Among the various frankincense species, Boswellia carteri or B. carteri is perhaps the most familiar as well as most researched. This is a branching tree generally found growing in the arid mountainous regions of India and its height varies from moderate to large. In Ayurveda, an ancient Indian medicine system, this tree is highly regarded and has been use for therapeutic purposes since the primeval times.
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When we talk of frankincense it is actually a scented resin acquired from trees belonging to the genus Boswellia, especially Boswellia sacra (B. sacra), Boswellia carteri (B. carteri), Boswellia thurifera (B. thurifera), Boswellia bhaw-dajiana (Burseraceae) and Boswellia frereana (B. frereana). The English term 'frankincense' has its origin in the old French word 'franc encens,' which translated into English means superior quality incense. The extract of this aromatic resin or its purified form is used in the manufacture of perfumes and incense.
Not all, but only main Boswellia species yield genuine frankincense and resin. However, each of these four species of Boswellia produces different grades of resin and frankincense. The grades of resin and frankincense produced by each of these Boswellia species are subject to the time when they are collected.
The Bible also has reference to frankincense. According to the Bible, one of the three gifts that the three wise men presented to baby Jesus was frankincense. Moreover, available documents reveal that more than 5,000 years ago, people in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula traded frankincense. In addition, frankincense was also discovered in the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamen's tomb. Tutankhamen died almost 3,332 years back in 1323 B.C.
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The Frankish Crusaders were responsible for reintroducing frankincense to Europe. While people in the West identify this substance as 'frankincense,' this aromatic resinous substance from Boswellia species is also called olibanum. The term 'olibanum' has been derived from the Arabic word 'al-lubān,' which translated into English roughly denotes 'a substance obtained from milking,' referring to the milky liquid obtained by tapping trees belonging to the Boswellia species.
Some people have also hypothesized that the term 'olibanum' has its origin in the Arabic word for 'Oil of Lebanon,' as the Europeans generally bought and traded this aromatic resin in Lebanon. The Book of Exodus or Exodus, the second book of the Hebrew Bible calls this substance 'levonah,' which has two meanings in Hebrew - 'Lebanese' or 'white.'
It is believed that the Ubar, a lost city, which is often identified with Irem and what is currently Shisr, a town in Oman, was the hub for the major part of frankincense trade. This place is located on the 'Incense Road', which has been rediscovered recently. In fact, archaeologists rediscovered Ubar in the early part of the 1990s and, currently, an archaeological excavation is being carried out at the place.
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Records reveal that Herotodus, a prominent ancient Greek historian, was well acquainted with frankincense and knew that the substance was collected from trees growing in the southern regions of Arabia. His documents state that harvesting the gum was a dangerous task, because these trees were inhabited by venomous snakes. The historian also describes the procedure employed by the Arabians to overcome this problem. In order to avoid snake bites, they burned the gum yielded by the styrax tree and its smoke chased the snakes off. In addition to Herotodus, ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus mentions about this aromatic resin in his writings. The renowned Roman author, philosopher and author Pliny the Elder also talks about frankincense in his writings in the Naturalis Historia.
The bark of unkempt, but tough trees is tapped to obtain frankincense - a method known as striping. The trees are left to bleed and give out the aromatic resin, which gradually hardens on the bark. The solidified resin is known as 'tears.' The perfume emitted by these tears is said to be more valuable compared to their healing attributes. It is also believed that this aromatic resin possess superior attributes, which are used for religious ceremonies.
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The genus Boswellia is comprised of many species as well as assortment of frankincense trees. In addition, the resins produced by each of these trees are somewhat different. Dissimilar soil and climatic conditions are also responsible for the different types of resins produced by different frankincense trees, which may even belong to the same species. Trees belonging to the Boswellia sacra species are thought to be exceptional because they possess the aptitude to grow in extremely unfavourable environments; sometimes sprouting out of hard rocks. While the manner in which this tree binds itself with the rock initially is yet to be ascertained, it has been found that it manages to keep itself attached to the rock with the help of a bulbous swelling akin to a disk on tree's trunk. Such bulbous growths help the tree to remain attached to the rock even when it is assaulted by violent storms, which occur quite frequently in the place where it grows.
Interestingly, Boswellia sacra trees growing in gravel or rocky soils either do not have this feature at all or it is very negligible. Generally, these trees begin to yield the aromatic resin after eight to 10 years' existence. The trees are tapped twice or thrice every year and the final tapping generally produce the best quality tears. It has been found that the resin produced during the last tapping of the year contains more amounts of perfumed terpene, diterpene and sesquiterpene.
To be precise, the opaqueness of the resin is directly related to its quality; resins that are more opaque are considered to be better in quality. In fact, the best quality resins come from Somalia in Africa and the trees grown in the northern coast of the country. Resins produced in these areas are supplied to the Roman Catholic Church.
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Scientific studies undertaken in recent times have suggested that the population of frankincense trees is declining gradually, partially owing to excessive harvesting or over-exploitation. The seeds of the trees that are tapped heavily have a very poor germination success rate - just 16 percent; while success rate of the seeds of trees that are yet to be tapped is as high as 80 percent or even more. The population of these trees has also been affected by random grazing, burning as well as assaults by longhorn beetles. All these have contributed to their declining population. In addition, cutting down frankincense trees to clear the woods for agriculture also posing a major danger to the existence of this genus.
