- 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.
The gummy resin derived from the bark of Boswellia is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine. It was 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.
- To treat osteoarthritis
The evidence from clinical studies is mixed.
- 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
- 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.
For Healthcare Professionals
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. Bowellia, also referred to as Indian frankincense, 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), ulcerative colitis (9) mild irritable bowel syndrome (38), and osteo-muscular pain (36). Current evidence is mixed on its benefits for collagenous colitis (12) (13) (14) and for osteoarthritis (10) (11). Some studies have reported efficacy of formulations containing boswellia, Terminalia chebula, turmeric (39), and boswellic acid along with curcumin (40) in managing pain and discomfort associated with osteoarthritis. Given the promising findings, larger, well-designed studies are needed for clinical recommendation (41). Boswellia has also been investigated for its role in maintenance of Crohn’s disease remission, but demonstrated no significant benefit (15).
In addition, preliminary results suggest boswellia’s effectiveness in reducing cerebral edema in patients with brain tumors following radiotherapy (23). And a boswellia-based cream was found useful 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).
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); other apoptotic mechanisms exhibited by Boswellia are via early generation of nitric oxide and reactive oxygen species that up regulate time-dependent expression of p53/p21/PUMA (19), and by inhibiting microsomal prostaglandin E synthase-1 (mPGES-1) and decreasing the prostaglandin (PGE2) level and its downstream targets (37).
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).
- 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).
- A clinical trial reported stypsis in some patients following use of boswellia extract for mild irritable bowel syndrome (38).
- 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).