Friday, August 15, 2008

Frankincense - A Natural Health Wonder from Ancient Times

By Olivia Roberts

Deeply revered for many thousands of years, the Frankincense tree has perhaps the greatest association with spiritual practice of any plant on earth. In many great ancient cultures, including the Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Hebrew, Greek and Roman civilizations, it has played a role in religious and domestic life. Frankincense resin has been sought after by kings, valued as highly as gold, and offered as a gift at the birth of one of history's most revered prophets. More recently, the essential oil is gaining popularity with spiritual seekers and natural healers alike - what's so unique about the rich smelling resin and it's essential oil, and how might we use it for our own benefit?

The Olibanum tree upon first glance may seem rather unremarkable. It appears as a giant shrub, with many knurled branches topped with abundant slender leaves and occasionally, small white flowers. This North African native looks like it belongs in the desert, standing alone in some of the world's harshest growing conditions. It is the sap of this enduring tree that has such lore and mysticism surrounding it...when the tree's bark is pierced, a milky-white 'oleo'-resin is exuded and collected; thought the tree is not harmed. The hardened drops of resin are known themselves by the name Frankincense, derived from the medieval French 'franc', meaning 'pure', and from the Latin 'incensium', meaning 'to smoke'.

For many thousands of years, the resin has been burned in temples the world over, where it's smoke has purified the air and carried prayers to the heavens. It's use is still met today by many in Catholic mass. The highly antiseptic smoke is also thought to bring calm to the mind, allowing one's spiritual practice and awareness to deepen. Modern science has confirmed the affect of Frankincense on the pineal gland, or 'third eye', which is thought by some to be the center of awareness for the unseen world. The oil distilled from the resin is considered a holy anointing oil; it has been known as 'the oil of Lebanon', and was well known at Christ's time for it's anointing and healing powers.

Frankincense resin has been considered throughout the ages to have a wealth of health supporting properties. In Ayurveda, it has been used to treat many ills, and is well-known for it's use in treating arthritic conditions. Modern investigation has found the components called Boswellic Acids can have significant support both to relieve joint pain and to further prevent cartilage loss.

Today's naturopathic practitioners continue to use Frankincense, though the essential oil is now commonly employed because of it's simplicity of use. It may be applied topically or taken orally with proper instruction from a qualified practitioner. There are many indications for the use of Frankincense oil, including asthma, depression, stress-related conditions and a weakened immune system. Further, Frankincense oil is now under investigation in university studies for it's anti-tumor effects, particularly for skin and breast malignancies.

It is important to note that the carbon dioxide extracted (CO2) variety of the essential oil is more likely to contain the same healthful compounds as the natural plant resin, as the steam distilled variety may not be able to extract all the important molecules. North America's leading medical aromatherapist has stated, "It could be that the (health-affecting) substances in question are too polar and too large a molecular size to appear in steam distillates - their presence would be more likely in CO2 extracts." The CO2 extract may still be a little more expensive than the steam distilled oil, though prices are coming down as the technology becomes more commonplace. Look for the essential oil labeled 'CO2 distilled' or 'extracted' specifically - otherwise it is likely to be the steam distilled variety.

The most noted effect of the essential oil may be on the nervous system. Regarded as an antidepressant, the aroma can both relax and revitalize, and can help in cases of nervous tension and exhaustion. Frankincense oil contains sesquiterpenes, which stimulate the limbic system, the hypothalamus, the pineal and the pituitary glands. The oil is now being researched for its ability to increase human growth hormone production. Further, it is considered to strengthen the immune system, which may in-fact occur as a result of its uplifting properties. The oil is noted in most aromatherapy guides to uplift the spirit, calm the mind, and act as an anti-depressant.

Frankincense essential oil can be used in a manner similar to burning of the incense in spiritual practice. Warming in a candle lamp or direct application to the temples and third eye will quiet the mind, deepen the breath, and promote meditative stillness. It is often blended with Sandalwood, Myrrh, Cedarwood and/or Juniper oil for such uses, as these all have similar grounding and elevating properties. For therapeutic uses, some naturopathic practitioners take small amounts of the essential oil orally, sometimes in addition to massaging into any diseased area. Of course, as with any illness, it is important to seek out qualified medical advice; if you choose to employ Frankincense oil, discuss this with your physician - it should be acceptable as an adjunct therapy in most cases. It is far better to employ the oil under the direction of a qualified practitioner rather than through haphazard application!

For simple aromatic use, frankincense resin (the dried sap of the tree) is widely available at reasonable costs. Most is wild-crafted, being extracted from trees growing in the deserts of northeast Africa - thankfully, the resource is abundant, as the trees easily survive harvesting of the pearls. The small chunks of resin can simply be lit by themselves in a dish or similar container, and allowed to smolder and release their smoke. Frankincense is also available in prepared incense sticks and other incense preparations. In the form of your choosing, simply light and allow some quiet time to experience the deep aroma.

With the essential oil, a diffuser or warming lamp can be used to disperse the aroma throughout a space. The oil is also found in aromatherapy candles, where it is released from the heated oil beneath the burning wick. Frankincense oil can be applied directly to the forehead where you can both capture the aroma and absorb the oil directly (it is non-irritating or sensitizing, though if you do experience sensitivity, simply dilute to 5-10% in a carrier oil). Take a moment to sit quietly to perceive any effects.

The wonderful gift of the Frankincense tree is available in many ways, and has come highly recommended for many thousands of years. Try adding a little Frankincense to your life, and see what the mystery is all about!

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