Boswellia is a gum resin known for its anti-inflammatory properties. It comes from the Boswellia tree species and is also commonly known as Indian frankincense.
The resin from Boswellia serrata has been used for thousands of years in India for religious, medicinal, and ceremonial purposes. In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, boswellia resin was used to reduce arthritis pain, skin diseases, and asthma.
Modern research shows that boswellia and its phytochemicals may be helpful for reducing inflammation, damaged skin, arthritis, and asthma symptoms.
In this article, we will look at the health benefits of boswellia, its safety, and history.
Table of Contents
- What is Boswellia?
- Health Benefits of Boswellia:
- Boswellia Safety:
- Naming & Taxonomy:
- History & Traditional Use:
- Boswellia vs. Other Herbs:
What is Boswellia?
Boswellia is the resinous “sap” of the Boswellia tree. The boswellia species is a large deciduous tree that’s part of the Burseraceae family. These trees are native to India, the Middle East, and Northern Africa.
Other species of boswellia include:
- Boswellia frereana
- Boswellia sacra
- Boswellia papyrifera
The sap from these alternative species is medicinally interchangeable, however, Boswellia serrata is the most popular tree used for the extraction of boswellia gum resin.
Boswellia resin, also known as Indian frankincense, has a stimulating effect on the body and has been used to ease inflammation, especially in arthritic cases. It is also commonly used to support asthma symptoms (i.e. reduce inflammation) and skin health.
Modern research supports the age-old claims that boswellia has anti-inflammatory, antiarthritic, skin-supporting, and antiasthmatic effects. Research also shows that Indian frankincense can help to healthy blood sugar levels as well.
These various health benefits of boswellia are attributed to the various terpenes and triterpenic acids present in boswellia, including:
- β-boswellic acid
- acetyl-β-boswellic acid
- 11-keto-β-boswellic acid
- acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid
Indian frankincense is a well-researched herb with many human clinical trials to support its traditional use. Many of its traditional uses have been scientifically tested (via human, animal and in vitro trials) and show promising results.
Health Benefits of Boswellia:
Below are the top researched-backed boswellia benefits for health.
1. May Reduce Inflammation
Indian frankincense has been used in both ancient and modern medicinal practices for reducing inflammation.
Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response – it plays a role in supporting the body’s healing process when exposed to trauma, infection, toxins, and physical overuse. Short-term inflammation is beneficial for physiological recovery, however, chronic inflammation can lead to a variety of painful symptoms over time.
In a recent 2019 study, researchers found that Boswellia serrata extract (containing 30% boswellic acids) was able to reduce symptoms for participants with osteoarthritis in their knees. The extract was able to increase knee mobility and reduce pain via inflammation reduction.
Another study observing individuals with knee osteoarthritis found that boswellic acid, in combination with MSM, was able to reduce inflammation in participants with pain and mobility issues. Participants were able to walk pain-free while taking this combination. The researchers noted that the benefits continued 4 months after treatment stopped.
Other research suggests that boswellia may be an effective herb for ulcerative colitis.
Researchers found that administering 350mg of Boswellia serrata resin 3x/day for 6 weeks reduced chronic inflammation in patients with ulcerative colitis. Boswellic acids proved to inhibit the enzyme responsible for the inflammation response. The resin put 82% of subjects into remission, compared to the placebo which put 75% into remission.
An in vitro study showed that Boswellia serrata extract had an anti-inflammatory effect in cell cultures. The extract was able to neutralize inflammation and protect healthy cells.
Summary:Clinical research suggests that boswellia extract, containing boswellic acids, can help to reduce inflammation.
2. Anti-Arthritic Properties
Traditional usage, as well as new research, shows that boswellia may be beneficial in decreasing arthritic inflammation and symptoms.
Arthritis is defined as acute, or chronic, inflammation of the joints, as well as the increasing loss of cartilage in the joints. It’s characterized by symptoms such as stiffness, localized joint pain, joint deformities, and limited range of motion. Arthritis is caused by lifestyle factors, genetics, and various environmental triggers.
In a recent study, Boswellia serrata extract (containing 30% boswellic acids) showed promise for reducing arthritic symptoms. The extract was able to reduce joint pain and improve mobility in subjects with knee osteoarthritis. Boswellia’s anti-inflammatory effects were noted by researchers as being a key cause of improvement.
