Common Names

  • Indian frankincense

For Patients & Caregivers

How It Works

Boswellia has been shown effective for inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis. Its anticancer effects have not been demonstrated in humans.

Boswellia, a tree gum resin often used in Ayurvedic medicine, was analyzed in the laboratory and found to contain boswellic acid, which scientists think accounts for its biological activity. In lab animals, boswellic acid inhibited an enzyme that is important in the process of inflammation, and it therefore reduces swelling caused by chemicals or arthritis. It also slowed down the replication of cancer cells and caused cell death of some cancer cells in the laboratory. Unlike other anti-inflammatory drugs , boswellic acid does not appear to reduce pain or fever, in lab animals.

Boswellia’s anti-inflammatory effects were supported in a few clinical trials of patients with colitis and osteoarthritis. Boswellia was also studied in the maintenance of Crohn’s disease remission, but showed no significant benefit.

Even though similar in many functions, boswellia should not be confused with guggul or myrrh.

Purported Uses

  • To treat osteoarthritis
    A randomized controlled trial demonstrated that Boswellia serrata extract is better than a placebo for osteoarthritis, but other studies did not find the same benefit.
  • To treat asthma
    Results from a clinical trial showed that boswellia may reduce symptoms of bronchial asthma, but more studies are needed to draw a conclusion.
  • To treat colitis
    Studies done in animals suggest that boswellia can reduce inflammation, and clinical trials support this use in humans.
  • To reduce inflammation
    Studies in laboratory animals and from clinical trials show that this herb can reduce certain inflammatory conditions.
  • To relieve menstrual cramps
    No scientific evidence supports this use.
  • To treat cancer
    Lab studies have shown that compounds in Boswellia have anticancer properties.

Do Not Take If

  • You are taking drugs that are substrates of P-Glycoprotein (P-Gp): Boswellia may affect how these drugs are absorbed or metabolized.
  • You are using anticoagulant and/or antiplatelet drugs: Boswellia may increase risk of bleeding when used with these drugs.

Side Effects

  • Allergic contact dermatitis was reported following use of a topical cream containing an extract of Boswellia serrata.
  • A 17-year-old girl with celiac disease developed a gastric bezoar (accumulation of vegetable fiber, hair or other substances, in the stomach or small intestine) after excessive intake of olibanum (frankincense). Her symptoms, including abdominal pain and vomiting, improved after the bezoar was surgically removed.
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For Healthcare Professionals

Scientific Name

Boswellia serrata

Clinical Summary

Boswellia serrata is a tree prevalent in India, the Middle East and North Africa. The gummy exudate or the resin obtained by peeling away the bark is commonly known as frankincense or olibanum. Also known as Indian frankincense, Bowellia is used widely in Ayurveda to treat arthritis, ulcerative colitis, coughs, sores, snakebites, and asthma.

The major component is boswellic acid (1), which was shown in animal studies to be a potent 5-lipoxygenase inhibitor with anti-inflammatory and antiarthritic effects (1) (2) (3). It also demonstrated cytotoxic properties (4) (5) (6) (7), and prevented intestinal tumorigenesis in a murine model (26). Essential oil of boswellia also has antimicrobial activities (24).

Data from clinical trials indicate effectiveness of boswellia for bronchial asthma (8) and ulcerative colitis (9). However, evidence is mixed for its benefits for osteoarthritis (10) (11) and collagenous colitis (12) (13) (14). Boswellia was also investigated for its role in maintenance of Crohn’s disease remission, but it demonstrated no significant benefit (15).

Preliminary findings suggest boswellia’s effectiveness in reducing cerebral edema in patients with brain tumors following radiotherapy (23). Also, a boswellia-based cream was found to be effective in preventing skin damage due to radiotherapy in breast cancer patients (32). Other data suggest that a combination of boswellic acid, betaine, and myo-inositol treatment may help to reduce mammary density, a risk factor for breast cancer (33).

Although similar in many functions, boswellia should not be confused with guggul or myrrh.

Purported Uses

  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Colitis
  • Inflammation
  • Menstrual cramps

Mechanism of Action

Boswellic acid, the major constituent of boswellia, is thought to contribute to most of the herb’s pharmacological activities. In vitro and animal studies show that boswellic acid has anti-inflammatory by inhibiting 5-lipoxygenase (2) (3) and cyclooxygenase-1 (35). It also inhibits the signaling pathways of the transcription factor, nuclear factor (NF-KappaB), in macrophages in mouse model of psoriasis, markedly decreasing the production of the pro-inflammatory key cytokine tumor necrosis factor (TNF-alpha) (17). Unlike other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, however, boswellic acid failed to show analgesic or antipyretic effects (16).

Research on the cytotoxic effects of boswellic acid indicates that it induces p21 expression through a p53-independent pathway and causes apoptosis in glioma (4) (6) and leukemia (5) cell lines. In addition, a Boswellia extract induced apoptosis in a cervical cancer cell line by inducing endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress (18); another apoptotic mechanism exhibited by Boswellia is via oxidative stress by early generation of nitric oxide and reactive oxygen species that up regulate time-dependent expression of p53/p21/PUMA (19).

A semisynthetic analog of boswellic acid, 3-alpha-Butyryloxy-beta-boswellic acid, demonstrated significant growth inhibition in Ehrlich Ascitic Tumour (EAT), Ehrlich Ascitic Carcinoma (EAC) and Sarcoma- 180 tumour models, via down-regulation of NF-KappaB and by induction of poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) cleavage (27).

