August 28, 2011

Aromatics (coming soon) in Print

I happened across this abstract on the web while browsing around searching for future posts for the aromaconnection blog:

The Scents of Larsa: A Study of the Aromatics Industry in an Old Babylonian Kingdom by Robert Middeke-Conlin | Papers by Robert

Revision of M.A. Thesis Submitted March, 2010. Cuneiform Digital Library Journal (CDLJ) In press,2011
Full version of this paper was removed on January 4, 2011 in preparation for its publication by CDLJ later this year.

The aromatics trade is a luxury trade with origins in distant antiquity. Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian techniques at perfume production are the roots of the Arabic perfume industry so famous in the Middle Ages. The south Arabian incense trade, so important to the Greeks and Romans, seemingly appears fully grown with the domestication of the camel. However, this trade and the production of perfumes arose from a much older tradition of which the sources are difficult to grasp. There are no texts which describe perfume production before the Middle Assyrian period, nor did the ancient Mesopotamians state where many of the raw materials they imported came from.
This work sheds light on some of the origins of this trade by examining the aromatics industry as it existed in the Old Babylonian Kingdom of Larsa. Section one lays the groundwork for this discussion, starting with a history of aromatic scholarship, moving on to a textual discussion; and ending by stating both the modern and ancient terms used to describe aromatics and perfumes, as well as defining the use and non use of the šim determinative. Section two describes the manufacture of aromatic products; beginning with an examination of the materials used in production, moving on to an overview of the methods involved in perfume manufacture, then describing the perfumer, and finishing by exploring the places of aromatic production. Section three discusses how aromatics and fragrances fit into the society and economy of the Kingdom of Larsa. This section investigates the sources of aromatic raw materials, the people involved in the aromatics trade, and the availability and uses of aromatics in the Kingdom of Larsa’s society.

I’ve been unable to determine exactly when this will be published, but this will be in an online journal that is available for free. So we’ll plan on a review here once it is out.

Posted by Rob on August 28, 2011 in Aromatics in Print, Incense, Perfumery | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 01, 2009

Frankincense – A Brief Catch-Up

Copyright ã Tony Burfield. Jan 2009.

The year 2008 saw the publication of a number of papers on the analysis & therapeutic properties of Frankincense gum, extracts & distillates, and it is only in recent years perhaps, that we are gaining further insight into the true nature & therapeutic potential of these various exudations & preparations. The whitish-yellow or yellow-orange tears or lumps of Frankincense gum (syn. Olibanum) (syn. Incense) are obtained by tapping the trees of a number of Boswellia spp., and the gum & derivatives are valuable exported commodities for the Horn of Africa region (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia & the island of Socotra (Yemen)), but also for Sudan and other African regions. Frankincense gum is used to prepare incense, and extracts & distillates have been widely used as fragrance ingredients. Indian, Arabian & African Boswellia spp. have a number of uses in local ethnic medicine, which is starting to translate into uses in evidence-based conventional medicine (see for example, the major feature on Frankincense & derivatives in Phytomedicine, June 2008).

For a working definition, we can say that Frankincense is the dried exudation obtained from the schizogenous gum-oleoresin pockets in the bark of various Boswellia spp - the Boswellia group itself being placed within the Burseraceae family. The Boswellia group constitutes some 25 species of shrubs or small trees found in the dry tropical areas of N.E. Africa, S. Arabia and India (including N.E. Tanzania and Madagascar) growing at a height of 1000 to 1800 m.:


Boswellia Species. Eritrea Ethiopia Somalia Sudan India Kenya Oman Nigeria
B. dalzielii Hutch.               X
B. frereana Birdw.     X          
B. microphylla Chiov.   X            
B. neglecta S. Morre   X X     X    
B. ogadensis Vollesen   X            
B. papyrifera (Del.) Hochst X X   X        
B. pirottae Chiov.   X            

B. rivae Engl.

  X X          

B. sacra Flück **

  X X          

B. serrata Roxb.

        X   X  

Table 1. Distribution of some Boswellia spp.
*some now say syn. B. sacra Flück ** syn. B. carteri Birdw.

Frankincense – Uses

Frankincense has been very highly valued for thousands of years, dating to pre- Roman times, and has many uses & applications. It is the Horn of Africa’s highest volume export, and apart from uses in incense/perfumery, the gum oleoresin & preparations thereof are also used in a number of medicinal systems, for flavourings (‘maidi’ type of frankincense preferred) & for skin cosmetic applications for toner, emollient & anti-wrinkle uses.

Survival Pressure on Boswellia spp.

Several Boswellia spp. are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008, including several individual spp. from the island of Socotra, off Yemen. However, some Frankincense- yielding species of commercial importance would also appear to be under threat e.g. Boswellia papyrifera in Eritrea, Ethiopia & Sudan (see Cropwatch’s Updated List of Threatened Aromatic Plants Used in the Aroma & Cosmetic Industries v1.09 Dec 2008). The results of the analysis of the essential oils from three threatened Boswellia species from Socotra have recently been published (Awadh Ali et al. 2008).

