Traditional Holiday Gifts Have Modern Health Benefits

Whatever your religious beliefs, you have probably heard the Christmas story of the three wise men who traveled far to visit the newborn baby Jesus, bearing precious gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense. It’s obvious why gold was one of their gifts. New research I have just seen sheds light on why myrrh and frankincense may have been so coveted—for their health benefits.


With its rich, woodsy scent, frankincense is sometimes used for aromatherapy massage, but a recent study found that it may also have pain relief properties. The 90-day study was randomized with 75 patients who had osteoarthritis in the knee. Two groups of patients took an extract of frankincense called Boswellia serrata—one a low dose of 100 mg per day, one 250 mg—while a third group took a placebo. Participants were examined before, during and after the study, and were also evaluated for pain, stiffness and physical function at seven, 30 and 60 days, and at the end of the trial. Results: Those taking the frankincense extract reported greater reductions in pain scores than the placebo group and their exams showed they also had a significant decline in an enzyme called MMP3 (matrix metalloproteinase-3) that breaks down protective cartilage in joints. Reduction of MMP3 among those taking low-dose Boswellia averaged 31% and in the high-dose group, 46%.

This was just one study, but it was striking enough for me to call Thom Rogers, ND, of Kenmore, Washington, to ask about the use of Boswellia for arthritis patients. He told me he prescribes it to his arthritis patients as an anti-inflammatory, since it can be effective and also has the advantage of not having the dangerous side effects of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Dr. Rogers told me that Boswellia can also be helpful to patients with other kinds of inflammatory syndromes as well, including fibromyalgia, asthma and chronic headaches. He prescribes a professional formula available only to doctors for his patients, but notes that this form of frankincense extract can also be purchased over the counter as a dietary supplement. He suggests looking for a joint formula that lists Boswellia as an ingredient. Brands vary greatly in quality, so be sure to purchase the supplement from a reliable producer such as Enzymatic Therapy or store such as Whole Foods Market.


Myrrh comes from the resin of the Commiphora molmol tree of Northern Africa and is used as the base of Fernet Branca, a bitter-tasting Italian aperitif, in perfumes and incense, and, somewhat more prosaically, in toothpastes and lotions. According to Chris D. Meletis, ND, former dean of Naturopathic Medicine at the National College of Natural Medicine and currently executive director for the Institute for Healthy Aging, modern myrrh comes in multiple forms—as a powder, an essential oil and in capsules, as well as in alcohol extract tinctures. It is valued for its anti-microbial properties. Oral forms of myrrh can help indigestion, colds and coughs, bronchial congestion and also can be used to stimulate menstrual flow—a property that makes it off limits for women who are pregnant or nursing. Myrrh is also believed to lower blood sugar.

Topical uses of myrrh include as a gargle for gingivitis and sore throats (five to 10 drops of the tincture in a glass of water) and as a tincture to be dabbed on mild mouth and throat irritations.


It is important to be aware that frankincense and myrrh are potent substances and not without their dangers. Beyond the caution for pregnant women, Dr. Meletis points out that these herbs should be avoided by people on blood-thinning medication (for example, Coumadin) and/or those having surgery, as both may cause bleeding. Also, they may interact with diabetes medications and should therefore be used cautiously, if at all, by people with diabetes.

With so many powerful herbs in existence, it’s fascinating to speculate on why the wise men chose these two. Dr. Meletis says it is wisest to use frankincense and myrrh only under the direction of a naturopathic physician, herbalist or botanist knowledgeable about their risks and benefits.