Myrrh, Not Only Religiously Significant

To much of the Western world, myrrh is synonymous with the Three Wise Men and their gifts to the Baby Jesus soon after his birth. Fewer people may know just exactly what myrrh is—a rock? a plant? an oil?—and fewer still may be aware of its strong medicinal qualities.

Turns out myrrh is a resin gathered from small thorny trees native to the Middle East and North Africa, and can also come as an oil extracted from the resin. Myrrh oil in particular is used in herbal medicine to treat any and all mouth problems—cold sores, swollen gums, cavities, ulcers, you name it. Maybe more people should become aware of modern uses for myrrh!

An ancient widespread remedy

While myrrh is mostly associated with Christian beliefs in the Western world, it has been in use for far longer and in far more places than the story of the Three Wise Men would indicate. In fact, people in the Middle East and Northern Africa have been producing myrrh for at least five thousand years, and it was an important ingredient in the embalming process for Egyptian pharaohs.

Myrrh was also burned in Egypt to fumigate the home and get rid of flea or pest infestations, and burned in other Middle Eastern cultures for religious purposes. Myrrh oil was also a widely-used cosmetic in Egypt, said to restore a youthful appearance to the face, and Egypt’s Queen Hatshepsut had her tomb decorated with images of myrrh-producing trees to give her an endless supply of the oil in the afterlife. Myrrh’s cosmetic usage also comes up in the Bible, as it was used by women hoping to become the new Queen to King Ahasuerus to purify themselves and make themselves beautiful.

However, myrrh’s usage in ancient times was not just confined to its native Middle East and North Africa. In fact, myrrh has been a vital component of traditional Chinese medicine for millennia. Known there as moyao, it has been used since the 7th century AD to treat female complaints, wounds, stiffness, swelling, and abdominal pain—complaints for which myrrh is used to this day.

Ayurvedic medicine also makes use of myrrh to treat mouth ulcers, digestive complaints, and gingivitis. Turns out that myrrh is considered a precious substance in many cultures around the world!

Medicinal myrrh

The word “myrrh” comes from the Arabic murr, meaning “bitter” and referring to the resin or oil’s strong taste, so it may seem counter-intuitive to put myrrh into your mouth. However, scientific research shows that myrrh is great for promoting oral health! Studies have shown that myrrh has strong anti-inflammatory properties, and stimulates the immune system in the cells that line the mouth 1. Combined with myrrh’s natural antiseptic properties, this leads to a powerful treatment for any sort of infection or inflammation of the mouth!

Supporting this, a clinical trial found that patients who brushed their teeth with a toothpaste containing myrrh had reduced gingivitis levels 2. Perhaps because of its antiseptic nature, myrrh has also been used for thousands of years for healing wounds. While studies haven’t investigated this aspect of myrrh quite as fully, one case found that application of myrrh, honey, and bee pollen to a deep infected wound cleared the infection and prevented reinfection while also promoting wound healing 3.

Given the strong cleansing and antiseptic properties of myrrh, perhaps it is time for myrrh mouthwash to replace Listerine in your medicine cabinet!

References

1. Tipton DA, Hamman NR, and MK Dabbous. 2006. Effect of myrrh oil on IL-1B stimulation of NF-kB activation and PGE2 production in human gingival fibroblasts and epithelial cells. Toxicology in Vitro 20(2): 248-255.

2. Pannuti CM, de Mattos JP, Ranoya PN, et al. 2003. Clinical effect of a herbal dentrifice on the control of plaque and gingivitis. A double-blind study. Pesquisa Odontologica Brasileira 17(4).

3. Lotfy M, Badra G, Burham W, et al. 2006. Combined use of honey, bee propolis, and myrrh in healing a deep, infected wound in a patient with diabetes mellitus. British Journal of Biomedical Sciences 63(4). 

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