Laboratory experiments suggest that the resin of certain trees of the Middle East, known commonly as the "myrrh" of the Christmas story, may have cholesterol-lowering properties. Research published in the International Journal of Food Safety, Nutrition and Public Health discusses the hypocholesterolemic effects of myrrh and other plant products.
Myrrh is a rust-coloured resin obtained from several species of Commiphora and Balsamodendron tree, native to the Middle East and Ethiopia. It is perhaps best known as one of the gifts of the Magi offered to the infant Jesus, along with gold and frankincense. At the time, myrrh was revered as an embalming ointment and is also an ingredient in incense.
Nadia Saleh Al-Amoudi of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science, at the King Abd Al-Aziz University, in Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, explains that myrrh is known to have medicinal properties, including antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects.
Al-Amoudi also points out that myrrh has been used in a wide range of traditional remedies over the centuries as a mouthwash, for treating sore threats, bronchial congestion, as well as an antiseptic astringent, for soothing cuts and burns, and for various other less well-convincing purposes, such as calming emotions.
"Of all nutrients, fat is implicated most often as a contributing factor to disease," explains Al-Amoudi. Excess fat in the diet contributes to obesity, diabetes, cancer, hypertension and atherosclerosis. So the change that most people should make in their diets is to limit their intake of total fat and so cholesterol, especially as hypercholesterolemia leads to deposits on the inside of arteries, she says. However, certain herbal remedies are thought to help reduce cholesterol levels.
Al-Amoudi has now investigated the potential of myrrh together with other plant materials to see whether they have any demonstrable hypocholesterolemic effect. Esparto grass leaves, halfa, fenugreek seed powder, myrrh resin (from Commiphara myrrh) and various blends of each were tested on laboratory rodents with high cholesterol. She fed the animals various combinations of the plants as part of their normal daily diet and measured blood concentrations of total cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and VLDL (very-low-density lipoprotein), together with TG (triglycerides). She also recorded HDL (high-density lipoprotein).
The concentrations of LDL (known colloquially as "bad cholesterol"), VLDL, and TG all decreased on this diet, while the HDL levels, so-called "good cholesterol" fell.