A recent research article discussing the potential frankincense oil benefits for people suffering from Melanoma – a deadly form of malignancy – resurfaces a debate that has reached fever-pitch in recent years: can frankincense essential oil help cancer patients? (1) Because melanoma drug treatments have been associated with liver injuries, researchers evaluated how high doses of frankincense impacted animals with acetaminophen-induced liver damage in a laboratory setting and discovered that it not only “significantly reduced the tumor burden related to the melanoma,” frankincense essential oil helped reverse the liver damage that the animals developed.
Truth is, frankincense essential oil can help cancer patients in a number of ways and the purpose of this article is to unpack fact from fiction because there are a lot of conflicting claims out there in the blogosphere.
Table of Contents
Essential Oils vs. Extracts
Today there is a lot of confusion over the benefits of frankincense and where in particular these benefits come from. Both the resin and the essential oil, as well as other extracts derived from the plant, undoubtedly have therapeutic properties. But these properties do not necessarily pertain to every product we get from the frankincense tree. Whether the essential oil or an extract, the benefits are always going to boil down to what is present in a particular product, and the extract and essential oil are not identical in their components.
But, before we go any further, we need to first define the differences between frankincense extracts and essential oils. All of these products come from the resin collected from the frankincense tree.
Frankincense essential oil is steam distilled like any other essential oils are (except for expressed citrus oils) and is collected by condensing the vapor that is pushed through the resin on a cooling coil and then separating the oil from the hydrosol once the condense vapors have been collected. There are some noted cases of hydrodistillation occurring as well, but the same basic principle applies. The only constituents that will make it into the essential oil are those that are light enough to be carried by the steam to be condensed and then collected. The essential oil will also not contain the water-soluble portions of the resin.
Frankincense extracts are created by using a solvent that is able to dissolve some components of the plant matter. In regard to extracts, the components that are able to be collected are dependent on the kind of solvent used and the corresponding solubility of the constituents present in the resin. Solvents include substances like alcohol, lipids, and water and may also at times include options like hexane. Depending on the solvent used, we can get, we can get either the water soluble or oil soluble components – sometimes both.
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Frankincense Extract and Cancer
It may surprise you to hear, but research surrounding frankincense extract shows stronger promise currently in the fight against cancer. While it doesn’t dismiss any potential benefits the essential oil has to offer, we have to fairly recognize that the research provides stronger evidence of components not present in the essential oil potentially treating cancer. Case in point, the landmark 2013 University of Leicester study.
For the first time in a research setting, it was uncovered that frankincense extracts have the ability to target cancer cells in late-stage ovarian cancer patients. And this all appeared to be due to AKBA (acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid). (2) According to lead researcher Kamla Al-Salmani,
“After a year of studying the AKBA compound with ovarian cancer cell lines in vitro, we have been able to show it is effective at killing the cancer cells. Frankincense is taken by many people with no known side effects. This finding has enormous potential to be taken to a clinical trial in the future and developed into an additional treatment for ovarian cancer.”
A growing body of research has recently unlocked the doors to our understanding of why frankincense extracts are so beneficial to our health. In a study published by Phytotherapy Research, for instance, when mice took 1-10 mg of Boswellia serrata extract orally it was discovered that multiple levels of their immune systems were stimulated including: (3)
- Cytokines (interferon gamma, interleukin-4, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha)
- Delayed hypersensitivity reaction (early 24 hours, delayed 48 hours)
- Immunoglobulins (IgG and IgM)
- T-cell interactions (i.e. CD4/CD8, which are generally low in AIDS patients)
In layman’s terms, frankincense extracts may help boost the immune system because of the components it contains. Two fundamental ways this is accomplished is by proliferating lymphocytes (white blood cells, which are the body’s primary defense team) and by keeping inflammation at bay (which is arguably the primary risk factor for most chronic diseases). This may also explain why Boswellia serrata is so effective in treating autoimmune conditions like:
- bronchial asthma
- Crohn’s disease
- rheumatoid arthritis
- ulcerative colitis
Conventional treatment is often still selected by patients and can sometimes be more painful and difficult than the symptoms of cancer itself. Brain cancer patients, for example, sometimes experience swelling in the head called cerebral edema after their tumors have been removed. Steroid treatment is common but also associated with other difficult side effects and complications.
In 2011, a clinical trial evaluated 44 individuals by monitoring high doses of a proprietary frankincense extract as a remedy for cerebral edema. In 60% of the patients, the swelling was reduced by 75% or more. The concluding remarks called for frankincense to be prescribed for cerebral edema in these circumstances, avoiding the struggles of steroid therapy. (4)
From what we can tell, we can thank the boswellic acids that can be found in frankincense resin for these powerful healing attributes.
