While herbalists and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have long known the effectiveness of frankincense and myrrh, only recently has modern medicine taken notice. In 2015, researchers published their findings of the use of frankincense and myrrh for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in an article titled Frankincense and myrrh suppress inflammation via regulation of the metabolic profiling and the MAPK signaling pathway. They discovered that there may be huge potential for the use of these traditional herbs in modern-day treatments of this disease, and in comparison to often problematic commercially available drugs, these herbs can be much more effective and much less debilitating.
What is RA?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the most common autoimmune disorder. It is currently classified as a chronic autoimmune inflammatory disease, which is diagnosed by the existence of hyperplastic synovial membranes. This membrane is a connective tissue that exists between the joints, tendons, and bones, and is responsible for the smooth functioning of these body parts.
When the synovial membrane becomes hyperplastic, it essentially is suffering from an overactive immune system and a proliferation of cell growth. Eventually, this overactive membrane growth will lead to a deterioration of the nearby cartilage, joints, and bones.
Unfortunately, there is no known cure and no known cause. Scientists have, however, pinpointed a few potential causes, which are still being clarified, including genetic predisposition, lifestyle choices (smoking increases risk), hormonal (women are overwhelmingly affected), and environmental exposures (toxins, pollutants, and even trauma can increase risk).
What are the Common Treatments for RA?
While there are tons of home remedies used by patients with RA, including over the counter pain medicines, soothing creams and herbal supplements supporting joint health, they are inadequate at best. Most people, especially in the progressive stages, turn to pharmaceuticals, including three main types: glucocorticoids, DMARDs, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. While more powerful, they also come with more severe side effects, like an increased risk for diabetes, Cushing’s syndrome, hepatotoxicity, and cardiotoxicity. This increased risk, not surprisingly, is not ideal, and this has compelled new scientific exploration for new (or in this case old) ideas about effective RA treatments.
There is an increasing interest in what our past medicinal traditions can tell us about RA and inflammatory therapies, especially those that seem to have significantly less severe side effects than modern day pharmaceuticals. This exploration has led scientists to examine traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic traditions, including the use of frankincense and myrrh.
What are Frankincense and Myrrh?
Both frankincense and myrrh are steeped in a deep cultural and medicinal history from China and India. They have been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, and in Ayurvedic practices to treat inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. Although less common in the Western world, these substances still maintain their popularity in Asia for their abilities to treat inflammation and reduce pain.
Frankincense is a dried gum resin produced by the Boswellia carterii, also called the Boswellia species of tree. It has been collected and used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, particularly for its use in stimulating blood circulation, reducing pain, and treating inflammation.
Myrrh, another gum resin, from the species Commiphora myrrha, has a slightly broader history of use, from Asia all the way westward to the ancient empires of Rome and Greece. It was even used to clean and treat wounds throughout European history, until the discovery of morphine. According to current scientific study, it has been found to contain anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, cytotoxic (toxic to cells, like chemotherapy and radiation treatments), and anesthetic properties.
Like other herbal alternatives, frankincense and myrrh have typically been used together in traditional Chinese medicines in order to take advantage of their synergistic effects. Often, when medicinal ingredients are combined, they are found to have greater effectiveness than just an accumulation of their individual parts.
What were the Results of the Study?
The 2015 study concluded that both frankincense and myrrh were effective in reducing the overall inflammation experienced in their in vivo examination of rats. In their study, the researchers worked with groups of rats who were infected with a rat model of arthritis that shared traits similar to the human version. Next to their control group, they tested the effectiveness of a standard RA drug, frankincense, myrrh and then a combined mixture of both frankincense and myrrh. In order to determine the effectiveness of each therapy, they measured a physical indicator (volume of hind paws), as well as changes in bioactivity of five internal biomarkers.
Their research underlines earlier studies, which also demonstrated the effectiveness of these powerful traditional remedies. In this study, in particular, frankincense and myrrh were applied through injections, however as this is not an option for most people, both these compounds can be found and used as a supplement. In fact, this form of supplementation has been used in alternative medicine to great effect. Similar studies, undertaken in India, discovered that through external topical applications, both substances led to over a 50 percent decrease in swelling around knee joints, and upwards of a 70 percent increase in mobility.
The current scientific evidence, despite still being in the early stages of clinical trials, supports the thousand-year history of frankincense and myrrh as a powerful anti-inflammatory. When used on their own, or combined for even stronger synergistic effect, frankincense and myrrh are providing serious relief for people suffering from the pain and immobility of RA.