Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh -- Minus the Gold

2014-10-07_1If it was good enough for the Christ Child, then it's good enough for me. That's my motto. I've been using a (gasp) commercially prepared skin care product for the past month or so, and these are two of the main ingredients -- frankincense and myrrh essential oils!

Once again I've found myself playing the "overlapping medical paradigm" game. You know the one -- you realize you're eating a vegetable that also happens to appear in a Materia Medica (giant book of medicinal herbs). Suddenly you second-guess yourself at every meal. "Should I add sautéed onions to my steak," "Does a cooked onion still hold the same medicinal properties as a raw one?" Who eats raw onions anyway? "Is the live peppermint growing in my backyard the same as the dried peppermint in my tea bags, the essential oil of peppermint in my cabinet, or the bo he (Mentha piperita) listed in my TCM Materia Medica?"

2014-10-07_2Now I'm having this same sense of wonderment about my facial products. As I'm rolling on and rubbing in this blend of ancient oils that smells distinctly like a special day in a Catholic church, I'm pondering the reach of these powerful substances. It's no secret that frankincense can run $100 per bottle of essential oil, and myrrh comes in around $70.This is good stuff, people. But why? What properties do they carry that have made them, along with the missing "gold" in my formulation, so heavily sought after for millennia? Myrrh was not only presented to the baby Jesus but also used to anoint his body after death. Egyptian pharaohs were also doused in the stuff.

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Myrrh on the left, frankincense on the right

Myrhh (mo yao) has been a documented herb in TCM since the Kaibao Era circa 975 AD. Frankincense (ru xiang) has been on the books since 500 AD. How are they used in Chinese medicine? Both come from small shrub-like trees in the Arabian Peninsula and Northeast Africa, and both are used in resin form to invigorate blood, treating a variety of "stasis" issues, from traumas to tumors. Specific entries might look like this:

2014-10-07_5Myrrh: neutral, bitter, downward draining; enters the Liver meridian; moves blood, dispels stasis, disperses phlegm nodules.

Frankincense: warm, acrid, aromatic; enters the Heart and Lung meridians; moves blood, relaxes sinews, freecourses qi, and removes obstruction from the channels.

Together, they have complementary properties of healing weeping sores and engendering new flesh. Well, there we have it. Now I see why this blend (which also includes lavender, Hawaiian sandalwood, helichrysum, and rose oils) would be used as a facial formula of the anti-aging variety. Hey, I'm 31. I might as well be prepared.

Qi Li Sanis the name of the formula utilizing the highly effective complementary herbsmo yao(myrrh) and ru xiang (frankincense). Technically they are resins, but we call every substance in our Materia Medica an "herb." This traditional formula combines our frankincense and myrrh with dragon's blood (spoiler alert: not really the blood of a dragon), catechu (another resin), carthamus (flower), cinnabar (ooh, an illegal one!), musk (illegal plus you'd smell like a deer), and borneol (one more resin for good measure).

2014-10-07_6Ayurvedic medicine, native to India, also uses frankincense and myrrh, now sometimes in nutraceutical forms like guggulsterones and bowsellic acids, respectively, for high cholesterol and joint pain.

So, what am I putting on my face? Sure, an essential oil is not exactly the same as a resin or a neutraceutical, or a Chinese decoction for that matter, but that's not what matters. What's important here is another step in the direction towards integrated medicine. Maybe western and eastern are both right this time. As one of my favorite patients helped me realize recently, you'll kill yourself trying to figure out which is the one right answer. There isn't one. Open your eyes, open your ears, and open your heart to acknowledge the truth in each tradition.