Importance of Boswellic Acids
Ask any chemist and they will tell you that boswellic acids (BAs) are too large to pass the steam distillation process. Not only that, but they are water soluble. We should not expect to see them in the essential oil. We can expect to get them through other extraction methods. Nonetheless, there are still bad essential oil studies that claim they are indeed part of frankincense oil benefits.
Current research demonstrates anti-mutagenic and apoptotic (programmed cell death) abilities. Though the results have occurred in lab tests and we have yet to see how to best replicate these results in active cancer in humans, the demonstrated results remain. Researchers found that boswellic acids are “cytotoxic to ovarian cancer cells at pharmacologically achievable concentrations” and “may form the basis of a novel anticancer treatment for ovarian cancer, perhaps alongside conventional chemotherapy.” (5)
The healing benefits of frankincense have traditionally centered on disease prevention and anti-inflammatory properties, and researchers have been able to confirm that boswellic acids contain a potent ability to modify the immune system as well. (6) Part of having a more efficient immune system is the regulation of inflammation, as well, which can have effects topically or systemically.
This is why it’s important to supplement with Boswellia resins. Formulated by my colleague Sunil Pai, MD Integrative Medicine expert and medical director of Sanjevani Integrative Medicine Health & Lifestyle Center, Bosmeric-SR™ is the strongest natural supplement for pain and inflammation support. Here are the specs:
- Clinically tested, this unique sustained-release formulation of patented ingredients delivers superior absorption and release over an 8 hour period.
- Each bi-layered caplet delivers the highest dosages available of CurcuminC3 Complex® (curcumin longa) [250 mg]; Boswellin® PS (Polysal) – 35% boswellic acids + 10% AKBBA + 35% Polysal™ (boswellia serrata); and Ginger Extract (zingiber officinale) 20% Gingerols. In addition BioPerine® (piper nigrum) is added to further enhance bio-availability.
- These ingredients support inflammatory physiological response mechanisms which are critical to the health of the entire body and have been shown to play a crucial role in supporting cardiovascular, immune, neurological, gastrointestinal, joint and connective tissue systems.
- Research now suggest that most, if not all disease, begins with inflammation.
At the end of the day, once we know the basic properties of an herb, root and resin we are able to determine the best ways to utilize it. Let’s take a closer look at what the components of frankincense oil benefits mean for our daily lives
Frankincense Oil and Cancer
It’s fair to say that frankincense extracts show a bit more promise in the fight against cancer than the essential oil because of the boswellic acid content (more on this below). With that said, there is still a fair amount of evidence that constituents present oil itself may provide some benefits.
Beta-elemene is one such constituent. It is found in frankincense as well as myrrh oil. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center states:
“Beta-elemene is a compound found in plants such as celery, mint, and in many others used in traditional medicine. Although the pure form is not used as dietary supplement, some cancer patients use herbs high in beta-elemene as treatment. Beta-elemene was shown to prevent growth of cancer cells in laboratory cells by different mechanisms. A few poorly designed studies done in humans showed that it may improve quality of life in cancer patients. It is unclear if raw herbs containing beta-elemene have the same effects in humans. More research is needed.” (7)
Of course, more research is needed. As well, both myrrh and frankincense oils contain relatively small amounts of this constituent. But, our experience has shown both oils to have contributed anecdotally to improving the quality of life of cancer patients – including people who have been healed.
While we cannot outright say that constituents like beta-elemene are the reason for this, we do know from aromatherapy that the effect essential oils have on the body are a sum of the synergistic activity between the compounds an oil contains. This is one of the most important qualities essential oils contain and is also why adulterated replicants can’t be said to exhibit the same therapeutic potential.
It is acknowledged in the field that constituents present in tiny amounts can sometimes have a large impact on the overall properties of an essential oil. As such, we do have to wonder if some of the benefit we anecdotally witness is at least in part due to the presence of beta-elemene, and it will be interesting to see what further research discovers.
Traditional Aromatherapy Approach
Frankincense essential oil is commonly sought after for its anti-inflammatory properties, and this particular benefit might contribute toward why many have found it to be an important part of their fight against cancer. In cases of cerebral edema, for example, many essential oils users battling cancer engage in the diluted topical application of frankincense oil. Whether the essential oil can help remains to be proven clinically, but the anti-inflammatory nature of the oil may also contribute to its pain-relieving properties, which will only be a benefit to those suffering from this particular symptom.