Frankincense - Anti-inflammatory Effects

Given the use of Indian Frankincense (B. serrata) gum-oleoresin in treating inflammatory disease in Ayurvedic medicine, a number of researchers have investigated the anti-inflammatory & anti-arthritic effects of the Boswellia resins. Frankincense contains α- and β-boswellic acids from 3α-hydroxy-olean-12-en-24-oic acid and 3α-hydroxy-urs-12-en-24-oic acid respectively, amongst others. Boswellic acid & pentacyclic triterpene acids are marketed as anti-inflammatory & anti-arthritic drugs in India (Handa 1992). Examples of commercialised products containing boswellic acids include ‘H15’ and ‘Sallaki’. Another, ‘Boswellin’ (a patented product of Sabinsa Corporation) is described as the standardized ethanol extract of Boswellia serrata gum resin, containing 60% to 65% boswellic acids.

The mechanism of the anti-inflammatory action may occur via the inhibition of 5-lipoxygenase (and hence leukotriene biosynthesis: Ammon et al. 1993; Ammon 1996). This action taken together with inhibition of human leukocyte elastase (Safayhi et al. 1997) may constitute the basis of the anti-inflammatory effect, since both of these enzymes play key roles in inflammatory & hypersensitivity-based diseases. The most active inhibitor of 5-lipoxygenase seems to be acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid, which is also cyctotoxic to meningioma cultures (Park et al. 2000).


The use of Boswellia preparations to treat another inflammatory disease, ulcerative colitis, may also owe its beneficial action to 5-lipoxygenase inhibition (Gupta et al. 1997).

Anti-carcinogenic Effects.

Leading on from the above, extracts of B. serrata & boswellic acids & their derivatives have been investigated by a number of researchers for their (chemopreventive) anti-carcinogenic/anti-tumorigenic effects via their cytotoxic & apoptosis effects in various in vitro cell lines. In particular acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid shows strong cyto-toxic activity against meningioma cell-lines and is the strongest 5-lipoxygenase inhibitor yet tested amongst triterpenoids (Hostanska et al. 2002). See Cropwatch’s Frankincense Bibliography v1.02 Jan 2009 for further details.

Use in Treating Respiratory Disease.

Gupta et al. (1997) investigated the use of Boswellia serrata gum resin in patients with bronchial asthma in 23 males & 17 females with a history of the disease, in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, 6-week clinical study, 70% of the patients showed an improvement (against a 27% improvement in the control group).

Incense: the Purifying Smoke.

The smoke of incense is traditionally used in Arabia & NE Africa for its deodorizing and purifying effects. Basar (2005) showed that the pyrolysates of Boswellia carterii & B. serrata resins showed anti-bacterial inhibition for contained certain substances e.g. 24-norursa-3,12-diene, incensole acetate & cembrene A, in the case of B. carterii. The author concluded that the results could support the successful use of certain Boswellia resins as a disinfectants in traditional ceremonies.


The literature is beset with analytical investigations of non-botanically verified frankincense samples, often obtained from local markets. A few papers have been published more recently where proper botanical identification has been established. One such paper is that of Hamm et al. (2005) who analysed the mono-, sesqui- & di-terpene contents of 6 olibanum samples of botanically certified origin. For example the characteristic chemical compounds of Boswellia papyrifera were stated as the diterpenic biomarkers incensole and its oxide and acetate derivatives, n-octanol and n-octyl acetate.


Ammon H, et al. (1993) “Mechanism of antiinflammatory actions of curcumine and boswellic acids.” J. Ethnopharmacol 38(2-3), 113-19.

Ammon H. (1996) “Salai guggal Boswellia serrata : from a herbal medicine to a non-redox inhibitor of leukotriene biosynthesis.” Eur J Med Res 1(8), 369-70.

Awadh Ali N.A., Wurster M., Arnold N., Teichert A., Schmidt J., Lindequist U. & Wessjohann L. (2008) "Chemical Composition and Biological Activities of Essential Oils from the Oleogum Resins of Three Endemic Socotraen Boswellia Species." Rec. Nat. Prod. 2(1), 6-12

Basar S. (2005) Phytochemical investigations on Boswellia species: Comparative studies on the essential oils, pyrolysates and boswellic acids of Boswellia carterii Birdw., Boswellia serrata Roxb., Boswellia frereana Birdw., Boswellia neglecta S. Moore and Boswellia rivae Engl. PhD Thesis, Universität Hamburg 2005.

Gupta I., Gupta V., Parihar A., Gupta S., Ludtke R., Safayhi H. & Ammon H. P. (1998). “Effects of Boswellia serrata gum resin in patients with bronchial asthma: results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled, 6-week clinical study.” Eur. J. Med. Res. 3, 511-514.

