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  • Writer's picturePhilip Niño Tan-Gatue

Frankincense in Chinese Medicine

Frankincense History

The Wise Men who gave the infant Jesus gifts certainly knew what they were doing.

Their choice of gifts were more than just symbolic.  They were indeed valuable.  Today we talk about Frankincense, also known as Ru Xiang (乳香).  It is also known by the name olibanum, from the term “that which results from milking in arabic” (via wikipedia)

Frankincense is most known in from the aforementioned biblical story about wise men giving the newborn Christ gifts.  Interestingly all three gifts are purported to have medicinal effects.  Frankincense is used not only in Traditional Chinese Medicine but also in ayurvedic medicine and in other traditions.  The English word Frankincense comes from the French meaning “free burning incense” (Zavada, link).

Most Catholics like myself will be familiar with frankincense due to it’s use in incense in Church.

Frankincense Sources

It is derived from the resin of trees belonging to the Boswelia family.  In particular, most come from Boswelia sacra. In Chinese medicine, however, the standard species is Boswellia carterii

From Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen (public domain photo)

From Köhler’s Medizinal Pflanzen (public domain photo)

Chinese Medicine

Bensky lists the qualities of Frankincense as acrid, bitter in flavor and warm in nature.  It enters the Heart, Liver and Spleen channels.  Actions include invigorates the Blood, promotes movement of Qi, stops pain and generates flesh.

Typical dose is between 3-9 grams.

It is contraindicated in the absence of stasis and during pregnancy.

Actions and Indications

Frankincense is used in Chinese medicine for traumatic pain due to blood stasis.  This refers to pain due to getting hit or getting a sprain and you see blood vessels burst and bruises form.  It is combined with myrrh for this purpose.  Wise men indeed!

Frankincense can be combined with She Xiang and Bing Pian for pain from trauma as well.

It is also combined with Chuan Lian Zi and Mu Xiang for epigastric pain due to qi stagnation and blood stasis.  Qi stagnation in the tummy may be roughly translated to “gas pain”.

Together with Hong Teng and Zi Hua Di Ding, it can be used for intestinal abscesses.

It also relaxes the sinews, invigorates the channels and alleviates pain caused by wind-damp.  Aromatic herbs are used to dispel the damp in the same way that potpourri can be used to “move” the air in a damp room.  For this it is combined with Qiang Huo and Qin Jiao.  It is also combined with Di Long and Zhi Chuan Wu for spasms and rigidity associated for wind stroke or cold-damp.

With Myrrh again it is used to reduce swelling, promote tissue growth and promote healing of sores, carbuncles and bruises.

Traditional Contraindications

Traditionally, Frankincense should not be used if the Stomach is weak as digestion will be affected.  Also, it should not be applied when pus is still in the sores as the pus will be trapped more.

Of course, use of such medicinals should be prescribed by a professional practitioner.


Unfortunately, Frankincense sources are in danger.

Recent studies have indicated that frankincense tree populations are declining, partly due to over-exploitation. Heavily tapped trees produce seeds that germinate at only 16% while seeds of trees that had not been tapped germinate at more than 80%. In addition, burning, grazing, and attacks by the longhorn beetle have reduced the tree population. Conversion (clearing) of frankincense woodlands to agriculture is also a major threat. (Melina, Dejena)


Bensky et al.  Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, 3rd ed.  Seattle. Eastland Press, 2004

Dejenea, T.; M. Lemenih, F. Bongers (February). “Manage or convert Boswellia woodlands? Can frankincense production payoff?”. Journal of Arid Environments 89: 77–83.

Melina, Remy (December 21, 2011, accessed December 17, 2013). “Christmas Staple Frankincense ‘Doomed,’ Ecologists Warn”. LiveScience.

Zavada, Jack. (December 17, 2013)  “What is Frankincense”  accessed 17 December 2013.

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