Published August 14 2017
I commonly get asked questions about essential oils, and while many essential oils offer wonderful health benefits, this specific article will focus on myrrh oil and frankincense. And the reason for this is because these are two of the more beneficial essential oils for those with thyroid conditions, and especially those with autoimmune thyroid conditions such as Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. However, before focusing on these two essential oils I will start out by discussing some general facts.
Essential oils are normally extracted from their respective plants through a distillation process. They can be used as perfumes and food flavorings, but many oils have surprising health benefits as well. For this reason, essential oils offer a natural and alternative method for treating different ailments.
Normally, it takes large amounts of the original plant to produce a small amount of its essential oil. As a result, essential oils are highly concentrated and most should not be used undiluted on the skin. Most essential oils require a carrier oil to dilute them before topical application.
Examples of oils that can be used as carrier oils include coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, and sesame oil. If not topically applied, many people inhale the oil through the use of a diffuser. In fact, my staff person Kate has an essential oil diffuser in her office.
If you are using an essential oil topically, it is best to dilute a few drops in the carrier oil first and spot-test the mixture on a patch of skin to see if you are sensitive or allergic. It is also important to purchase your essential oils from high-quality sources that do not neglect the extraction and purification process. Another rule of thumb is to avoid essential oil contact with your eyes and to keep out of reach of children. Of course this isn’t to suggest that essential oils aren’t suitable for children, as most people, regardless of their age, can benefit from essential oils.
Most oils should not be taken internally unless the company producing the oil explicitly specifies that the oil is safe for consumption, or perhaps if it is recommended by a competent healthcare professional who has a lot of experience using essential oils. Depending on the company, some manufacturers may create different versions of the same oil: one safe for ingestion, and a multipurpose one that is useful for everything else.
Let’s Talk About Myrrh and Frankincense…
Both myrrh and frankincense come from the Burseraceae plant family. Sometimes this family is known as the incense tree family. While myrrh and frankincense are usually sold in the form of essential oils, they are originally derived from natural gum or resin of a tree. Resin is the natural substance that protects woody plants from further damage by acting as a bandage. For this reason, many resins have interesting combinations of chemicals and compounds that have powerful medicinal properties for humans, too.
Myrrh is the natural resin extracted from trees in the Commiphora genus, native to North Africa and the Middle East. Myrrh oil is derived from this resin, and it has a golden yellow or sometimes brown color. Traditionally, myrrh oil has been used in perfumes, food flavoring, and topical creams for its ability to fight infections. It has also been used as a mouthwash and in creams and lotions for its infection-fighting properties as well.
An important class of compounds, terpenoids, are present in myrrh oil. Terpenoids are strong antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory properties. Myrrh is also made up of sesquiterpenes, which are compounds that have been associated with improving cardiovascular health, fighting infection by disrupting bacterial and fungal cell walls, and reducing the formation of tumors (1).
Frankincense, though classified in the same family as myrrh, comes from a different genus of flowering plants called Boswellia. Like myrrh, frankincense is normally sourced from North Africa and the Middle East. Frankincense of the highest quality is colorless to light green in color, with the poorest-quality batches brown in color.
Traditionally, frankincense was used to strengthen hair follicles and heal wounds faster. Its main components are olibanol and a variety of terpenes. Like myrrh, it contains sesquiterpenes, and monoterpenes, too. Monoterpenes have been shown to have strong cancer-fighting and antioxidant properties (2) (3).
Myrrh, Frankincense, and Immune System Health
Both myrrh and frankincense have shown to benefit the health of the immune system, in many cases enhancing properties of immune cells. Below is some evidence related to the immune-enhancing properties of the two oils:
Myrrh. There are a few different studies which show that myrrh can be beneficial for the health of the immune system. An animal study showcased how myrrh essential oil has antioxidant and immunoprotective properties (4). The study specifically showed that myrrh can offer protection against lead-induced liver and immune system toxicity by reducing lipid peroxidation and enhancing the antioxidant and immune defense mechanisms.
Another animal study looked to examine the effects of myrrh supplementation on white blood cell (WBC) numbers before an injury and during healing. The study showed that myrrh not only enhanced WBC levels before injury, but it also helped to maintain elevated WBC levels throughout the healing period. This suggests that myrrh not only plays an immunoprotective role, but one in fighting infection and healing too (5).
Another study showed that certain fat-soluble compounds in myrrh had high rates of cell death in four different cancer cell lines. The main methods of cancer cell activity suppression involved activation of the immune system and inhibiting cancer cell growth (6). And while diet and other factors can help combat cancer, essential oils should be considered as well.
Frankincense. A 2017 study showed that frankincense essential oil modulated aspects of the immune response in human dermal fibroblasts (7). The oil thus plays a significant role in remodeling human tissue and the dermal inflammation process.
Boswellic acids in frankincense essential oil have been suggested to have high anticancer activity. These boswellic acids have also been shown to have pro-apoptotic activities in cancer cell lines while activating a variety of white blood cells such as leukocytes (8).
The production of leukotrienes in the body are often followed by the production of histamines and prostaglandins, compounds that play a role in the inflammatory response. A study has shown that boswellic acids in frankincense oil actually inhibit the production of leukotrienes, thereby halting a large component of the inflammatory pathway. The essential oil has had promising effects in chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, chronic colitis, Crohn’s disease, and bronchial asthma (9).
