirst to learn more about myrrh and prove its wellness effects, I hit PubMed to find some more scientific studies on Commiphora. With over 300 secondary metabolites of myrrh, there are a lot of actions of this plant that include:14

  1. It is potent for modulating immune health and promoting healthy cells.13,15
  1. It can help heal the belly from unwanted microbes.16
  2. In a rabbit study, it protected against immune, liver, and oxidative stress from lead.17
  3. It promotes healthy skin and belly healing.18
  4. Support for healthy lipid levels and as an antioxidant.14

Another important point that deserves its own section is the fact that the sesquiterpenes in myrrh have been shown to have neuroprotective effects as well as tumor suppressing properties.19-21


Liquid Gold?

Abies balsamea, balsam fir, is known as ‘Eugene Gold.” It is a dwarf, globose bush with yellow-gold foliage.22 There are some claims that it may have been the “gold” that was brought to the Christ child. I honestly could not substantiate this claim. If anyone can reference this with scientific research verses blogs, please feel free to post!

Others have also suggested that the gold spice, turmeric, may have been the third gift. This makes a lot of sense to me, considering its insane amount of research on its active constituents.

Still, some of the benefits of balsam fir are impressive. One study demonstrated that balsam fir was able to induce cytotoxicity (killing bad cells)23 and microbe inhibition.24 Balsam fir contains alpha and beta-pinene, limonene, which was included in the frankincense section above.


Therefore, if you consider supporting your health a gift to yourself and others, you can see why giving essential oils to the baby Jesus may have been the most appropriate and exalted presents of the time.


girl with sled






I am grateful to all my readers here and appreciate all you have taught me with your comments and questions this year and always! Wishing you a happy, healthy, and abundant holiday season.




