medicinal uses of Balm of Gilead

The Medicinal Uses of the “Balm of Gilead”

The Balm of Gilead has many medicinal uses and is one of the precious ingredients in our Origin Oil Pack

Medicinal Uses of the Balm of Gilead

In ancient times, the resin of the Commiphora gileadensis, the balm of Gilead, was used to treat many ailments. Although sources of supply of the resin were limited, it was in great demand in the classical and biblical world due to its medical benefits.

Medieval Period

The earliest known Hebrew medical writer, Asaph Harofe reported on the use of ‘‘balm of Gilead’’ oil to treat diseases of many organs, such as the spleen, kidneys, liver, womb, and lungs, and also for treating cough, tuberculosis, obstructions in the urinary tract, skin diseases, bites, and stings.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, balm of Gilead oil was an important component in medicines. The most prolific and influential Torah scholar of the Middle Ages, Maimonides wrote that balm of Gilead bark was a component in a medication called ‘‘the great atriphal,’’ used to strengthen various organs, mainly the heart and the senses, to delay aging, and as an aid in coitus (Rosner 1984; Lev 2003).

Balm of Gilead was an important component in medication against ‘‘evil vapors of the stomach’’ and was used as an antidote against poisons, although it was noted that it was hard to obtain, being only available in Egypt (Muntner 1971; Lev 2003).

Several authorities mentioned that ‘‘the balm of Gilead’’ is ‘‘Apharsemon’’ whose oil has many excellent qualities and whose effects are ‘‘marvelous.’’ Among its uses are for pain relief, dissolving stones in the urinary tract, curing infertility, and against poisons.

C. gileadensis has been used historically to treat a wide array of ailments, and is used today in the traditional medicine practices of some cultures in the Middle East. In Yemen and Oman, the bark exudate is used externally to treat skin disorders such as burns, wounds, and infections. Among the Arab populations in the Middle East, a decoction of the aerial parts of the plant is administered as a pain reliever, a diuretic, and a laxative. In 2010, Iluz et al. investigated the medicinal properties of C. gileadensis and demonstrated that its sap had an inhibitory effect against Bacillus cereus and was capable of blocking lectins of Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

Commiphora gileadensis (Wkiipedia)

Traditional Medicine

Balm of Gilead has long been considered a panacea. In Iraq, the fruit of the balm of Gilead tree called ‘‘balsan,’’ is used; it is identified with Apharsemon. From this fruit, a substance is produced that is used as a drug to dispel gases and to relieve stomachaches and as a stimulant. In Iran, it is used as a component in a medication to treat colds and tremors. In Arabia, the resin of the tree is used to treat poisoning and stings and to cure wounds. It is considered efficacious against the venom of all kinds of serpents, beneficial to the eyesight, disperses films on the eyes, assuages hardness of breathing, acts as an emollient, prevents the blood from coagulating, acts as a detergent on ulcers, and is beneficial for diseases of the ears, headache, trembling, spasms, and ruptures. Taken in milk, it is an antidote to the poison of aconite, and used as a liniment upon the onset of the shivering fits in fevers, modifying their violence. However, it should be used sparingly, since it is very caustic, and, if not used in moderation, is apt to augment the malady (Lev 2003).

For general and external use, balm of Gilead is recommended as a painkiller; an anti-inflammatory; and for treating general diseases in the body. It reduces the temperature of fevers but is also recommended for raising the body temperature. It is considered beneficial for lethargy and tiredness; to lower blood pressure; for cases of paralysis, spasms, and dizziness; and to reduce heart rate. For skin conditions, balm of Gilead was applied as an antidote to stings, bites, and allergies; as an astringent; and to heal wounds, prevent rotting and putrefaction, and heal skin blemishes and warts.

Balm of Gilead was administered: for internal problems and for bladder and digestive problems; as a diuretic; for relief from flatulence; for removing obstructions and hardness of the liver; as a laxative; for cataracts; to relieve cough, breathing difficulties, pneumonia, and asthma (Gunther 1933); as a disinfectant in protection against infection; and in the preparation of medicines and mixtures. Furthermore, it was considered effective as an abortifacient (Gunther 1933), for menstrual problems, and to encourage sexual potency (Levey 1966a).

Photo: A Janissary guarding the balm of Gilead tree. (Source: Cartwright 1760.)


Frankincense, Myrrh, and Balm of Gilead: Ancient Spices of Southern Arabia and Judea Shimshon Ben-Yehoshua

Muntner, S. (ed.) 1971. Asaph Harofeh. Encyclopedia Judaica. Jerusalem.

Levey, M. 1973. Early Arabic pharmacology. Brill, Leiden.