Frankincense oil is also traditionally regarded as an option treat issues related to the immune system, respiratory concerns, and stress and anxiety. All of these things negatively impact the cancer patient, so it is understandable why frankincense can serve a positive impact in their overall wellness in their fight against the disease.
There are three ways frankincense has been used in traditional aromatherapy.
- INHALATION – Burning incense is the oldest form of aromatherapy use and, still today, diffusing frankincense is arguably the safest way to enjoy the healing components. Oils diffused throughout a room are relatively safe for most people in most cases due to the low level of concentration when used correctly. More direct effects can be obtained by breathing in a steam directly or inhaling frankincense right from the bottle, or from a few drops on a cloth. This carries the volatile oil directly into your respiratory system and mucous membranes, diffused throughout the steam or air molecules.
- TOPICAL – Topical use is a step further than traditional inhalation-based aromatherapy, though still familiar in the context of massage therapy, which often utilizes fragrant frankincense for massage applications. Instead of the broad diffusion through air droplets that inhalation provides, topical use of aromatherapy essential oils is much more direct. But at the same time, the oil is absorbed through the barrier layers of skin, while inhalation moves quickly through the thinner mucous membranes. Knowing your oil and the goal you have in mind can help you determine which application is more appropriate. The safest application is via dilution. Carrier oils like olive, coconut, jojoba and avocado oils usually have benefits of their own, and you can easily combine a couple of drops of frankincense in a teaspoon to dilute the oils and help bypass potential irritation.
- INTERNAL – Finally, and most controversially, frankincense is safe for ingestion. The most basic form of ingestion is in culinary use. You can add frankincense essential oil in a cup of herbal tea, but you’d only need one drop. Do remember that oil and water do not mix, so simply adding a drop to water will leave that drop undiluted, so it’s best to be safe and dilute it into some coconut oil first. Many aromatherapists believe that frankincense is never to be ingested, and most will suggest only trained professionals utilize internal methods. Again, it’s better to be safe, and for someone just starting out, this is excellent advice to consider. Additionally, when you are dealing with a specific medical condition, it makes sense to talk to your health care provider about ingestion and dosages.
Used because of its anti-inflammatory properties, the various Boswellia species have been a “go-to” or natural healer for centuries because of its ability to help with a myriad of health concerns like learning disorders, gastrointestinal dysfunction and skin conditions. New cancer research has uncovered that the medicinal frankincense oil benefits can reach well beyond this.
For those who have added frankincense oil benefits to their cancer care plan, the benefits may go beyond anti-tumor effects. Conventional treatment is often still selected by patients, and can be more painful and difficult than the symptoms of cancer itself. Brain cancer patients, for example, sometimes experience swelling in the head called cerebral edema after their tumors have been removed. Steroid treatment is common but also associated with difficult side effects and complications.
Frankincense oil benefits, on the other hand, have shown remarkable effects against this particular problem. In 2011, a clinical trial evaluated 44 individuals by monitoring high doses of frankincense resin as a remedy for cerebral edema. In 60% of the patients, the swelling was reduced by 75% or more. The concluding remarks called for frankincense to be prescribed for cerebral edema in these circumstances, avoiding the struggles of steroid therapy. (8) Whether the essential oil can help remains to be proven clinically. Nonetheless, applying diluted frankincense for cerebral edema is a common practice amongst essential oil users battling cancer.
Overshadowed the past several hundred years by its role in the “Christmas Story,” frankincense is finally getting the attention it deserves as one of the most viable healing agents on the planet. The journal Oncology Letters published an article late last year that highlights the ability of this Biblical tree to kill cancer cells; specifically the MCF-7 and HS-1 cell lines, which cause breast and other tumors. (9) The essential oil has also been used with much success to treat issues related to digestion, the immune system, oral health, respiratory concerns and stress/anxiety.
Another promising property of frankincense is its potential to fight cancer. In several studies, frankincense has demonstrated anti-cancer properties and the ability to mitigate many different kinds of cancer cells. (10) As more studies are conducted, the implications of this ability will be exciting to watch unfold!
Recent research studies in mice and in vitro (15) suggest that frankincense not only kills cancer cells, but it also promotes health and vitality in neighboring non-cancerous cells! To help prevent getting sick and boost your immune system, simply follow the advice below and take some frankincense with a carrier oil!