Another osteoarthritis study found that the combination of turmeric (Curcuma longa) and boswellic acid reduced pain symptoms such as morning stiffness, mobility, and joint pain in subjects aged 40-70. The trial was a comparison trial with some subjects taking only curcuminoids (CuraMed®), some taking curcuminoids and boswellic acid (Curamin®), and some taking a placebo. The curcuminoids and boswellic acid combination was found to be the most effective treatment.
In another osteoarthritis clinical trial, an herbal formula containing boswellia, turmeric, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), and a zinc complex reduced pain and increased the ability to walk. 39 patients out of 42 preferred the herbal formula over the placebo.
In a knee osteoarthritis study, boswellic acid and Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) demonstrated anti-arthritic properties by improving joint function and reducing inflammation. Participants saw an improvement in pain and noted sustained improvement in walking capabilities up to 4 months after they stopped taking the treatment.
Summary:Clinical research shows that boswellia may be helpful in reducing symptoms of arthritis. Additional research needs to be conducted on the effects of boswellia alone in individuals with arthritis.
3. May Support Skin Health
Boswellia benefits damaged skin through its anti-inflammatory effects.
Damaged skin can include psoriasis, eczema, and dry and reddened areas. Oftentimes these skin conditions are driven by high levels of inflammation.
In a study observing the effects of a treatment cream (with 0.5% boswellic acids) on facial skin, participants saw a drastic improvement in photoaging, elasticity, and fine lines after applying once a day for 30 days. Researchers believe that these benefits may be due to BAs anti-inflammatory effects, as well as its ability to restore collagen and elastic fibers.
A 2014 study showed that a boswellic acid formula had the potential to reduce symptoms in subjects with psoriasis and eczema. The external formula was able to reduce skin scales by 70%, itching symptoms by 60%, and reddening of the skin by 60%.
Summary:Initial research shows that boswellia benefits skin health by reducing inflammation. Additional large-scale trials are needed to confirm this.
4. Anti-Asthmatic Properties
Indian frankincense has been used for asthma symptoms for thousands of years.
Asthma is characterized by the narrowing of the airways and inflammation of the lungs. This leads to difficulty breathing.
In a study involving patients with bronchial asthma, administration of boswellia resin reduced or completely eradicated asthmatic symptoms in 70% of subjects. Symptoms included the total number of asthma attacks experienced and difficulty breathing. Researchers found that this was due to the resin’s ability to reduce inflammation in the respiratory tract.
An animal study demonstrated boswellic acid’s ability to improve asthmatic symptoms in mice. Administration of boswellic acids was able to inhibit protein signals that trigger lung inflammation and exacerbate asthma attacks.
In a similar animal study, the administration of boswellic acid improved asthma symptoms by suppressing inflammation and in turn opening up the airways.
SummaryInitial research shows that boswellia resin may help to reduce symptoms of asthma. Additional large-scale trials are needed to verify these effects.
5. May Support Healthy Blood Sugar Levels
The health benefits of boswellia have shown promise towards supporting individuals with diabetes.
In a clinical trial, researchers discovered that Boswellia serrata resin was able to improve cholesterol and blood glucose levels after 6 weeks. Improvement was seen after 300mg of the resin was taken 3x/day.
Results from an animal study suggested that Boswellia serrata extract has the ability to reduce diabetic symptoms. After 17 days, the extract was found to reduce blood glucose levels in rats. Another animal study demonstrated a similar effect in mice with Type I Diabetes.
In another animal study, the use of boswellic acids (BA) resulted in the prevention of an immune response that leads to high blood glucose levels. This benefit was seen after 10 days of BA administration.
Summary:Initial research shows that boswellia resin may support healthy blood glucose levels. Additional large-scale trials are needed to verify these effects.
6. Other Boswellia Benefits
Other boswellia benefits include:
May Have Anticancer Effects: In a 2002 study, Boswellia serrata extract demonstrated the ability to prevent the multiplication of cancerous human cells by 50%. In another study involving patients receiving chemotherapy for cancer, 4,200 mg/day of Boswellia extract reduced fluid build-up (edema) in patients.
May Support Brain Health: An in vitro study found that boswellic acid has the ability to prevent brain cell degeneration for those with Alzheimer’s disease.
May Help With Pain Management: Research shows that boswellia may be one of the best herbs for pain management. In an animal study, researchers discovered that Boswellia serrata gum resin extract has the ability to reduce pain through the inhibition of inflammation pathways.
