- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.” Also known as Indian frankincense, Bowellia is used widely in Ayurveda to treat arthritis, ulcerative colitis, coughs, sores, snakebite, 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 mice model (26).
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 effective in preventing skin damage due to radiotherapy in breast cancer patients (32).
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 inhibits 5-lipoxygenase selectively (1) (3) and has anti-inflammatory (13), antiarthritic, and anti-proliferative effects (2). 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); it does not cause gastric ulcers in animals. This suggests that it acts through other mechanisms and not by inhibiting prostaglandin synthesis.
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.
- 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).
- 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).