Often paired with frankincense, myrrh is an oil or resin with a distinctive aromatic scent. Although myrrh has been used for thousands of years for religious and medicinal purposes, it has recently become the subject of a number of scientific studies, and researchers are discovering the many potential benefits of this resin. So where does myrrh come from? Could it make a difference to your health?
What is Myrrh?
Myrrh is the general term that refers to an oil or resin that is extracted from small, thorny trees in the Commiphora genus. The name is thought to be derived from a Semitic word whose root means “bitter,” as well as the Arabic word “murr,” which has a similar meaning.
Myrrh resin is extracted from the sapwood of a tree (typically the Commiphora myrrha tree that is native to Saudi Arabia, India, Oman, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea and parts of Ethiopia)— when a tree incurs a wound, the resin literally “bleeds” out. The resin itself is waxy, hardens quickly and can be clear, opaque or yellow. When the resin hardens, it becomes glossy and resembles a lumpy yellow rock. As the resin ages, it turns to a darker color and may have white streaks.
The resin is obtained by “tapping,” a process that involves making two-inch incisions with an axe or other tool into the bark of the tree. A milky liquid flows from the incisions and hardens immediately when exposed to air. The resin droplets are detached about two weeks later. Depending on growing conditions, tree type, and cultural practices, the time of year and frequency of tappings may vary greatly. After collection, the resin is stored for around twelve weeks before it is sold, sorted, and graded. (1)
The resulting myrrh resin, gum, and oil has been used in various cultures for thousands of years to support health. Many people associate myrrh with the gifts of the Magi, but it was used in Ancient Egyptian and Sumerian cultures for many years prior.
History of Myrrh
One of the earliest written mentions of myrrh is in the fifth century BC, when Herodotus noted that the Egyptians used myrrh as an embalming agent. He also wrote “Arabia is the only country which produces frankincense, myrrh, cassia and cinnamon...the trees bearing the frankincense are guarded by winged serpents of small size and various colors.” (2) Egyptians also burned myrrh pellets in their homes as it was believed that the scent would rid the home of fleas. Myrrh was used as a perfume homes to mask odors. It was also used as a facial treatment. (3) Around this time, myrrh was used in Sumeria to treat intestinal parasites and for dental health. (4)
Myrrh was also highly valued by the Hebrew people during Biblical times. It was used to anoint the altar and vessels in the Jewish temples. It was also used in purification rituals for women when being presented before King Ahasuerus the Mede (also called King Xerxes of Persia) when he was choosing a queen. Perhaps most famously, myrrh was thought to be one of the gifts presented to Jesus by the three wise men, along with gold and frankincense. (5)
Myrrh was also used in Ancient Greece and Rome, both in religious rituals and in cremation. Medicinally myrrh was used for its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. As a result, myrrh was used for everything from indigestion and coughs to hemorrhoids and dental health. According to some sources, myrrh is mentioned more frequently than any other plant substance in the writings of Greek physician Hippocrates.In the Ayurvedic tradition, myrrh was used to treat mouth ulcers, gingivitis, respiratory conditions, and more. It was also used to offer support for women’s health and was believed to help with inflammation of the stomach. Additionally, myrrh was used in religious ceremonies, primarily in incense form.
Traditional Chinese Medicine also used myrrh (called mo yao) to support health. Around the time of the Tang dynasty myrrh was used for wound care, blood health, women’s health, and for bone pain. Raw myrrh was also taken with frankincense. Myrrh was prepared stir fried or soaked in rice vinegar and then baked. Its neutral, bitter, and draining qualities were thought to promote healthy circulation and offer support for swelling. (6)
However, in the Middle Ages, myrrh fell somewhat out of favor, which most scholars attribute to the destruction of the trade routes between Europe and the Middle East, as well as the decline of the Roman empire. However, although incense was initially banned in the early European Christian Church, the use of myrrh for incense eventually became popular in some traditions. Myrrh became popular again in the 18th century — it was used by early American herbalists and also in Britain and Germany for health support.
Today, myrrh is recognized as a popular oil and herbal supplement for your health, and has a number of positive potential health benefits. As in Biblical times, today myrrh is sometimes combined with frankincense to support health as both contain active ingredients that are thought to support a healthy internal response.
Active Compounds in Myrrh
Myrrh produces compounds called guggulsterones, which are named after guggul, or Indian myrrh. It is a phytosteroid that may offer a number of beneficial effects. Myrrh also contains terpenoids, which belong to a class of plant compounds that are responsible for growth and development in plants, as well as other more specialized actions like cell protection. They are sometimes used for pest control and to support a healthy stress response. Researchers believe that these compounds may be responsible for myrrh’s potential benefits. (7) Other compounds in myrrh include sesquiterpenes, ester, cuminic, aldehyde, and eugenol.
Myrrh also contains a number of antioxidants that work to protect cells from free radical damage and from oxidation, which can harm healthy cells. Some of these include antioxidant enzymes like SOD (superoxide dismutase) and CAT (catalase), as well as volatile oils (made up of compounds like herbolene, a-cadinene, lindestrene, and more). (8) Recently, studies have been conducted examining the roles these, and other, compounds play in the potential benefits myrrh may have for the human body.
