Essential oils are oils extracted from a number of plants, herbs and even fruits (such as lemon). Often these contain the distilled aspects of the original source which gives it its smell as well as any active properties. From there, essential oils can be topically massaged into the skin, they can be inhaled via aromatherapy or they can be consumed, sometimes mixed with hot water to make a tea.
There are many different types of essential oil, each with different health benefits and uses. While valerian root oil helps with sleep, bergamot oil is thought to improve the mood. Eucalyptus oil meanwhile is refreshing and is often applied to treat swelling and rashes.
Frankincense oil is sometimes referred to as ‘olibanum’. This is one of the most common types of oil found in aromatherapy and is thought to be particularly effective in treating anxiety, stress and inflammation and for boosting immunity.
This oil comes from resin from the Boswellia carterii (Boswellia sacra tree) which can be found in Somalia. The word itself comes from the words ‘franc encens’ which means ‘quality incense’ in French!
Like many essential oils, Frankincense has the ability to affect the production of hormones and neurotransmitters when it is inhaled. It can also be applied to the skin when mixed with a carrier oil (an odourless oil that is used to dilute stronger oils) and is thought to have particularly potent effects on the limbic system. Unlike some essential oils such as lemon, this is not to be ingested and can be toxic in high qualities.
The way that Frankincense is believed to exert many of these effects is by increasing the production of serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is the ‘happiness hormone’ – or more specifically a neurotransmitter that improves our mood and makes us feel jolly and relaxed. Low serotonin is often thought to be one of the main causes for both anxiety and depression and using substances such as Frankincense to raise this may therefore be useful in combating that effect. Once serotonin enters the brain and exerts its effects, it is eventually broken down and used to create melatonin – the sleep hormone. This means that you’ll often feel sleepy and tired after using anything that boosts serotonin.
Note that serotonin can also be effective at stifling appetite. When we eat, we raise levels of tryptophan in the blood which in turn elevates serotonin in the brain. This is why we feel happy and then tired when we eat and it’s why we can often become grumpy (or ‘hangry’) when we are hungry. Thus it is possible that Frankincense could also act as a somewhat effective appetite suppressant.
Likewise, Frankincense is also able to affect levels of dopamine. In fact, it is thought to impact more heavily on dopamine than on serotonin.
This is interesting because dopamine is the neurotransmitter that gets produced when we drink caffeine and is associated with focus, drive and alertness. Specifically, dopamine is often called the ‘reward hormone’ because it is produced in anticipation of reward. In other words, when we are doing something that our brain and body deems worthwhile, serotonin is released to make sure we keep doing it well and don’t get distracted.
While serotonin is a relaxant then, dopamine is actually a stimulant. This means you might find Frankincense is relaxing and useful for treating anxiety and stress but you might also find it makes it worse. Really, this is likely to come down to your specific brain chemistry and the nature of your own anxiety. In theory, it could be useful as a study aid – keeping us content and focussed.
Meanwhile, like clary sage oil, Frankincense is also thought to be effective in helping the body to regulate hormone production and oestrogen in particular. For this reason, some women state that they find clary sage and Frankincense to be useful in treating discomfort during menstrual cramps. It could even potentially be a natural aphrodisiac, making it a possible choice as a perfume.
How to Use Frankincense
Frankincense can be soothing when applied topically and may be useful in reducing swelling. However, it’s important to note that the effects are likely to be minimal in this regard. If you’re massaging a twisted ankle, then using Frankincense will be potentially beneficial but your strategy for combating swelling should not hinge on the use of essential oils.
Another reason to use this oil on injuries is that it can be effective at combating germs and bacteria to potentially prevent infection (1) – but don’t use it on an open wound.
The same is true of the effect of aromatherapy for moods and focus. While the effects might help nudge you in the right direction, don’t expect them to be incredibly notice.
Calm focus? Maybe – but don’t expect the limitless pill!
One of the more potent benefits of any aromatherapy or scent though is the associations that we form with them. Smell is linked very closely with memory and if you can learn to associate a certain smell with something like sleep, then you will find that the smell alone can be enough to start getting you ready for bed. Burn an oil like this in the evening and it’s a great way to signal to your body that you should wind down!
When you use Frankincense you can either burn it or spray it using an oil burner or diffuser, or you can apply it topically using a carrier oil. It can also be used by adding a few drops to a full bath – in which case the bath itself will also be highly relaxing.