Myrrh, Frankincense, and Thyroid Health
Given their strong anti-inflammatory properties and other ways in which they can benefit the health of the immune system, it should not be surprising that myrrh and frankincense can have potential benefits for patients with the autoimmune thyroid conditions Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Graves Disease. While I didn’t come across any studies which looked at the direct effects of myrrh and frankincense on thyroid health, some people with thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions have used these two essential oils to support their thyroid gland.
For example, some people claim that rubbing a few drops of myrrh essential oil around the thyroid gland may be able to help benefit thyroid health, and in some cases reduce a goiter, which is a swelling of the thyroid gland. Carrie Vitt, who is the creator of the website “Deliciously Organic”, recommends using essential oils to help benefit thyroid health, specifically myrrh oil.
I met Carrie during a thyroid mastermind meeting in October of 2015 hosted by Dr. Izabella Wentz, as she got her Hashimoto’s condition into remission through natural methods. And in this post she mentions how she personally rubs one drop of myrrh oil on her thyroid gland every day. In the same post she also lists a “Thyroid Blend Recipe” that consists of frankincense and myrrh, along with a few other essential oils.
Many reading this are familiar with Life Extension, and one of their articles mentions that myrrh aids with iodine uptake and helps with the conversion of T4 to T3. However, I wasn’t able to find any evidence in the research supporting this. If someone has a thyroid conversion problem I typically will recommend for the person to support their liver and gut, and if their cortisol levels are high then this also can affect the conversion of T4 to T3.
Although I listed some studies above which discuss how myrrh and frankincense can benefit immune system health, there are a few others which talk about how these two essential oils can affect cytokines. I’ve spoken about cytokines in past articles and blog posts, as these are a component of autoimmune conditions. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis is typically characterized by Th1 cytokines, and Graves’ Disease is characterized by Th2 cytokines. This is why Hashimoto’s is commonly referred to as being a “Th1 dominant condition”, while most cases of Graves’ Disease are considered to be “Th2 dominant conditions”.
One study showed that frankincense inhibits Th1 cytokines and promotes Th2 cytokines (10). This might suggest that frankincense would be beneficial for those with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, but should be avoided in those with Graves’ Disease. However, while I can’t say that I have most of my patients with Graves’ Disease take frankincense, I have had some with this condition take this essential oil, and it doesn’t seem to exacerbate the autoimmune response.
With regards to myrrh, one study showed that this essential oil can modulate both Th1 and Th2 cytokines (11). Just as is the case with frankincense, I can’t say that I have most of my patients with thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions take myrrh, although after doing some research for this article I probably will start recommending these essential oils more frequently.
Keep in mind that infections are a potential trigger of both Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. And these essential oils have antimicrobial properties. While taking myrrh oil and frankincense alone might not be sufficient to completely eradicate an infection, these still should be considered as part of an antimicrobial arsenal.
Safety Concerns and Side Effects Associated with Myrrh and Frankincense Use
Although essential oils are generally safe, there are some cases when you want to be cautious. Diabetics should consult with their doctors before using myrrh oil, as some animal studies has shown myrrh to have hypoglycemic effects (12). Myrrh also interacts with the blood-clotting medication Warfarin (13). It decreases its action, and thus those who are taking this medication will probably will want to avoid taking myrrh oil. And while I didn’t find evidence of frankincense directly interacting with Warfarin, keep in mind that this essential oil comes from Boswellia, and Boswellia Serrata does interact with Warfarin (14).
Can Myrhh and Frankincense Be Used During Pregnancy?
Some sources suggest for women who are pregnant to avoid all essential oils. With regards to myrrh oil, I came across a journal article entitled “Risks of Myrrh Usage In Pregnancy”. This discussed a case study which showed that a woman’s abdominal pain subsided after discontinuing myrrh, and several of her pregnancy complications reduced in severity as well (15). Some also advise women who are breastfeeding to avoid essential oils.
Although I can’t say that I’m an expert with regards to essential oils, I do consider my friend Dr. Eric Zielinski to be an expert in this area. He does a lot of research on essential oils, and he doesn’t agree that all essential oils should be avoided during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. This doesn’t mean that caution shouldn’t be exercised in some cases, but this is true not only with essential oils, but with nutritional supplements and herbs as well.
Anyway, for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding I would recommend to read an article by Dr. Zielinski entitled “Essential Oils for Pregnancy: The Top 5 Myths You Need to Know“. In this article he lists essential oils that should be avoided during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, and both myrrh and frankincense are excluded from this list.
In summary, both myrrh and frankincense essential oils have remarkable healing, immune-enhancing, and antioxidant properties. They come from the same plant family and are native to northern Africa and the Middle East. Compounds such as sesquiterpenes and terpenoids both make up myrrh essential oil. Both contribute to myrrh’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In frankincense, boswellic acids serve as the main antitumorigenic, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory compounds. Myrrh is able to activate cells of the immune system to protect, promote, and regenerate during the inflammatory activity. Frankincense, by virtue of several important compounds it is composed of, can reduce the inflammation pathway by suppressing the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals such as leukotrienes. Their benefits in the health of the immune system carry over into the effects they have in autoimmune disorders of the thyroid.