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  • Writer's pictureLouise H Connolly MD

Gift of the Magi

The Three Kings and their gift have always fascinated me. In turn, this wonderful story reminds me that Christmas is about the birth of a child, a savior, and a promise of life after death. "And god so loved the world"'s not about giving or receiving the correct Christmas presents. It's about love.

But speaking of presents, just what are these "Gifts of the Magi.? I can understand gold, but why frankincense and myrrh? What was so precious about them? Why not just give the baby Jesus a few diamonds, emeralds and rubies instead? Certainly a king could afford to give anything he wanted to this child.

So this sent me on a quest to investigate frankincense and myrrh. Come along with me and I'll show you just how wonderful they are and how wise the kings were.

At first glance, frankincense and myrrh are just early oriental spices. And perhaps the kings traveled along the famous ancient spice route. This route was well established in Greco-Roman times, and spices, used medicinally and as preservatives were indeed valuable. But the most prized of the spices were cinnamon, cassia, ginger, turmeric and pepper - NOT frankincense and myrrh. So we need to look deeper.

Both frankincense and myrrh are derived from the life's blood of a tree, it's sap. But in this case, it is not just any type of tree sap. When we look at all the tree sap producers, it's a very large category containing pine trees (whose sap produces turpentine) and maple trees (where we get maple syrup.) Turpentine can strip off the toughest paint or shellac; maple syrup certainly isn't good for the waistline. So we have to go further to find the secret. "Sap Producers" is a large "Order" of trees, we have to dig further down into the correct family and tribe to find Frankincense and Myrrh. And surprisingly, they both are in the same family. They are almost the only members of this family found in the Orient, India and North Africa at that time. When you repeatedly wound the "Crown of Thorns", which is the Myrrh tree, or Boswellia, the Frankincense tree, the sap comes out and hardens into a resin called a Tear. No wonder it's so bitter to taste! The tears protect the tree and it's life's blood, and the tears of these two trees can protect you.

So what's in the "tears" the resins of these two trees? Terpenoids! What! Who ever heard of them? I hadn't until recently. To put in simply, they are fatty acids that plants string together to produce a distinctive and enticing aroma. Each plant makes it's own both to protect itself from all pests and to ensure reproduction. Each terpenoid is unique to its owner, each is it's owner's essential oil. Thus the simplest terpenoids include limonene and geranol (from lemons and geraniums). Slightly more complex terpenoids are major components in most essentials oils including clove, cassia, basil, cinnamon, oregano and peppermint. But these weren't good enough for the Three Kings. Myrrh is mainly composed of three terpenoids strung together. It's larger, even more complex. Frankincense contains four, the most complex of all.


Bear with me. I'm getting there. And believe me, it was not just to make the stable smell good. When the chain gets as long as Frankincense, a funny thing happens. The chains turn into rings. The rings longer than Frankincense lose their scent as they grow and solidify. This solid structure becomes squalene, a substance used by sharks to stay afloat. Then it turns into cholesterol, Is cholesterol good or bad? I don't know. But it is the precursor of all steroid hormones including Vitamin D, progesterone, testosterone and estrogen. There you have part of it from essential oils to essential hormones.

This pathway is fundamental to life itself. It's called the mevalonate pathway - look it up if you wish. It starts with photosynthesis. Mitochondrial acetyl-CoA is used to create the building block of all terpenoids (IPP) generating essential oils, then cholesterol and alll the steroid hormones. But along the way it generates hemoglobin, our life's blood, ubiquinone, the batteries of our mitochondria and more. This is the pathway poisoned by statins and bisphosponates. If you are on such drugs, the terpenoids can help.

Are you beginning to see the beauty of this gift? If not, enough biochemistry!

OK, let's get down to specifics. Just what are Frankincense and Myrrh good for? First, they are used as incense. And for some reason, they were used in almost all religious ceremonies in the ancient world long before the birth of Christ. In Ancient China, in India, Sudan, Egypt, and Arabia. Then in Judaism and finally Christianity. No fighting

no debate. They all used them.. I find it highly significant when all different religious groups treasure the same thing.


Other uses? I'll take Myrrh first, the Balm of Gilead. Myrrh trees are slow growing and very hardy. They are tropical thorny trees that can grow out of solid rock. The perfume of their sap is legendary and highly coveted. At one point, myrrh resin was more valuable than gold. Terpenoids in general and Myrrh in particular were used for their antimicrobial, antifungal, and antioxidant properties. To put this into perspective, one ounce of clove oil, a simple terpenoid, has more antioxidant capacity than 450

lbs of carrots. And myrrh is much more complex. Unfortunately much of it's traditional medicinal uses have been lost despite numerous references including the Book of Genesis. We do know that it is an excellent preservative, and was used by the Egyptians to embalm the pharaohs, assuring these kings a place in the afterlife. Just how to do this has also been lost


More is known and proven about the medicinal properties of Frankincense, the longer chain terpenoid, of the two, the first able to form a ring structure. Frankincense, also known as Boswellia, has the usual antiviral, bacterial and fungal properties found in most terpenoids. But it has more. It is especially well suited to relieve pain and inflammation, specifically the pain of osteoarthritis and most forms of inflammation. It's secret lies in it's rather unique ability to squelch the 5-LOX pathway missed by so many other anti-inflammatoires. Preliminary evidence in humans shows boswellia to have anti-asthma effects. Boswellia further has interesting immunomodulatory effects, inhibiting autoimmune diseases while stimulating immune cells to appropriately do their job when necessary. Finally, boswellia has anti-cancer effects. Evidence points to antiproliferative and apoptotic effects on human cancer cells in vivo. It further inhibits cancer cell invasion to begin with.

Ancient medical systems put it differently: I think the Chinese put it the best. Boswellia

stimulates blood flow and promotes the movement of qi (the life force, our primal spiritual energy). Such was the gift of the Magi.

One final word about all the terpenoids. Their story has just begun. Just as essential oils are re-emerging today as potent therapies, research on different terpenoids is blossoming.

The three hundred different compounds in Cannabis, for example are now a hot topic. And again, it looks like this plant's terpenoids may be the best of the bunch.


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