Common name: Boswellia
Other names: Indian frankincense, Indian olibanium, Gajabhakshya
Latin name: Boswellia serrata
Affinity: Immune system
Actions: Immunomodulator, anodyne, expectorant
Specific indications: Red hot inflamed joints or tissues
Diseases: Osteoarthritis(1), rheumatoid arthritis(2), asthma(1), ulcerative colitis(1), Crohn’s disease(2), autoimmune diseases(1), cluster headaches(3)
Parts used: Gum resin
Energetics: Warming, drying
Characteristics: Boswellia serrata is a tree which grows widely in the dry hilly regions of northwest India (Kimmatkar et al., 2003). The dried resinous gum of medicinal value is extracted through tapping the boswellia tree.
History: Boswellia is mentioned in the ancient Ayruvedic texts, Charaka Samhita and Sushrita Samhita (Kimmatkar et al., 2003). Ayruvedic healers have been using boswellia resin for thousands of years (Castleman, 2001). They topically applied it to treat, wounds, scars, boils, and acne. They used it internally to treat ulcers, respiratory problems, rheumatic conditions, muscle aches, and menstrual problems. It is thought that the Biblical frankincense was from a close relative of boswellia serrata, called boswellia carterii, found in Arabia.
Current applications: Boswellia is being used for chronic inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and autoimmune diseases including, inflammatory bowel disease (Groves, 2016). It is often used in combination with other anti-inflammatory herbs like ashwagandha, turmeric, and ginger. It also can be useful for cluster headaches.
Science: Using ex vivo and in vivo models boswellia has been found to reduce inflammation (Singh et al., 1986; Ammo et al., 1991), consistent with its traditional role. There are 3 human clinical trials of reasonable quality on boswellia, although the group sizes were a little small, they were controlled well. One study found a significant effect versus placebo for osteoarthritis pain (Kimmatkar et al., 2003). Another study examining ulcerative colitis found boswellia to be slightly more effective in inducing remission than the drug sulphasalisine (Gupta et al., 1997). One study that used boswellia to treat asthma found clear differences against the placebo (Gupta et al., 1998). I found these studies, although limited in patient number, quite convincing alongside the traditional use of boswellia. More double blind placebo controlled studies are needed.
Overall Safety: Boswellia is safe, but do not use in pregnant women. In the osteoarthritis study (Kimmatkar et al., 2003), no patients discontinued due to adverse effects and all patients wished to continue the medicine after completion of the trial.
Dosage: A 350mg capsule taken 3 times daily has been studied and found to be effective for osteoarthritis and asthma.
Research on models
Anti-inflammatory activity: One study used an in vivo model to test whether boswellia exhibited an anti-inflammatory effect, they found it could and there were no signs of gut ulceration, a typical side effect of NSAIDs (Singh et al., 1986). Another study found similar anti-inflammatory effects using an ex vivo model (Ammon et al., 1991).
Research on humans
Osteoarthritis: A study (n = 30, double blind placebo controlled) demonstrated a significant improvement in knee pain, knee flexion, and walking distance in boswella treated patients compared with the placebo over 8 weeks (Kimmatkar et al., 2003). Dose was a 333mg capsule taken 3 times daily.
Ulcerative colitis: In one study (n = not stated in abstract, controlled with alternate medication) a 350mg extract of boswellia serrata gum resin was applied 3 times daily for 6 weeks (Gupta et al., 1997). The sulfasalazine remission rate was 75%, while the boswellia remission rate was higher and found to be 82%.
Asthma: A study (n = 40, double blind placebo controlled) in which a 300mg gum resin extract of boswellia was applied 3 times daily for 6 weeks (Gupta et al., 1998), found 70% of the patients displayed marked improvement in the boswellia group, while 27% improved in the placebo group.
Ammon, H. P. T., et al. “Inhibition of leukotriene B4 formation in rat peritoneal neutrophils by an ethanolic extract of the gum resin exudate of Boswellia serrata.” Planta medica 57.03 (1991): 203-207.
Castleman, Michael. “The new healing herbs.” Bantam Book, New York (2001): 465-471.
Gupta, I., et al. “Effects of Boswellia serrata gum resin in patients with ulcerative colitis.” European journal of medical research 2.1 (1997): 37-43.
Gupta, I., et al. “Effects of Boswellia serrata gum resin in patients with bronchial asthma: results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled, 6-week clinical study.” European journal of medical research 3.11 (1998): 511-514.
Groves, Maria. Body into Balance. Storey Publishing, 2016.
Kimmatkar, N., et al. “Efficacy and tolerability of Boswellia serrata extract in treatment of osteoarthritis of knee–a randomized double blind placebo controlled trial.” Phytomedicine 10.1 (2003): 3-7.
Singh, G. B., and C. K. Atal. “Pharmacology of an extract of salai guggal ex-Boswellia serrata, a new non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent.” Inflammation Research 18.3 (1986): 407-412.