Gunther, R.T. (transl.). 1933. Dioscorides. Materia Medica. Hafner, Chicago.

Kuhn, C.G. (transl.). 1821. Title of Work: Claudii Galen Opera Omnia, Leipzig.

Rosner, F. (transl.). 1984. Maimonides. Treatise on poisons, hemorrhoids and cohabitation: Maimonides’ medical writing. Maimonides Res. Inst., Haifa.

Lev E. Reconstructed materia medica of the Medieval and Ottoman al-Sham. J. Ethnopharmacol. 2002;80:167–179. doi: 10.1016/S0378-8741(02)00029-6.

Lardos A. The botanical materia medica of the Iatrosophikon—A collection of prescriptions from a monastery in Cyprus. J. Ethnopharmacol. 2006;104:387–406. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2005.12.035.

Lev E., Amar Z. Reconstruction of the inventory of materia medica used by members of the Jewish community of medieval Cairo according to prescriptions found in the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection, Cambridge. J. Ethnopharmacol. 2006;108:428–444. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2006.06.005

Lev E. Drugs held and sold by pharmacists of the Jewish community of medieval (11–14th centuries) Cairo according to lists of materia medica found at the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection, Cambridge. J. Ethnopharmacol. 2007;110:275–293. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2006.09.044.

Essawi T., Srour M. Screening of some Palestinian medicinal plants for antibacterial activity. J. Ethnopharmacol. 2000;70:343–349. doi: 10.1016/S0378-8741(99)00187-7

Wineman E., Douglas I., Wineman V., Sharova K., Jaspars M., Meshner S., Bentwich Z., Cohen G., Shtevi A. Commiphora gileadensis sap extract induces cell cycle-dependent death in immortalized keratinocytes and human dermoid carcinoma cells. J. Herb. Med. 2015;5:199–206. doi: 10.1016/j.hermed.2015.08.001

Current Research

Among the most reputed ancient medical plants was the balm of Gilead known as the apharsemon, identified botanically as Commiphora gileadensis L. This plant originated in the Kingdom of Sheba on the south of the Arabian Peninsala. Apharsemon, known also as the Judean balsam, grew as an agricultural crop only around the Dead Sea Basin in antiquity and achieved fame by its highly reputed aroma and medical properties but has been extinct for many centuries. The resin of this crop was sold at a price twice its weight in gold, the highest price ever paid for an agricultural commodity. This ancient plant was investigated in this study for its anticancerous activity against cancer cell lines. The results obtained from ethanol-based extracts indicated that β-caryophyllene (trans-(1R,9S)-8-methylene-4,11,11-trimethylbicyclo(7.2.0)undec-4-ene) is a key component in the essential oil extracted from the balm of Gilead. β-Caryophyllene can be found in a variety of food and beverage products. In the current paper, we report that Commiphora gileadensis stem and leaf extracts as well as its essential oil have an anti-proliferative proapoptotic effect against tumor cells and not against normal cells. β-caryophyllene caused a potent induction of apoptosis accompanied by DNA ladder and caspase-3 catalytic activity in tumor cell lines. In summary, we showed that C. gileadensis plant contain an apoptosis inducer that acts, in a selective manner, against tumor cell lines and not against normal cells.

Source: Revival of the extinct balm of Gilead in Israel: studying its anti-cancer activity  [2015] Yehoshua, S. B.; Rachmilevitch, S.; Amiel, E.; Ofir, R.; et al.

The chemical composition and biological evaluation of the essential oil of Commiphora opobalsamum was evaluated using essential oil samples from stored aerial parts, fresh aerial parts, and fresh flowering tops, obtained by hydrodistillation.

Source: Abbas, F.A., S.M. Al-Massarany, S. Khan, T.A. Al-Howiriny, J.S. Mossa, and E.A. Abourashed 2007. Phytochemical and biological studies on Saudi Commiphora opobalsamum L. Natural Prod. Res. 21(5):383–391.

The essential oil from the fresh aerial parts exhibited antimicrobial activity against Bacillus subtilis, Staphylococcus aureus, Candida glabrata, C. krusei, Cryptococcus neoformans, and Mycobacterium intracellulare (Al-Massarany et al. 2007). Following a photochemical investigation of the aerial part of C. opobalsamum growing in Saudi Arabia, six compounds were isolated and identified: friedelin, canophyllal, oleanonic acid, mearnsetin, quercetin, and syringic acid. Extracts and isolated compounds were preliminarily assayed in vitro for antimicrobial, antimalarial, antitumor, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and estrogenic activity. The ethyl acetate extract was moderately active against Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Plasmodium falciparum while the petroleum ether and chloroform extracts inhibited COX-2 at 5 and 10 mgmL–1, respectively. Mearnsetin and quercetin exhibited antioxidant activity, and syringic acid showed moderate antimalarial, anticandidal, and antimycobacterial activity.