In addition to being used in the form of incense, frankincense or the solidified aromatic resins yielded by trees belonging to the Boswellia carteri species when they are tapped also have therapeutic uses. Frankincense is said to be effective for treating health conditions like flatulence (intestinal gas) and colic. Occasionally, extracts of this aromatic gum-like resin are also used in the manufacture of hand creams. It is also applied to the skin directly.
Frankincense has a number of uses. It is used to make perfumes as well as in aromatherapy. In addition, it is often incorporated in skincare products. Frankincense also yields an essential oil, which is obtained by means of steam distilling the dry resin. The aroma of frankincense smoke is partially attributed to products formed during pyrolysis or the decomposition of the resin.
Frankincense, also referred to as Boswellia, encloses an extract having potent anti-inflammatory attributes. People in India have used this extract over centuries to alleviate inflammations related to specific forms of arthritis. It is important to note that Boswellia is a herb which possesses anti-inflammatory qualities, but does not result in stomach irritation caused by several conventional NSAID's (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
This herb has several incredible effects, which are also beneficial for various other inflammatory conditions. It is particularly useful for treating chronic lower back or lumber pain. In addition, frankincense also helps in repairing blood vessels injured due to inflammation.
Frankincense essential oil has various uses, including its use in manufacture of incenses, perfumes, soaps, cosmetics as well as in the form of an additive and fragrance. It has been found that essential oil obtained from Boswellia works to renew aging skin, acts as a mild balancer for fatty or oily skin, prevent formation of wrinkles and probably also erases some of the existing wrinkles.
Numerous Christian churches, for instance, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Catholic Church and Oriental Orthodox Church, use frankincense during religious rituals. The gospel of Mathew 2:11 states that the gifts from the three wise men 'from the East' presented to baby Jesus included frankincense, myrrh and gold. People belonging to several faiths, including Christian, Islamic and Judaic as well as others, have been using a blend of frankincense and different oils to rub or sprinkle on infants, anoint initiates as well as people who are entering a new phase in their spiritual lives.
On the other hand, as Christianity spread in the 4th century A.D., the market for frankincense witnessed a significant depression. Moreover, the caravan route through the 'Empty Quarter' or Rub' al Khali in the Arabian Peninsula became even more difficult as the area faced desertification. Trade in frankincense virtually shrunk after A.D. 300 following a rise in raids by the nomadic Parthians in what is now north-eastern Iran.
It is worth mentioning here that frankincense or the resin produced by trees belonging to the genus Boswellia is edible and has been utilized in preparing traditional remedies in Africa as well as Asia. These medications were recommended to promote digestion and improve the health of the skin. If you wish to use frankincense internally, you need to ensure that the substance is not only translucent, but also does not contain any brown or black contaminations. Ideally frankincense meant for internal consumption should have a pale yellowish hue with a hint of almost negligible green. Although frankincense is comparatively stickier than chewing gum, it is usually chewed in the same manner as you use chewing gum.
In Ayurveda Boswellia serrata or frankincense is generally called 'dhoop.' People in India have been using this substance over centuries to treat arthritis, foster healing of wounds, and reinforce the female hormone system as well as to purify the air. In Ayurveda, using frankincense is known as 'dhoopan.' People in India, Arabia, and East African regions believe that if you burn frankincense in your house every day, it helps to usher in good health and prosperity.
Boswellia carteri (B. Carteri): The extract of the resin obtained from this Boswellia species contains incensole acetate and triterpene acids, which show very strong actions that may possibly possess the aptitude to stimulate cytotoxicity specific to tumour cells. These activities are more distinguished in the case of different types of cancer cells. In addition, these chemical compounds present in Boswellia carteri extract also demonstrate positive influences on the immune system. Findings of studies published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a peer review journal, show that the essential oil of frankincense (Boswellia carteri) has the potential of emerging as an alternative agent to treat bladder cancer.
Chemical analysis of frankincense essential oil has shown that its main chemical constituents include actanol, a-pinene, bornyl acetate, octyl acetate, incensyl acetate and incensole.
Frankincense does not have a fixed standard dosage, as it is subject to a number of issues, including the age, health as well as many other conditions. In fact, sufficient scientific information regarding determination of an exact dose range for the boswellia herb or frankincense is not available at present. You ought to always remember that natural products are not essentially safe all the times and the dosage of such products may be very important.
At the same time, you should ensure that you are strictly following the directions applicable and printed on the product labels. In addition, you should always check with your physician, pharmacist or any healthcare professional prior to using these natural products.
Although it is generally safe to use the boswellia herb, especially when you are following the directions strictly, its use may result in some side effects like nausea, diarrhea or skin rash. However, such side effects occur seldom.
The boswellia herb should never be used for women during pregnancy and nursing mothers. Even young children and people suffering from serious problems related to the liver or kidneys should not use this herb. It is advisable that people with sensitive skin should use this herb cautiously, as it may cause skin irritations.
Boswellia or frankincense is available in various forms, including tablet, capsule as well as creams. However, it has been found that the oral form of this herb is more effective. In addition, this herb is also available in the form of an extract. While buying the extract you should check the label of the product for its boswellin content. You may also buy boswellin in cream form, which is used to alleviate pain associated with arthritis.
Frankincense is collected by tapping the trunk of trees belonging to the genus Boswellia. The gum-like aromatic resin may also be collected by making incisions on the bark. After tapping or making the incisions, the sap is allowed to flow and solidify on the tree trunk. The resin is left in the open air and subsequently collected when it hardens.