Gifts of the Magi, Other Christmas Symbols Show Health Benefits

Frankincense. Myrrh. Holly. Mistletoe. Evergreen trees. These traditional Christmas symbols have long been associated with the Christian holiday. But new scientific research has found these old-world herbs and plants may also have surprising health benefits.

Two gifts of the Magi, for instance, contain compounds with healing potential: Frankincense extract has been shown to ease arthritis, while myrrh contains an anti-bacterial substance that clears acne. Leaves of holly plants have been used by natural healers to treat digestive disorders, a compound in mistletoe has been shown to combat hypertension and cancer, and pine nuts from evergreen trees — as well as needles and bark — boost digestive health and promote weight loss.

Dr. Kevin Woolf, a cardiology fellow at the University of Rochester Medical Center, says many natural substance hold promise in treating high blood pressure and other health conditions. His research has included a comprehensive review of the evidence that non-drug treatments are effective against hypertension, including mistletoe extract.

His study, published in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension, found a compound in the kiss-inducing plant reduces blood pressure in animal studies, but Dr. Woolf cautions that it may be toxic at high doses.

His work is part of a growing body of scientific research that is examining the health-boosting properties of natural substances, including some common symbols of Christmas. Here’s a primer.

Frankincense: This herb — derived from the resin of Boswellia trees — has been burned in incense as part of religious ceremonies for centuries, including those conducted by the Catholic Church. But it is also used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine and other traditional healing practices as a pain remedy.