- Indian frankincense
For Patients & Caregivers
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 contains the compound boswellic acid, which exhibits certain biological properties. In lab animals, boswellic acid inhibited an enzyme important to inflammation, but did not appear to reduce pain or fever like other anti-inflammatory drugs. A few clinical trials in patients with colitis and osteoarthritis have also shown anti-inflammatory effects. However, a study of boswellia for maintenance of Crohn’s disease remission showed no significant benefit.
Even though lab studies suggest compounds in boswellia have anticancer properties, it is not known whether these effects could occur in humans. Only a few clinical studies have been done that suggest boswellia may reduce inflammation or swelling caused by radiation therapy. More studies are needed to confirm such effects.
- To treat osteoarthritis
The evidence from clinical studies is mixed.
- To treat asthma
Boswellia reduced symptoms of bronchial asthma in a clinical trial, but more studies are needed to draw a conclusion.
- To treat colitis
Studies in animals suggest that boswellia can reduce inflammation, and clinical trials support this use in humans.
- To reduce inflammation
Studies in animals and from clinical trials show that this herb can reduce certain inflammatory conditions.
- To treat cancer
Even though lab studies suggest compounds in boswellia have anticancer properties, human studies to evaluate these effects have not been conducted.
- To reduce radiation therapy side effects
Only a few studies have been done in humans that suggest boswellia may reduce inflammation or swelling due to radiation therapy. More studies are needed to confirm such 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.
For Healthcare Professionals
Boswellia serrata is a tree prevalent in India, the Middle East and North Africa. The gummy exudate or resin obtained by peeling away the bark is commonly known as frankincense or olibanum. Boswellia, also referred to as Indian frankincense, is used widely in Ayurveda for treating arthritis, ulcerative colitis, coughs, sores, wound healing, and asthma. It is marketed as a supplement to support and improve joint health and mobility.
The major component is boswellic acid (1), a 5-lipoxygenase inhibitor with anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic effects (1) (2) (3). It also demonstrated cytotoxic (4) (5) (6) (7) and radio-enhancing properties (21), and prevented intestinal tumorigenesis in a murine model (26). Other animal studies suggest boswellia may improve cognitive impairment and insulin resistance (42). Essential oil of boswellia has been shown to have 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) or osteoarthritis (10) (11). Some studies report efficacy of formulations containing boswellia, Terminalia chebula, turmeric (39), and boswellic acid along with curcumin (40) in managing pain and discomfort associated with osteoarthritis. 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).
Only a few studies have evaluated the use of boswellia for cancer patients. Preliminary data suggest its effectiveness in reducing cerebral edema in patients with brain tumors following radiotherapy (23). 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).
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 anti-inflammatory activity occurs via inhibition of 5-lipoxygenase (2) (3) and cyclooxygenase-1 (35). It also inhibits nuclear transcription factor KappaB (NF-KappaB) signaling, markedly decreasing production of the key proinflammatory 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 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. A boswellia extract induced apoptosis in a cervical cancer cell line by inducing endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress (18). Other apoptotic mechanisms include early generation of nitric oxide and reactive oxygen species that upregulated time-dependent expression of p53/p21/PUMA (19), inhibition of microsomal prostaglandin E synthase-1 (mPGES-1), and decreased prostaglandin (PGE2) levels 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 tumor models, via NF-KappaB downregulation and induction of poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) cleavage (27). Acetyl-boswellic acids inhibited topoisomerases by competing with DNA for binding sites (20). Acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA) inhibited human prostate tumor growth via inhibition of VEGFR2-induced angiogenesis (22). In vitro, antiplatelet effects of boswellia gum resin extracts are attributed to inhibition of 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).