While these various other health benefits of Indian frankincense are interesting, human clinical trials are needed to corroborate these findings.
Summary:Boswellia has been tied to a wide variety of health benefits. Human clinical trials are needed to verify these findings.
Safety Class: 2B (not for use during pregnancy)
Interaction Class: A
Indian frankincense is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Pregnancy & Lactation:
Not recommended for use during pregnancy and breastfeeding due to lack of data and evidence.
Standard dosing for boswellia is as follows:
Decoction (tea made from bark): Take 50-100 ml/day.
Dietary Supplement: Take capsules containing 300-400mg of boswellia extract, 3x/day.
Cream: It’s recommended to use a cream containing 2% Boswellia and apply daily.
Indian frankincense is not on the United Plant Saver’s “at-risk” list (sensitive to the impact of human activities).
Although not on the Plant Saver’s list, due to high demand, the harvesting of Indian frankincense from boswellia species has caused many sustainability issues. Cultivation of the resin has left many species in danger of being overharvested, especially Boswellia sacra, Boswellia serrata and Boswellia papyrifera.
Research shows that in order for boswellia to become a sustainable product, there needs to be a reconsideration of management, harvesting practices, and regeneration efforts.
Naming & Taxonomy:
Boswellia’s scientific name is Boswellia serrata. It belongs to the Burseraceae family and is a deciduous tree that can grow 6-25ft depending on the species and location. The trees grow in mountainous, dry regions.
The boswellia tree produces a resinous, sticky sap that is extracted via an incision and has a pleasant, aromatic scent.
The resin dries and is later used for medicinal purposes or as incense.
Other common and ancient names include Salai, Sallai guggal, Indian olibanum, Indian frankincense, true frankincense, gugguls, Shallaki, and Gajabhakshya.
Although most commonly mentioned in Ayurvedic medicine, boswellia was also traditionally used in Unani (Arabic) medicine.
The Boswellia tree trunks look gnarled and twisted, not far off from a small bonsai tree. It loves desert-like, arid conditions and is considered to be resilient, and drought-resistant. While the tree only blooms for a short amount of time, harvesting the resin occurs year-round.
The bark of the Boswellia tree is very thin and will release its resin when a small incision is made. When the cut is made, the tree oozes its sticky protectant in order to heal the “wound” that was created. The resin is highly aromatic with a pleasant, slightly bitter flavor.
History & Traditional Use:
Boswellia has been used in Ayurvedic and Unani medicine for thousands of years.
Evidence of its medicinal and aromatic uses dates back as far as the 27th century BCE. Harvest and trade of the resin are documented by early Egyptian traders and it has also been found in ancient Arabian and Mediterranean archaeological sites.
Ayurvedic use has been used for centuries and it has been burned as incense for millennia. The Bible commonly mentions the use of frankincense.
Indian frankincense can be found in three revered ancient texts. These texts are rooted in Indian Ayurveda and are as follows:
- Charaka’s Charaka Samhita (c.B.C. 700): the first text with the fundamentals of medicine
- Susruta’s Susruta Samhita (c.B.C. 600): A collection of the entire knowledge of medicine with a focus on surgery
- Astanga Samgraha and Astanga Hridaya (c.130-200 A.D.): two-volume tome with emphasis on the 8 parts of Ayurveda
In addition to these texts, Indian frankincense is listed in many traditional Ayurvedic and Unani texts for its excellent anti-inflammatory use on a number of ailments.
The resin was listed as supportive for skin and blood diseases, mouth sores, asthma, cough, hemorrhoids, cardiovascular diseases, stimulation of the liver, and much more.
Currently, the boswellia resin is in high demand and is used in medicine, religious ceremonies, and in aromatherapy.
Boswellia vs. Other Herbs:
Boswellia is often compared with other herbs. We have put together helpful guides going over common herbal comparisons.
Boswellia casts a wide therapeutic scope, showing medicinal support for a number of inflammatory issues, including arthritis, asthma, and diabetes.
Along with these health benefits of boswellia, the resin also has a strong potential for repairing damaged skin, supporting cancer therapy, brain health, and helping with pain management.
It is worth checking into boswellia if you have been experiencing any of the above indications. However, it is highly important to ensure the source you are getting it from is sustainable.
As always, consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or adding a new supplement.
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