Potential Health Benefits of Myrrh
- May support intestinal health
- Supports a healthy internal response
- Offers wound support
- May support healthy cholesterol levels already in the normal range
- May offer temporary relief from occasional pain
- May support healthy looking skin
- Seeks to support healthy circulation
- Supports dental health
- And more…
Supports a Healthy Internal Response
According to recent research, myrrh may have properties that promote a healthy internal response. In one study, researchers looked at essential oil samples of myrrh in conjunction with frankincense essential oil to determine its “anti-infective properties.” After testing the oils against specific microorganisms, it was determined that “the historical and antimicrobial importance of these oils can thus not be ignored as efficacies independently and in combination prove extremely promising as antimicrobial agents.” (9)
In another study, researchers examined the effects of myrrh on autoimmune inflammatory conditions, specifically rheumatoid arthritis. They tested both frankincense and myrrh on rats with this condition and discovered that “administration of combined Frankincense and Myrrh suppressed arthritic progression in rats more effective than single drug treatment.” Further, they concluded that myrrh may have potential benefits on other conditions due to its “protective effect on HPV, inflammatory cytokines, as well as cytokines expression level.” Research into this subject is still ongoing. (10)
Promotes Dental Health
In addition to supporting a healthy internal response, it has also been found that myrrh may have potential health benefits for gum and mouth health. In a 2013 study, 90 subjects with MiRAS, or minor recurrent aphthous stomatitis (a condition that affects the mouth and gums) were given an oral gel with aloe vera and myrrh for six days. At the end of the study, the subjects reported ulcer healing and a reduction of pain. Researchers concluded “The new formulated aloe- and myrrh-based gels proved to be effective in topical management of MiRAS. Aloe was superior in decreasing ulcer size, erythema, and exudation; whereas myrrh resulted in more pain reduction.” (11) Myrrh has also become popular in some dental treatments, so while studies are ongoing, it seems likely that myrrh will be continued to be used for dental health. (12)
May Support Intestinal System Health
While research into this particular potential benefit of myrrh has yet to progress to human trials, there is evidence to suggest that myrrh may have positive effects on intestinal health. In a recent study, rats with intestinal issues were given varying myrrh extract concentrations. Researchers studied the rats to determine “the antispasmodic effect of myrrh under healthy and inflamed conditions.” After observing the effects, they concluded: “The resulting reduction of intestinal motility and spasmolytic effects provide a rationale for the symptom treatment of intestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.” (13) So while these results may have only been in rats, it seems possible that positive effects could occur for humans as well.
Myrrh and Cancer Research
In recent years, studies have been conducted into myrrh’s effects on cancer cells. One study determined that certain compounds found in myrrh may have potential benefits on tumor cells. In the study, both frankincense and myrrh essential oils were tested against five tumor strains, based on the ideas that “previous studies have shown that myrrh exhibits cytotoxic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antiparasitic and hypolipidemic activities.” Researchers discovered that some of the cell lines showed “increased sensitivity” to the essential oils. They also noted that “in addition, the anticancer effects of myrrh were markedly increased compared with those of frankincense; however, no significant synergistic effects were identified.” They do note that these findings do require further study. (14)
Other Myrrh Uses
Myrrh is sometimes used as an insect repellent, added to cold compresses, and is sometimes mixed with mouthwash to support dental health. It has also been mixed with creams and lotions to support healthy looking skin. However, one of the most popular ways of using myrrh is as an essential oil.
One of the most popular ways people use myrrh is by using a myrrh essential oil. Myrrh is considered an oleoresin, which are composed of volatile oils (or essential oils). When distilling myrrh essential oil, the oleoresin is extracted using volatile solvents like ethanol or petroleum distillates. The solvent is then evaporated. Other methods of extraction include the use of non-volatile solvents like vegetable oils or animal fats. The myrrh resin is ground down then the oils and myrrh are heated, blended, and filtered. (15) Some companies use steam extraction to distill myrrh essential oil.
As an oil, myrrh has a warm, earthy, and balsamic aroma that is very distinctive. It is thought to have cleansing properties, support the mouth and throat, promote healthy, young-looking skin, and support emotional balance and overall wellbeing. It can be diffused, or applied topically (although it is recommended you do a skin test before applying myrrh topically). Popular oils to blend with myrrh include frankincense, lavender, sandalwood, ylang ylang, and bergamot. (16)
Should You Try Myrrh?
If you’re looking to add myrrh to your health routine, there are several options you can consider. If you are wanting to support a healthy internal response, a myrrh supplement may make a difference to your health. A myrrh supplement will likely feature myrrh gum and may offer support for digestive system health, circulatory health, and more.
If you’re interested in aromatherapy, you may enjoy a myrrh essential oil. You can diffuse it or apply it topically, depending on your skin’s sensitivity. The spicy, aromatic scent may support balance and a healthy mood, particularly when it’s combined with other soothing oils.
Another popular choice is using a myrrh-based product to support oral health. Many natural herbal mouthwashes and throat sprays contain myrrh to soothe the throat and promote dental health. These formulas sometime contain herbs like cinnamon, thyme, or peppermint to support fresh breath.
Whatever way you decide to incorporate myrrh into your health routine, you’ll find a number of options at Natural Healthy Concepts. We’d love to help you choose which myrrh supplement is right for you!