Myrrh boasts a long history in Indian medicine for the treatment of mouth ulcers, gingivitis, throat infections, inflammation of the mouth, and respiratory catarrh. It’s topically applied to ulcers and may be used as a mouthwash or gargle. In East Africa, it serves as an anti-inflammatory and antirheumatic agent.
High Trade Value
In ancient times, the Egyptians imported great quantities of myrrh from Palestine. Because of its unique aromatic fragrance, it was highly valued as a trade commodity. The Ishmaelite travelers who purchased Joseph from his mean-spirited brothers were journeying to Egypt with camels loaded with spices, balm, and myrrh (Genesis 37:25). It was believed that the Queen of Sheba brought great quantities of the herb and other spices from Yemen as gifts for King Solomon. The long-heralded “balm of Gilead” is a member of the myrrh family, known far and wide as a healing agent for wounds.
When the sons of Jacob returned to him with the request from Joseph to bring Benjamin to Egypt, the old patriarch sent products from the land of Palestine in an attempt to appease the prime minister. The shipment included myrrh, along with almonds, pistachio nuts, honey, and spices (Genesis 43:11).
Myrrh was commonly used as perfume in the Middle East. In ancient Persia, when King Ahasuerus set about choosing a new queen to replace Vashti, the eligible girls had to complete 12 months of beauty treatments, including a six-month cosmetic regimen with the oil of myrrh (Esther 2:12). That oil is still used today during massage treatments.
The herb was one of the ingredients of the anointing oil used in the Jewish tabernacle and served as incense in religious rituals centered on ancient gods. It was proved effective as a fumigant for homes and temples of the Old Testament.
But it is Christ’s life with which myrrh is most famously connected. The magi who visited Mary and Joseph at the birth of Jesus brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). That gift hinted at the future awaiting the tiny baby in the manger. Myrrh was commonly used as an embalming agent by Egyptians and others in the ancient world. After Jesus was
crucified, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took His body and prepared it for burial using 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes (John 19:39).
Tree Bark Extract
Gum myrrh is the aromatic product that secretes from the bark of several species of Commiphora, a perennial shrub or small tree native to the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Somalia) and southwest Arabia (Yemen). Altogether, there are over 150 species of myrrh trees which are found throughout eastern Africa and Arabia. The composition of the gum that exudes from the bark of these trees varies slightly from one species to another.
When the bark of the myrrh tree is damaged, gum oozes out and forms yellow to reddish-brown small pearls or tear-shaped drops that may grow to the size of walnuts. The gum becomes hard and brittle when dried and then can be ground into powder. The extracted oil is used as a fragrance in various perfumes, ointments, soaps, and creams.
Properties and Uses
Myrrh has antiseptic, astringent, and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s useful for the topical treatment of mouth and throat infections such as mouth ulcers, inflamed gums, sore throats, and tonsillitis. Normally, it’s dabbed onto the lesion two to three times a day. Its astringent properties make it beneficial for treating throat infections, nasal congestion, and coughs. The oil of myrrh can also serve as an astringent in mouthwashes and gargles.
Guggul—the resin from C. mukul, or Indian myrrh—is of great importance in Indian medicine for the lessening of joint pain in arthritis. In clinical research, guggul has not only been shown to boast anti-inflammatory properties; but its content of steroidal saponins allows it the added bonus of reducing serum cholesterol levels. A number of studies reveal the potential of guggul to treat rheumatoid arthritis and osteo-arthritis.
Since 50 percent of myrrh is mucilage, it provides soothing properties to treat inflammations and ulcers. Its aldehydes and phenols stimulate a drying and cleansing action when applied topically. As a salve, the herb treats hemorrhoids, wounds, and bedsores. Myrrh also contains about 8 percent essential oil—a fraction rich in terpenoids—that creates the characteristic odor of myrrh.
In Germany, approval has been given for the use of myrrh in the topical treatment of inflammations of the throat, gums, and mouth, as well as for prosthesis pressure marks. It’s also included in mouthwashes and balms for wounds and minor skin inflammations. In France, it has received approval for nasal congestion from the common cold.
Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.