  1. Carr D, Sonnega J, Nesse RM, House JS. Do Special Occasions Trigger Psychological Distress Among Older Bereaved Spouses? An Empirical Assessment of Clinical Wisdom. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. 2014;69B(1):113-122. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbt061.
  2. Hyperactivity, concentration difficulties and impulsiveness improve during seven weeks’ treatment with valerian root and lemon balm extracts in primary school children. Phytomedicine. July-August 2014. 21(8-9): 1098-1103.
  3. Siddiqui, MZ, Boswellia Serrata, A Potential Antiinflammatory Agent: An Overview. Indian J Pharm 2011 May-Jun; 73(3): 255–261. doi: 10.4103/0250-474X.93507
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica. Frankincense. Gum resin. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/topic/frankincense
  5. Xiao Ni, Mahmoud M Suhail, Qing Yang, Amy Cao, Kar-Ming Fung, Russell G Postier, Cole Woolley, Gary Young, Jingzhe Zhang, Hsueh-Kung Lin. Frankincense essential oil prepared from hydrodistillation of Boswellia sacra gum resins induces human pancreatic cancer cell death in cultures and in a xenograft murine model. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2012; 12: 253. Published online 2012 December 13. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-12-253.
  6. Richard Carlson, PhD. Sr. Director of Research and Development, YLEO. Email communication. January 22, 2015.
  7. Chemical differentiation of Boswellia sacra and Boswellia carterii essential oils by gas chromatography and chiral gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Journal of Chromatography A. 2012;1261:158-163.
  8. Tsen Shih, Yu-Ting Fang, Cole Woolley, Gary Young, Hsueh-Kung Lin. Boswellia sacra essential oil induces tumor cell-specific apoptosis and suppresses tumor aggressiveness in cultured human breast cancer cells. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011; 11: 129. Published online 2011 December 15. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-11-129
  9. Frank MB, Yang q, Osbon J, Azzarello JT, Saban M, Saban R, Ashley RA, et al. Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2009; 9: 6. Published online 2009 March 18. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-9-6
  10. Zhou JY, Tang FD, Mao GG, Bian RL.Effect of alpha-pinene on nuclear translocation of NF-kappa B in THP-1 cells Acta Pharmacol Sin. 2004 Apr;25(4):480-4.
  11. Li Q1, Kobayashi M, Wakayama Y, Inagaki H, Katsumata M, Hirata Y, Hirata K, Shimizu T, Kawada T, Park BJ, Ohira T, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. Effect of phytoncide from trees on human natural killer cell function. Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. 2009 Oct-Dec;22(4):951-9.
  12. Dozmorov MG, Yang Q, Wu W, et al. Differential effects of selective frankincense (Ru Xiang) essential oil versus non-selective sandalwood (Tan Xiang) essential oil on cultured bladder cancer cells: a microarray and bioinformatics study. Chinese Medicine. 2014;9:18. doi:10.1186/1749-8546-9-18.
  13. CHEN Y, ZHOU C, GE Z, et al. Composition and potential anticancer activities of essential oils obtained from myrrh and frankincense. Oncology Letters. 2013;6(4):1140-1146. doi:10.3892/ol.2013.1520.
  14. Shen T, Li GH, Wang XN, Lou HX. The genus Commiphora: a review of its traditional uses, phytochemistry and pharmacology. J Ethnopharmacol. 2012 Jul 13;142(2):319-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2012.05.025.
  15. Su S, et al. Cytotoxicity activity of extracts and compounds from Commiphora myrrha resin against human gynecologic cancer cells. Journal of Medicinal Plants Research; April 2011.5(8): 1382-1389.
  16. Massoud A, Sisi El, Salama O, Massoud A. Preliminary study of therapeutic efficacy of a new fasciolicidal drug derived from Commiphora molmol (myrrh). Am J Trop Med Hyg. August 2001; 65(2):96-99
  17. Ashry KM, El-Sayed YS, Khamiss RM, El-Ashmawy IM. Oxidative stress and immunotoxic effects of lead and their amelioration with myrrh (Commiphora molmol) emulsion. Food Chem Toxicol. 2010 Jan;48(1):236-41. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2009.10.006
  18. Haffor AS. Effect of myrrh (Commiphora molmol) on leukocyte levels before and during healing from gastric ulcer or skin injury. J Immunotoxicol. 2010 Mar;7(1):68-75. doi: 10.3109/15476910903409835
  19. Xu J, Guo Y, Zhao P, Guo P, Ma Y, Xie C, Jin DQ, Gui L. Four new sesquiterpenes from Commiphora myrrha and their neuroprotective effects. Fitoterapia. 2012 Jun;83(4):801-5. doi: 10.1016/j.fitote.2012.03.016. Epub 2012 Mar 20. PMID: 22465505
  20.  Xu J, Guo Y, Li Y, Zhao P, Liu C, Ma Y, Gao J, Hou W, Zhang T. Sesquiterpenoids from the resinous exudates of Commiphora myrrha and their neuroprotective effects. Planta Med. 2011 Dec;77(18):2023-8. doi: 10.1055/s-0031-1280087. Epub 2011 Aug 9.
  21. Wang X, Kong F, Shen T, Young CY, Lou H, Yuan H. Sesquiterpenoids from myrrh inhibit androgen receptor expression and function in human prostate cancer cells. Acta Pharmacologica Sinica. 2011;32(3):338-344. doi:10.1038/aps.2010.219.
  22. American Conifer Society: http://conifersociety.org/conifers/conifer/abies/balsamea/eugene-gold/
  23. Legault J, Dahl W, Debiton E, Pichette A, Madelmont JC. Antitumor activity of balsam fir oil: production of reactive oxygen species induced by alpha-humulene as possible mechanism of action. Planta Med. 2003 May;69(5):402-7.
  24. Pichette A, Larouche PL, Lebrun M, Legault J. Composition and antibacterial activity of Abies balsamea essential oil. Phytother Res. 2006 May;20(5):371-3.

Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin.

This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.

Thanks istock images!