Healing Resins: Proven Helpful for Modern Ailments

Treasured by the ancients, these tree products are proving helpful for a host of modern ailments.


| November/December 2000



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The tree Boswellia sacra is believed to have been the source of frankincense in classical times.

Steven Foster

Fresh beaver activities marked my trail for a hike on a cold winter day. Patterns swirled across the thin ice on a no-name Arkansas creek, where a beaver darted from its den to a dark tangle of shallow submerged roots. Its small dam, still under construction, had soaked the thicket and made for muddy progress. Fortunately, the beaver had left a collection of neatly carved “walking sticks” along the creek’s edge. As I poled my way through the damp woods, I noticed a nearby stand of old sweet gum trees, girdled with scars by the beaver and his relatives. Sweetgum’s botanical name is Liquidambar styraciflua, the inspiration for which was obvious: Atop the girdled scars, streams of amber- colored resin oozed from the trees’ veins.

One can imagine that the first human who had a similar experience of seeing resin oozing out of an injured tree’s bark was quick to smell it, taste it, and find a way to use it. Resins, balsams, and gums have a rich history dating back thousands of years as items of human commerce. They have always been valued for their fragrant and medicinal properties; the precious droplets have served as gifts to and from kings, as trappings for religious ceremonies, and as the embalming fluid that prepared human remains for their journey into the afterlife. In its hardened, petrified form, resin is valued as the semiprecious stone amber.

More recently, resins, balsams, and gums have been studied for their medicinal compounds. The subjects of these studies include familiar items such as myrrh and frankincense, but also dietary supplements from India such as boswellia and guggul. Their uses range from lowering cholesterol and easing arthritis to fighting bacteria and mouth irritations.

What are resins?

Resins, balsams, and related substances are complex chemical products produced by specialized ducts, cavities, or metabolic by-products of trees and other plant forms. Resins are insoluble in water and are usually hard, transparent, or translucent. When heated, they soften and usually melt. Their chemistry is elaborate, containing mixtures of resin acids, alcohols, tannins, esters, and other compounds.

Oleoresins are mixtures of resins and volatile oils. Oleoresins include turpentine and Canada balsam.

Sometimes resins are mixed with gums. These are called gum resins. Gums are water soluble, so the resins within them can be separated relatively easily.

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