The benefits of gold, incense and myrrh

Three compounds, connected by their mention in the story of Jesus' birth, can provide benefits beyond their gift of seasonal joy.


Gold is undoubtedly the most famous of the three; it is a dense, smooth transition metal and one of the first things that comes to mind when considering gold, is its high price. Its monetary value means that any health claim upon gold must be approached with caution-it would be of great financial benefit to any company that could convince us that gold can save our lives. Because of its high status, gold has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. The earliest documented use occurred in China about 2,500 years before the baby Jesus was introduced.

In medieval times, and still today, certain outlets promoted the consumption of gold to alleviate depressive symptoms and migraines, while improving concentration and alertness.

In the 19th century, gold was considered a nerve calming agent, nervine, and was used to treat a variety of conditions, from alcoholism to epilepsy. Many of the claims about gold are unfounded. The ingestion of gold in its standard elemental form has no effect: it is inert and impervious to the body's digestive juices. However, some gold salts can be processed by the body and have anti-inflammatory properties.

The isotope gold-198 is used in the treatment of some types of cancer. Gold is excellent for absorbing x-rays, and loading tumours with gold can increase the efficiency of radiation therapy. This means that a less potent treatment is needed, minimising damage to healthy tissue.


Incense is produced from the dry resin of trees of the genus Boswellia. It has an impressive pedigree and has been marketed in the Arabian Peninsula for about 6,000 years. The aromatic resin is used in incense and perfumes; it produces a sweet, earthy and woody aroma.

Recently, with a popular focus on wellness and alternative therapies, essential oils and aromatherapy have gained a new renaissance thanks to incense in the West. Modern street vendors give it a few healthy properties, including reduction of acne, anxiety, colds, ulcers, coughs and even indigestion. Although these claims lack scientific evidence, not all of the health benefits of incense should be ruled out.

n 2008, the British Medical Journal published a review of seven randomised clinical trials of the benefits of incense. The author points out that "all the included trials were flawed: the most common limitations were the small sample size and incomplete reporting of data”. However, some potential benefits were seen in asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, knee osteoarthritis and collagenous colitis, which is a type of inflammatory bowel disease. Unfortunately, because there were so few studies to evaluate, there was little replication: almost everyone observed different conditions. The only exception was osteoarthritis.

More positively, the adverse effects of incense appear to be minor or non-existent. Historically, incense has been used as an anti-inflammatory, the main active ingredients of incense being alpha and beta-boswellic acid and some other pentacyclic triterpenic acids. Studies have shown that these compounds reduce inflammation, so there may be some benefits for certain people with inflammatory conditions.

Still, as the review author writes, "The evidence evaluated here may be encouraging, but it is not convincing.


Myrrh is also a compound derived from trees. It has been produced from the sap of small thorny trees belonging to the genus Commiphora for millennia. Myrrh is most commonly used in perfumes, incense and religious ceremonies. This odorous sap was considered medicinal in many parts of the ancient world. In Ayurvedic medicine, for example, myrrh tonic is considered rejuvenating.

As with incense, myrrh is believed to be anti-inflammatory. It also appears to be, to some extent, antibacterial. Today, myrrh is used in many mouthwashes, gargle, and toothpastes. More interestingly, there is some evidence that myrrh may be toxic to cancer cells. For example, a study published in 2013 tested compounds derived from myrrh in the laboratory. The researchers found that the compounds inhibited the proliferation of prostate cancer cells.

Other scientists believe that myrrh, when added to food, may help reduce the risk of colon cancer. However, at this time, not enough is known about myrrh and its effects on the body to seriously recommend it.

Other scientists have investigated myrrh and its potential to speed wound healing. A study in mice, for example, found that Commiphora extract promoted the migration of fibroblasts, cells vital to the healing process. The authors write that myrrh "may be effective in wound healing. However, the evidence is irregular at best, and more research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.

Reference: Frankincense: systematic review BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 18 December 2008) Cite this as: BMJ

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