In other studies, acetyl-boswellic acids were shown to inhibit topoisomerases by competing with DNA for binding sites (20). Whereas acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA) inhibited the activation of signal transducers and activators of transcription-3 (STAT-3), which has been linked to survival, proliferation, chemoresistance, and angiogenesis of tumor cells (21). Conversely, AKBA was found to inhibit human prostate tumor growth via inhibition of angiogenesis induced by VEGFR2 signaling pathways (22). Further research is needed to resolve this discrepancy and to clarify the role of AKBA.

In vitro studies show gum resin extracts of Boswellia have antiplatelet effect by inhibiting clotting factors Xa and XIa. (34).

Adverse Reactions

  • Allergic contact dermatitis was reported following use of a topical cream containing an extract of Boswellia serrata (28).
  • A 17-year-old girl with celiac disease developed a gastric bezoar (accumulation of vegetable fiber, hair or other substances, in the stomach or small intestine) after excessive intake of olibanum (frankincense). Her symptoms, including epigastric pain and vomiting, resolved after the bezoar was surgically removed (29).


Herb-Drug Interactions

  • OATP1B3 (an anion transporter): Both 11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (KBA) and 3-acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA) modulated the activity of OATP1B3 (30).
  • MRP2 (a multidrug resistant protein): Both 11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (KBA) and 3-acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA) modulated the activity of MRP2 (30).
  • P-Glycoprotein (P-Gp): A Boswellia extract and keto-boswellic acids inhibit the activity of P-Glycoprotein in vitro, and may affect the transport of drugs mediated by this protein (31).
  • Anticoagulant and/or antiplatelet drugs: Boswellia extracts can inhibit platelet aggregation and may increase risk of bleeding when used with these drugs (34).

Dosage (OneMSK Only)


  1. Dahmen U, Gu YL, Dirsch O, et al. Boswellic acid, a potent antiinflammatory drug, inhibits rejection to the same extent as high dose steroids. Transplant Proc. Feb-Mar 2001;33(1-2):539-541.

  2. Safayhi H, Mack T, Sabieraj J, et al. Boswellic acids: novel, specific, nonredox inhibitors of 5-lipoxygenase. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. Jun 1992;261(3):1143-1146.

  3. Glaser T, Winter S, Groscurth P, et al. Boswellic acids and malignant glioma: induction of apoptosis but no modulation of drug sensitivity. Br J Cancer. May 1999;80(5-6):756-765.

  4. Jing Y, Nakajo S, Xia L, et al. Boswellic acid acetate induces differentiation and apoptosis in leukemia cell lines. Leuk Res. Jan 1999;23(1):43-50.

  5. Winking M, Sarikaya S, Rahmanian A, et al. Boswellic acids inhibit glioma growth: a new treatment option? J Neurooncol. 2000;46(2):97-103.

  6. Frank MB, Yang Q, Osban J, et al. Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2009 Mar 18;9:6.

  7. Gupta I, Parihar A, Malhotra P, et al. Effects of Boswellia serrata gum resin in patients with ulcerative colitis. Eur J Med Res. Jan 1997;2(1):37-43.

  8. Chande N, McDonald JW, MacDonald JK. Interventions for treating collagenous colitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006(4):CD003575.

  9. Madisch A, Miehlke S, Eichele O, et al. Boswellia serrata extract for the treatment of collagenous colitis. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial. Int J Colorectal Dis. Dec 2007;22(12):1445-1451.

  10. Wang H, Syrovets T, Kess D, et al. Targeting NF-KB with a natural triterpenoid alleviates skin inflammation in a mouse model of psoriasis. J Immunol. Oct 2009;183(7):4755-63.

  11. Kim HR, Kim MS, Kwon DY, et al. Boswellia serrata-induced apoptosis is related with ER stress and calcium release. Genes Nutr. Feb 2008;2(4):371-374.

  12. Syrovets T, Buchele B, Gedig E, et al. Acetyl-boswellic acids are novel catalytic inhibitors of human topoisomerases I and IIalpha. Mol Pharmacol. Jul 2000;58(1):71-81.

  13. Camarda L, Dayton T, Di Stefano V, Pitonzo R, Schillaci D. Chemical composition and antimicrobial activity of some oleogum resin essential oils from Boswellia spp. (Burseraceae). Ann Chim. 2007 Sep;97(9):837-44.

  14. Mikhaeil BR, Maatooq GT, Badria FA, Amer MM. Chemistry and immunomodulatory activity of frankincense oil. Z Naturforsch C. 2003 Mar-Apr;58(3-4):230-8.

  15. Acebo E, Ratón JA, Sautúa S, et al. Allergic contact dermatitis from Boswellia serrata extract in a naturopathic cream. Contact Dermatitis. 2004 Aug;51(2):91-2.

  16. El Fortia M, Badi H, Elalem Kh, Kadiki O, Topov Y. Olibanum bezoar: complication of a traditional popular medicine. East Mediterr Health J. 2006 Nov;12(6):927-9.

  17. Weber CC, Reising K, Müller WE, et al. Modulation of Pgp function by boswellic acids. Planta Med. 2006 May;72(6):507-13.

  18. Kokkiripati PK, Bhakshu LM, Marri S, et al. Gum resin of Boswellia serrata inhibited human monocytic (THP-1) cell activation and platelet aggregation. J Ethnopharmacol. 2011 Sep 1;137(1):893-901. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2011.07.004.

  19. Siemoneit U, Hofmann B, Kather N, et al. Identification and functional analysis of cyclooxygenase-1 as a molecular target of boswellic acids. Biochem Pharmacol. 2008 Jan 15;75(2):503-13.

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