Hamm S., Bleton J., Connan J. & Tchapla A.(2005) "A chemical investigation by headspace SPME and GC-MS of volatile and semi-volatile terpenes in various olibanum samples." Phytochemistry. 66(12), 1499-514.

Handa S.S. (1992) Fitoterapia 63(10), 3.

Hostanska K., Daum G. & Saller R. (2002) "Cytostatic and apoptosis inducing activity of boswellic acid towards malignant cells in vitro.” Anticancer Research 22, 2853-62.

Gupta I., Parihar A., Malhotra P., Singh G. B., Ludtke R., Safayhi H. & Ammon H.P (1997) “. Effects of Boswellia serrata gum resin in patients with ulcerative colitis.” Eur J Med Res . 2(1), 37-43.

Park Y.S., Lee J.H., Bondar J., Harwalakr J.A., Safayhi H. & Golubic M. (2000) “Cytotoxic action of acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic Acid (AKBA) on meningioma cells.” Planta Med. 68, 397-401.

Safayhi H., Rall B., Sailer E-R. & Ammon H.P.T. (1997) "Inhibition by boswellic acids of human leukocyte elastase." Pharmacology 281(1), 460-463.

Posted by Tony Burfield on January 1, 2009 in Ecological/Cultural Sustainability, Essential Oils/Plant Extractions, Incense | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

August 26, 2008

Incense may cause cancer

Reuters (and a lot of others) report on a study that suggests that "regularly inhaling the smoke could put people at risk of cancers of the respiratory tract." The findings are published in the medical journal Cancer for October 1, 2008 (not online yet).

The study examined incense use by 61,320 Singapore Chinese men and women for 12 years. Subjects reported on their incense use and the researchers followed their health.

The researchers found that incense use was associated with a statistically significant higher risk of cancers of the upper respiratory tract, with the exception of nasopharyngeal cancer. However, they observed no overall effect on lung cancer risk.

Without looking at the original study, it's hard to tell what the relationship might be with natural ingredients or species of the incense ingredients. It seems likely that it is the smoke particles that are the carcinogenic ingredient. If that is the case, the type of incense and the source may be irrelevant. However, the researchers note that further studies are needed to determine if these are factors.

A slightly different article was found  in HealthDay.

Posted by Rob on August 26, 2008 in Incense, Safety/Toxicity | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 04, 2008

New Study Confirms psychoactive effect of [Frank]incense

A new study published in the The FASEB Journal, a journal of experimental biology

"found that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin constituent, when tested in mice lowers anxiety and causes antidepressive-like behavior.” 

The press release goes on to cite this study as an explanation of how burning incense may have had a spiritual effect--a fact that is obvious to holistic aromatherapists. The significance of this study is that the study the mechanism that causes the effect was discovered.

There is an earlier study (2) on the anti-inflammatory effects of  Boswellia by the same authors that isolated the compound from Boswellia carterii, the common frankincense. The study authors suggest that the exact mechanism of the effect may be by activating TRPV3 that is found in neurons throughout the brain. TRPV3 is an ion channel implicated in the perception of warmth in the skin, as well as in the brain.

For this study, the incensole acetate was injected intraperitoneally into the mice, and then the mice were subjected to behavioral tests. A control group of mice that were known to be insensitive to TRPV3 stimulation was also used.

The psychoactive effects of frankincense are well known to aromatherapists, who are also aware that the the burnt resin has entirely different chemical composition than the essential oil components(3). Since the administration in this case was by injection and because incensole acetate is a (relatively minor - 2.3%) constituent of the essential oil there may be a different effect through inhalation of the essential oil; in any case this study did not address that. Reference (4) studied the Pyrolysates (burnt products) and found that insensole rises to 22% and incensyl acetate to 15.5%, so the effect may be greater when incense is used.

The study has been widely reported on in the scientific media, but as usual the press release was used as the major source and no one appears to have asked any interesting questions, which are answered in the full paper.

It would be interesting to see this study repeated using the essential oil.


(1) Arieh Moussaieff et al. Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain, Published online before print May 20, 2008 as doi: 10.1096/fj.07-101865. Abstract at

(2) Arieh Moussaieff et al. Incensole acetate: a novel neuroprotective agent isolated from Boswellia carterii, Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism advance online publication 16 April 2008; doi: 10.1038/jcbfm.2008.28. Abstract at

(3) Lis-Balchin, Maria.  Aromatherapy Science: A guide for healthcare professionals. Pharmaceutical Press: 2006. p. 193.

(4)  Basar, Simla. Phytochemical Investigations on Boswellia Species. Dr. dissertation. University of Hamberg 2005. Online at

Posted by Rob on June 4, 2008 in Aromatherapy, Essential Oils/Plant Extractions, Incense, Research | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack