The truth about frankincense

As a qualified aromatherapist I have become very concerned and distressed at the way frankincense essential oil has been misrepresented as a cure for cancer.

Natural remedies can provide support and help to most cancer patients with little or no conventional therapy. Unfortunately, despite a few remarkable successes, for the majority of patients, natural therapies on their own are unable to control the cancer disease process.

Before we investigate the truth behind frankincense essential oil, it is important that we first define cancer. This is no easy task as cancer is not a single disease. Cancer is a group of more than 200 individual diseases that are all characterised by uncontrolled growth, proliferation, and the spread of abnormal cells. The diagnosis and treatment will vary depending on the type of cancer cells and their location, the stage of the cancer and the health of the patient1.

I would like to believe that frankincense essential oil could be used as a treatment for cancer. However, Robert Tisserrand, one of the world’s leading aromatherapy authorities, says that there has not been one single case study published in a peer-reviewed journal demonstrating that frankincense oil has successfully been used to treat any kind of cancer2.

Medical herbalist Martin Watt is very concerned about the claims made about frankincense oil being used as cure for cancer3. I like to think of Martin Watt as the consumer watchdog of fraudulent aromatherapy claims. In his article “Frankincense essential oil and claims for its cancer curing activity made by distributors of Young Living and Do Terra.” he says that the FDA has issued warning letters to these companies to stop making such claims4.

Watt is very concerned at the practice of ingesting frankincense essential oil because, as he points out, toluene, a known neurotoxin, is often found in frankincense essential oil at around 0.1% this equates to 1000 parts per million3. 100-250ppm of toluene is commonly found in many resin-based essential oils. Some researchers claim it is a naturally occurring constituent, however, Watt suggests that toluene may be a result of the degradation of the raw material during extraction – or it may be a contaminant3. As such, he recommends that until further studies into the origins of toluene in frankincense oil are completed, it is not a good idea to take frankincense oil internally as recommended by distributors of Young Living and doTERRA3.

This is another good reason to ensure you only use reputably certified organic oils such as ACO certified.

So where did the cancer-curing frankincense myth start?

Frankincense resin has been used for 1000s of years in Ayurveda. Many researchers have indicated that the boswellic acids found in the resin are the therapeutically active compounds5. unfortunately, this is not true of the essential oil.

On the internet you may come across publications claiming that frankincense oil is capable of killing cancer cells. Such articles include;

Mikhail G Dozmorov, Qing Yang, Weijuan Wu, Jonathan Wren, Mahmoud M Suhail, Cole L Woolley, D Gary Young, Kar-Ming Fung and Hsueh-King Lin, Differential effects of selective frankincense essential oil versus non-selective sandalwood essential oil on cultured bladder cancer cells: a microarray and bioinformatics study. http;//www.cmjournal.org/content/9/18

Ni X, Suhail MM, Yang Q, Cao A, Fung KM, Postier RG, Woolley C, Young G, Zhang J, Lin HK, 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 Complementary Alternative Medicine, 2012 Dec 13: 12:253.

Frank MB, Yang Q, Osban J, Azzarello JT, Saban MR, Saban R, Ashley RA, Welter JC, Fung KM, Lin HK, Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity. BMC Complementary Alternative Medicine. 2009 March 18;9:6

I was rather concerned by many of the comments made in these papers;

“Frankincense oil, an extract prepared by steam distillation from frankincense gum resin, is one of the most commonly used oils in aromatherapy practices. There has been considerable work done on the composition of frankincense oil from different species and commercial brands; and the constituents of frankincense differ according to the climate, harvest conditions and geographic sources of frankincense resin. Due to the contribution of boswellic acids, it is possible that frankincense oil also holds anti-cancer and anti-neoplastic properties.”

As you will soon find out, this is not possible. The same persons then go on to say;

“In this study, we demonstrated that a commercial source of frankincense oil can discriminate bladder cancer 182 cells from normal bladder urothelial UROtsa cells and supress cancer cell viability.”

This does sound very promising. The authors then make the following outrageous comment;

“It was not our intention in this preliminary study to dissect the specific chemical composition of frankincense oil nor determine its efficacious dosage, since some reports indicated that total frankincense extract is more potent than pure boswellic acids.”

Unfortunately, as Tisserand points out, none of these studies were published in peer-reviewed journals2. He goes on to mention that the evidence presented was based on in-vitro studies – meaning in a petri dish; he makes it clear that this does not equate to a cancer cure.

However, this has not prevented bloggers from jumping on the bandwagon to perpetuate such myths.

“Laboratory research on human cells indicates that frankincense oil may possess immune stimulating and cancer fighting properties that could aid in the protection against breast cancer and pancreatic cancer6.”

My biggest concern is that these papers said that the boswellic acids found in the essential oil were responsible for the anticancer properties.

Let us have a look at a typical chemical composition of frankincense essential oil7;

α-pinene, α -thujone, sabinene, para-cymene, octyl acetate, octanol, incensyl acetate, incensol, limonene,linalool, cembrene, isocembrene, 1,8-cineole, camphene, viridoflorol, α -phellandrene, verbenone, myrcene, β-pinene, β -caryphyllene, estragole, α -thujone, β -bourbonene, β -thujone, d-3-carene, zingiberene.

Do you see any boswellic acid? I don’t, and guess what – you will not find any boswellic acids in Frankincense essential oil as it can only be found in the resin or an alcoholic extract of the resin.

As Tisserand points out;

“Boswellic acid is much too heavy a molecule to be volatile so it would be impossible to find it in the essential oil. Boswellic acid has a molecular weight in the range of 450-500. However volatile molecules all have molecular weight below 300 2.”

Therefore it is absolutely fraudulent for anyone to claim that frankincense essential oil can cure cancer based on its boswellic acid content.

