You might think of myrrh as a very, very old-school gift only given by a certain three wise men, but it’s currently seeing new life in the wellness and beauty communities. The buzzy ingredient is a mainstay in incense and perfumes, DIY moisturizers, and even cold remedies.
But…what is this stuff, exactly? Well, myrrh is made from tree sap harvested from a type of tree native to northern Africa and the Arabian peninsula. After being harvested, the tree’s sap is left to harden into a gum, and then it gets scraped away to be used.
Myrrh (along with frankincense) was considered an essential commodity by the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans. And both are still commonly used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine as a pain-reliever and infection-fighter.
And unlike some other old-school remedies, myrrh’s benefits are pretty legit. A review of studies published between 2000 and 2011 found that myrrh—both the extract and some of its molecules—“have exhibited a wide [variety] of in vivo and in vitro pharmacological effects, including antiproliferative, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial,” the authors write. In other words, myrrh was shown to be a successful treatment in studies of both living subjects and isolated cells.
But what exactly are the benefits of myrrh? Here’s what recent research has to say:
1. It could help fight germs. “Myrrh is primarily used as an antiviral and antibiotic. It stimulates white blood cells to help your immune system fight infections, and additionally has direct antimicrobial effects,” says Karly Powell, ND, a naturopathic doctor in Colorado. “It is most used for common cold, respiratory infections, sore throat, ear infections, and swollen lymph nodes.”
Indeed, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Intercultural Ethnopharmacology looked at 17 different plants and herbs and found that C. myrrha extract inhibited the activity of two different kinds of bacteria, including E. coli. (That’s big news as the danger of antibiotic-resistant infections grows.) Additional research points to myrrh’s potential as an antifungal, although this was an in vitro study (meaning it was not performed on living subjects and thus is not clear how the myrrh would work on those funguses inside the human body).
2. It might relieve inflammation. Myrrh has also been a popular home remedy because of its purported anti-inflammatory properties. And there’s some merit to this: A 2017 review found that myrrh (and its cousin frankincense) contains several types of terpenoids, compounds made by plants that give them their aroma and protects them from predators. And in the case of myrrh, the review found that its terpenoids discouraged the production of nitric oxide (an inflammatory free radical) in mouse tissue. “Based on the evidence collected, these active terpenoids may be useful for the treatment of various inflammatory diseases,” the authors conclude. (Emphasis on may, since this study was done on mice and not humans.)
3. It might be good for gum health. Thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, myrrh oil (which is often present in natural toothpastes, powders, and mouthwashes) may help treat gingivitis, although experts acknowledge that more research is needed. However, the authors of one study, which found that myrrh-containing mouthwashes promote the healing of oral wounds, also caution against using myrrh-based products for more than two weeks at a time or in large doses, as the extract could end up damaging tissue in the long-term. Good to know.
4. It may help relieve pain. Myrrh has been used to treat pain for thousands of years, but research done within the past couple of decades has sought to explain why it works. A study of the combined effects of frankincense and myrrh found that a water extract made from both resins inhibited a specific neurotransmitter in mice responsible for causing pain, while yet another study conducted on mice with chronic pain found that myrrh has the potential to help patients struggling with neuropathic pain (that is, pain caused by nerve damage or conditions that affect the nervous system). Again, this is a mouse study, so it’s not 100 percent conclusive, but the results are definitely interesting.
What you should know before trying myrrh at home
So how do you use this stuff? According to Dr. Powell, “myrrh can be purchased over the counter as a tincture (alcohol extract) or powder. The powder may be diluted in water and consumed throughout the day like a tea.” She says people also apply it directly on the skin for minor skin infections
However, a good deal of research (particularly on people!) still needs to be done to fully understand myrrh’s benefits, particularly when it comes to how exactly myrrh works its magic, and what forms and doses are most effective. And before you rush out and buy some for yourself, know that, as is the case with any natural supplement, there are some risks involved.
For one thing, myrrh may interact with warfarin (a blood thinner used to treat clots), so check with your doctor before using if you’re on that type of medication. “Myrrh can have blood-sugar lowering properties so should be used with caution in combination with diabetic medications,” adds Dr. Powell. And it can cause skin irritation if used topically, so be wary of it if you have sensitive skin. Dr. Powell says myrrh oil or powder should be diluted in water or another solution before applying to the skin.
You should also talk to your doctor before using it if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. “The safety of myrrh in pregnancy is unclear. It has been commonly used throughout during pregnancy by traditional herbalists. However, there are theoretical risks of uterine stimulation and decreased placental blood flow during pregnancy. For this reason, myrrh is best avoided during pregnancy,” says Dr. Powell. It’s also unclear if myrrh makes it into breastmilk, and if so, what effect it would have on a growing baby. All herbal extract and essential oils used when you’re expecting should be cleared by your doctor first, Dr. Powell adds.
The bottom line: Myrrh could have some promising uses at home, especially when it comes to fighting bacteria and inflammation. But as with any natural remedy, be sure to talk to a medical professional before using to ensure you’re using a safe dosage, and that it won’t interfere with any medications or health conditions you have.
With additional reporting by Kells McPhillips.
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