Hidden secrets

Readers sometimes complain that ND articles are too difficult and technical; to keep them happy Simon Cotton discusses some chemical compositions

Frankincense and myrrh. Both are produced as resins by trees native to Arabia. Frankincense is made

by cutting bark of a tree (BosweUia of the family Burseraceae); a milky resin seeps out which solidifies after a week. Myrrh is similarly obtained from Commiphora abyssinica, also of the family Burseraceae. One tree can make about 10 lbs a year.

Boswellic acids

Their chemical composition is different. The most abundant molecules found in the frankincense resin are boswellic acids. Steam distillation of frankincense resin gives oil of frankincense, whose analysis shows that this has a variable composition, with compounds like a-thujene, p-cymene, a-pinene, sabinene and limonene present. Myrrh resin contains compounds such as the commiphoric acids whilst the oil has substances like eugenol, a-pinene and thujene. The presence of boswellic acid has been used to identify as incense a resin found in the tomb of a sister of an Egyptian pharaoh of the XIIth Dynasty (19th c. Bc).

Frankincense was traditionally burned in temples by ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks, symbolizing prayers rising to the gods. Romans offered incense at a statue of the Emperor; the early Christians were not prepared to do this as it would amount to saying that the Emperor was divine. Myrrh was more often used in perfumes and medicines, for healing wounds (it is put into mouthwashes and toothpaste to this day) and to preserve bodies.

Scientists have discovered that boswellic acid has anti-inflammatory and antiarthritic effects, so that it is finding pharmacological use in both East and West. It seems to work by stopping the 5-lipoxygenase enzyme from making pro-inflammatory compounds such as leukotriene B4 and 5-hydroxyeicosatetraenoic acid.

Chemists at the University of Florence have also been studying myrrh, finding that it acts on the brain’s opioid receptors, explaining its painkilling action. Furanoeudesma1,3-diene has been identified as a painkilling molecule, and also contributes to the smell of myrrh. American and Tanzanian scientists have found that chemicals in myrrh act as insect repellents.

Mass on a high

Boswellic acid has a structure not dissimilar from some hormones (e.g. testosterone) and also to steroids found in myrrh, like cholest-5-en30-ol. Some scientists have suggested that humans, like other mammals, possess a Vomeronasal organ in their noses that can detect low levels of hormones (which thereby act as pheromones) and therefore it may be that chemicals in incense smoke have a subliminal action.

In 2008, American and Israeli scientists, led by Arieh Moussaieff and Raphael Mechoulam of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, identified a constituent of incense called incensoyl acetate as an agonist to the TRPV3 channel, involved in the perception of skin temperature. They suggested that it may enhance euphoric feelings during acts of worship, and that this psychoactive molecule may be an antidepressant.

Even more recently, a synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonist known as JWH-018 (1-Pentyl-3- (1-Naphthoyl)Indole) has been identified in ‘herbal incense’ sold under various spice names, and is being smoked for the high it gives, as JWH-018 is four to five times more active than tetrahydrocannabinol, the most active molecule in cannabis.

Its sale is now been banned in Germany and Austria, as well as the Netherlands. All of which suggests that there could be more to High Mass than meets the eye. ND

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