Additionally, a comment made by Robert Tisserand in response to someone who had been told that frankincense will kill cancer cells gives us even more reason for alarm;

“Many essential oils have protective and anti-oxidant effects on our cells, and there is a reasonable chance that they will do the same for cancer cells8.

Did you read that! Tisserand says that Frankincense oil may protect the cancer cells from the chemotherapy – not kill them!

He goes on to say that large doses of essential oils could interfere with the chemotherapy by increasing or decreasing the concentration of drug metabolising enzymes in the liver. He also says causing a chemo drug to be metabolised more quickly will reduce the duration of its effect. On the other hand, if you inhibit its metabolism, you reduce the efficacy of the drug. Neither of these is desirable 8.

Tisserand actually suggests avoiding essential oils for 1 week before and one month after chemotherapy. After this time he says that frankincense oil may help with the recovery of white blood cells 8.

Almost all the research on frankincense and cancer is on the resin, which contains boswellic acid. Frankincense extract contains about 50% boswellic acid and there has been extensive research on the anti-tumoral and anti-inflammatory activity of boswellic acid 2,5.

For example, researchers found that more than 50% of the myeloid leukemia cells underwent apoptosis for 24 hours after treatment with 20 µg/mL boswellic acid isolated from Boswellia carterri resin. This apoptotic process was p53 independent 9.

Another researcher examined the effects of acetyl-11-keto-b-boswellic acid (AKBA) on pancreatic cancer. The results of the study demonstrate that AKBA can supress the growth and metastasis of human pancreatic tumours in an orthotopic nude mouse model that correlates with modulation of multiple targets10.

Frankincense extract is also beneficial for the treatment of inflammatory disease. Researchers found that it has less toxic and other side effects commonly found in nonsteroid anti-rheumatic or corticosteroid treatments 11.

It is believed that boswellic acid has a potent specific inhibitory action in the synthesis of leukotrienes, which are involved in various inflammatory diseases. Some of the conditions with increased leukotriene formation include chronic polyarthritis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and certain brain tumours. Furthermore, the immunomodulatory activity of boswellic acids has shown to be neither cytotoxic nor to cause the immunosuppression produced by most drugs used in the treatment of chronic inflammatory disease11.

Another use worth noting is in Ayurvedic medicine. Frankincense gum has long been used to alleviate inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and gout.

However, the website www.examine.com says that while the results from these studies is promising there is still not enough evidence to make conclusive statements on the efficacy of boswellic acid for its anti-inflammatory properties and that more in vivo studies are required12.

In conclusion, we must remember that cancer is more complex than other health conditions because the clinical situation can change rapidly depending on the stage of the cancer. The different stages are defined as1:

  1. primary prevention and risk reduction
  2. screening and early diagnosis
  3. integrative co-treatment during active cancer therapies
  4. post treatment recovery support
  5. long-term secondary prevention

There is no doubt that the judicious combining of natural therapies with conventional treatments can lead to greater success and significantly improved survival and quality of life. The goals of any natural therapy treatment may vary significantly depending on the wishes of the patient, the stage of the disease and the type of the treatment.

These goals generally include1:

  • improve nutrition
  • selectively starve the tumour
  • inhibit metastasis
  • reduce side effects of conventional treatments
  • maximise tumour kill from conventional therapies
  • support normal cell division and cellular signalling
  • remove tumour promotors such as inflammatory signals or hormones
  • use anti-tumour herbs and nutrients to help patients
  • avoid purchasing worthless “cures” off the internet
  • support healthy, balanced immune function
  • support positive attitude and healthy lifestyle
  • encourage secondary cancer screening after completion of treatment

I agree with Reilly who says that early-stage patients are more likely to benefit from dramatic changes in lifestyle and aggressive supplemental and botanical support, whereas late-stage patients may primarily need support for pain relief or appetite stimulus1.

The key is not to expect a “magic bullet” cure to cancer. I believe that there is a role for natural botanicals such as frankincense resin, green tea or garlic just to name a few, as long as they are used with lifestyle and dietary modifications and in conjunction with conventional therapies when required.

References

  1. Reilly P, Cancer – Integrated Naturopathic support. from Textbook of Natural Medicine, edited by Joseph Pizzorno & Michael Murray, Elsevier, USA, 2013.
  2. Tisserand R, Frankincense Oil & Cancer in Perspective, http:tisserandinstitute.org/frankincense-oil-and-cancer-in-perspective/
  3. http://www.aromamedical.org/articlesarchive.html
  4. http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/EnforcementActions/WarningLetters/2014/ucm415809.htm
  5. Frankincense – A Cropwatch Bibliography , www.cropwatch.org, July 2010
  6. Cathy Wong ND. What you need to know about frankincense essential oil? http://almedicine.com/od/aromatherapy/a/frankincense-essential-oil.htm
  7. Battaglia S, The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy. The International Centre of Holistic Aromatherapy, Brisbane 2006.
  8. http://roberttisserand.com/2015/03/frankincese-essential-oil-and-cancer/
  9. Lijuan Xia, Duo Chen, Rui Han, Qicheng fang, Samuel Waxman and YongKui Jing, Boswellic acid acetate induces apoptosis through caspase-mediated pathways in myeloid leukemia cells, Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, 2005;4(3), March 2005.
  10. Byoungduck Park, Sahdeo Prasad, Vivek Yadav, Bokyung Sung, Bharat Aggarwal, Boswellic acid supresses growth and metastasis of human pancreatic tumors in an orthotopic nude mouse model through modulation of multiple targets. PLos ONE, www.plosone.org, Oct 2011, (6)10, e26943
  11. Langenheim J, Plant Resins. Timber Press, Portland (2003).
  12. http://examine.com/suplements/boswellia520serrata/