Even a quick search on PubMed turns up multiple studies involving frankincense essential oil. While there is sure to be a variety in the quality of studies available that make it necessary for all readers to do their due diligence in verifying the research, the implications of frankincense’s potential impact are impressive. This is especially so given that some studies do address the oil’s ability to mitigate different types of cancer cells. (16)
According to One Researcher
In addition to being an Associate Professor at the Department of Urology (University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center), Dr. Hsueh-Kung Lin quickly became the essential oil research guru of the 21st century this past decade. His research on frankincense oil benefits is unparalleled and he’s been able to uncover some pretty profound findings such as:
- Frankincense oil, derived from Boswellia carteri, induces bladder tumor cells, and Boswellia sacra does the same with breast cancer cells;meaning that they target cancerous cells by killing them and leave the healthy cells alone.
- Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia sacra represses signaling pathways and cell cycle regulators that have been proposed as therapeutic targets for cancer.
- Suppression of cellular network formation and disruption of spheroid development of cancer cells, suggests that frankincense oil derived from Boswellia sacramay be effective for advanced breast cancers as well as for cancer prevention.
Having already published several articles supporting the cancer-fighting characteristics of essential oils, Dr. Lin has set out to change the course of healthcare by developing scientific evidence to support the use of essential oils to fight cancer and other diseases.
Dr. Lin reached out to me personally via email with this message:
Dr. Zielinski, I just want to let you know we had a bladder cancer case report published by Integrative Cancer Therapies early this week. (17)
Based on university policy, I cannot be affiliated with any commercial company and cannot endorse any commercial product. I used a generic name in this report.
Along with our previous publications on frankincense oil benefits (18), we have reported the following observations:
- Frankincense oil induces potent cytotoxicity in various types of cancer cells but not their normal counterparts.
- Unlike chemotherapy drugs, frankincense oil benefits specifically targets tumor cells but not fast-growing cells. This might be “no observable adverse effects” using frankincense oil.
- Frankincense oil benefits prevent cellular network formation of tumor cells.
- Frankincense oil benefits cause the breakdown of multicellular tumor spheroids, which might be the cause of drug resistance.
- Frankincense oil benefits simultaneously activate multiple signaling pathways including the caspase pathway leading to apoptosis. Is this similar to the use of “drug cocktails” in complicate diseases?
Based on reported human case studies so far, we described the following observations in humans:
- Frankincense oil induces apoptosis of tumor cells.
- Frankincense oil does not have any noticeable adverse effects when appropriate dose is applied.
- Frankincense oil attracts infiltration of inflammatory cells to the tumor site with unknown mechanism.
A few months ago, the federal government announced a “Cancer Moonshot program” led by Vice President Biden. They vowed to conquer cancer using a lot of resources and modern technologies. Unfortunately, no one is, or willing to, pay any attention on any botanical product; there is just no resource in this “forgotten” field.
All participants involved in the Cancer Moonshot Program described that they will have “solutions” for cancers a few years later. However, my main concern is how about the people who are fighting against cancers now. Can we provide anything to help while they are dealing with the deadly disease?
More Benefits of Frankincense See more general frankincense essential oil benefits and recommendations for more ways to use this wonderful oil.
An Important Note
Essential oils are transdermal and work at the cellular level, and each species has distinct properties that can help people wanting to prevent and treat cancer and its many symptoms.
Peer-reviewed articles discuss the success clinical researchers have experienced in using various essentials oils to prevent, stop and even reverse the growth of various cancer lines in animal and human cell studies. It is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of these studies are based off of cells in a petri dish.
Subsequently, many experts and critics of using essential oils for cancer therapy insist that we cannot extrapolate the data from these studies to live, in vivo cancer patients. Even though there is merit to what these people say, as stated, we do not want to dismiss the research potential demonstrated through these studies. The thousands of thousands of testimonials and case studies alone should spur on our interest in supporting further research into essential oils and how they may provide positive effects and help people with cancer.
With that said, I set out to see what some of my social media fans had to say about their personal experience with essential oils and cancer, and I conducted an informal survey…
So, to find out what cool testimonials were out there, I did a quick survey on Facebook. Below you will find that image that I used, and this was my survey question:
And these are just a FEW of the responses that I received! Overall, the response was quite overwhelming (in a good way!).
To read more about the abundant life-giving benefits of frankincense check out my new article Ancient Healing Benefits of Frankincense.
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Implement frankincense oil benefits into your natural health regimen today. The essential oil can be used in vaporizers with ease to treat respiratory conditions. A salve is effective for skin issues. And, an all-natural, organic supplement is fantastic for everything in between!
To help support healthy immunity:
- Add 1 drop of frankincense oil in 1 teaspoon of carrier oil (like coconut), and consume first thing in the morning. This is not intended to be a long-term solution and should only be utilized for 2-3 weeks at a time. Discontinue use immediately upon signs of adverse reactions.