The antiproliferative effect of resinous exudates of Commiphora opo-balsamum was examined on human prostate cancer cells, and secondary metabolites were isolated (Shen et al. 2007): cycloartane-24-en-1a,2a,3b-triol, octadecane-1,2S,3S,4R-tetrol, 1-O-a-L-rhamnopyranoside, eudes-mane-1b,5a,11-triol, and guaia-6a,7a-epoxy-4a,10a-diol along with six known sesquiterpenoids: guaianediol, myrrhone, dihydropyrocurzere-none, 2-methoxy-5-acetoxy-furanogermacr-1(10)-en-6-one, (1(10)E,2R, 4R)-2-methoxy-8,12-epoxygermacra-1(10),7,11-trien-6-one, and curzer-enone. Similar anticancer activity against lung and blood cancer cell lines was found by studying extract from the resin of C. gileadensis opobalsa-mum. The activity was detected by testing for apoptotic activities as well (Ofir et. al 2010).

Source: Secondary metabolites from Commiphora opobalsamum and their antiproliferative effect on human prostate cancer cells

Extracts of C. opobalsamum exhibited anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and diuretic activities in rats and mice and hepatoprotective ability and ulcer protective effects (Al-Howiriny et al. 2004; 2005). The hypotensive effect of aqueous extract from the branches of C. opobalsamum on blood pressure and heart rate in rats is due to the activation of muscarinic cholinergic receptors (Abdul-Ghani 1997). However, it is surprising that the authors found plants of Commiphora opobalsamum growing wild in the mountains of Ramallah, Palestine, since, according to past data, these plants do not grow at such relatively high altitudes in climates different from that of the Dead Sea Basin. Possibly that article is discussing another species.

Three new sesquiterpenoids were isolated from the exudates of Commiphora opobalsamum (Shen et al. 2008a): 2a-methoxy-6-oxoger-macra-1(10),7(11)-dien-8,12-olide, 5b-10a-hydroxy-2a-methoxy-6-oxo-guaia-7(11),8-dien-8,12-olide, and furanocadina-1(10),6,8-triene-4-ol; as were six known compounds: (1E)-3-methoxy-8,12-epoxygermacra-1,7,10,11-tetraen-6-one, rel-(1S,2S)-epoxy-(4R)-furanogermacr-10(15)-en-6-one, 6a,7a-epoxy-1b-guai-10(14)-en-4a-ol, (1R,4S,5R)-guaia-6,10 (14)-diene, cerotic acid, and b-sitosterol. Isolation and identification of the resinous exudates of C. opobalsamum revealed new cycloartane-type triterpenoids: cycloartan-24-ene-1a,2a,3a-triol, 3b-acetoxycycloartan-24-ene-1a,2a-diol, 1a-acetoxycycloartan-24-ene-2a,3b-diol, 3b-isova-leroyloxycycloartan-24-ene-1a,2a-diol, cycloartan-24-ene-1a,3b-diol, cycloartan-23E-ene-1a,2a,3b,25-tetrol, 24R,25-epoxycycloartane-1a,2a, 3b-triol, and 24S,25-epoxycycloartane-1a,2a,3b-triol (Shen et al. 2008a).

The hepatoprotective activity of an ethanolic extract of Commiphora opobalsamum (“Balessan”) was investigated in rats by inducing hepatotoxicity with carbon tetrachloride:liquid paraffin (1:1). This extract has been shown to possess significant protective effect by lowering serum transaminase levels (serum glutamate oxaloacetate transaminase and serum glutamate pyruvate transaminase), alkaline phosphatase and bilirubin. Pretreatment with an extract of Balessan prevented the prolongation of the barbiturate sleeping time associated with carbon tetrachloride-induced liver damage in mice. On the other hand, CCl4-induced low-level nonprotein sulfhydryl concentration in the liver was replenished by the Balessan extract. These data suggest that the plant C. opobalsamum may act as an antioxidant agent and may have a hepatoprotective effect.

Source: Alhowiriny, Tawfeq & Al-Sohaibani, M & Al-Said, M & Al-Yahya, M & El-Tahir, K & Rafatullah, Syed. (2004). Hepatoprotective properties of Commiphora opobalsamum (“Balessan”), a traditional medicinal plant of Saudi Arabia. Drugs under experimental and clinical research. 30. 213-20. 10.1055/s-0034-1382426.