- Put 1-2 drops in a soft gel capsule along with carrier oil to prevent esophageal irritation.
- Add 3 drops each of frankincense and myrrh oils to your favorite diffuser.
And don’t forget about taking Bosmeric SR!
To address tumor and malignant growths consider:
- Applying diluted frankincense on the tumor directly, and on the bottoms of your feet. 2 drops of carrier oil per drop of frankincense is a popular approach
Learn how to make your own healing remedies, convert all of your home and body care products into non-toxic, abundant life giving masterpieces, and take your confidence in using essential oils safely & effectively to the next level.
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- Ammon HP. Boswellic acids in chronic inflammatory diseases. Planta Med 2006; 72(12): 1100-16.
- Bible History Daily. Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh? Available at: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/why-did-the-magi-bring-gold-frankincense-and-myrrh/.
- Khajuria A, et al. Immunomodulatory activity of biopolymeric fraction BOS 2000 from Boswellia serrata. Phytother Res 2008; 22(3): 340-8.
- Kirste S, et al. Boswellia serrata acts on cerebral edema in patients irradiated for brain tumors: a prospective, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind pilot trial. Cancer 2011; 117(16): 3788-95.
- Park B, et al. Boswellic acid suppresses growth and metastasis of human pancreatic tumors in an orthotopic nude mouse model through modulation of multiple targets. PLoS One. 2011; 6(10): e26943 [epub].
- Suhail MM, et al. 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.
- Takahashi M, et al. Boswellic acid exerts antitumor effects in colorectal cancer cells by modulating expression of the let-7 and miR-200 microRNA family. Carcinogenesis 2012; 33(12): 2441-9.
- University of Leicester. Christmas gift brings treatment hope for cancer patients. Available at: http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/press-releases/2013/december/christmas-gift-brings-treatment-hope-for-cancer-patients.
- Yuan Y, et al. Acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA) prevents human colonic adenocarcinoma growth through modulation of multiple signaling pathways. Biochim Biophys Acta 2013; 1830(10): 4907-16.
- Zhang YS, et al. Acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid (AKBA) inhibits human gastric carcinoma growth through modulation of the Wnt/β-catenin signaling pathway. Biochim Biophys Acta 2013; 1830(6): 3604-15.
Dr. Lin’s Publications:
- Frank, M. B., Yang, Q., Osban, J., Azzarello, J.T., Saban, M.R., Saban, R., Ashley, R.A., Welter, J.C., Fung, K.-M., and Lin, H.-K.: Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity. BMC Comple. Altern. Med. 9: 6, 2009. PMID: 19296830.
- Wu, S., Patel, K.B., Booth, J.L., Metcalf, J.P., Lin, H.-K., Wu, W.: Protective essential oil attenuates influenza virus infection in MDCK cells. BMC Comple. Altern. Med. 10: 69, 2010. PMID: 21078173.
- Suhail, M.M., Wu, W., Cao, A., Mondalek, F.G., Fung, K.-M., Shih, P.-T., Fang, Y.-T., Woolley, C., Young, G., and Lin, H.-K.:Boswellia sacra essential oil induces tumor cell-specific apoptosis and suppresses tumor aggressiveness in cultured human breast cancer cells. BMC Comple. Altern. Med. 11: 129, 2011. PMID: 22171782.
- Woolley, C.L., Suhail, M.M., Smith, B.L., Boren, K.E., Taylor, L.C., Schreuder, M.F., Chai, J.K., Casabianca, H., Haq, S., Lin, H.-K., Al-Shahri, A.A., Al-Hatmi, S., Young, D.G.:Chemical differentiation of Boswellia sacra and Boswellia carterii essential oils by gas chromatography and chiral gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. J Chromatogr A. 1261, 158-163, 2012. PMID: 22835693.
- Ni, X., Suhail, M.M., Yang, Q., Cao, A., Fung, K.-M., Postier, R.G.,Woolley, C., Young, G., Zhang, J., and Lin, H.-K.: 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 Comple. Altern. Med. 12, 253, 2012. PMID: 23237355.
- Fung, K.-M., Suhail, M.M., McClendon, B., Woolley, C.L., Young, D.G., and Lin, H.-K.:Management of basal cell carcinoma of the skin using frankincense (Boswellia sacra) essential oil: A case study. OA Altern. Med. 1, 14,
- Lin, H.-K., Suhail, M. M., Fung, K.-M., Woolley, C.L., and Young, D.G: Extraction of biologically active compounds by hydrodistillation of Boswellia species gum resins for anti-cancer therapy. OA Altern. Med. 1, 4, 2013.