Words by Dr Axe…
What Is Boswellia?
Frankincense oil is the common name for the resinous extracts derived from trees of the genus called Boswellia, part of the Burseraceae plant family. Boswellia serrata is a tree native to India that produces special compounds that have been found to have strong anti-inflammatory, and potentially anticancer, effects. In fact, long before inflammation-lowering medications and supplements existed, extracts derived from different species of the boswellia tree were used to treat all sorts of inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and heart disease.
Other types of related boswellia trees, including boswellia sacra and boswellia carteri, grow in areas such as Oman in the Middle East and parts of Northern Africa. These species of boswellia have similar healing abilities to boswellia serrata, such as helping to fight arthritis or tumor growth. (1, 2)
Over twenty different Boswellia species exist, most of which grow in the northeast African region where it’s estimated that about 75 percent of the species originated.
What makes these plant extracts so beneficial for preserving health and fighting disease?
A lot of it has to do with how different chemical compounds regulate the immune system, specifically how some inhibit certain pro-inflammatory cytokines and mediators that can damage DNA, feed tumor growth and destroy healthy cells. Over the past several decades, research has given us a better understanding of how boswellia and frankincense oils may benefit our health and boost the immune system. Boswellia extracts seem to lower inflammation and support immune function on multiple levels, including (3):
- interfering with cytokine production that raises inflammation (interferon gamma, interleukin-4 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha)
- delaying reactions to sensitivities
- helping regulate lymphocytes (white blood cells) and T-cells interactions
- regulating production of immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies, which protect the body from bacterial and viral infections
- regulating production of immunoglobulin M (igM) antibodies, which are found mainly in the blood and lymph fluid
Resins from different species of the boswellia tree contain about 5 percent to 10 percent pure essential oils, which possess numerous protective compounds, including:
- tetracyclic triterpenic acids
- four major pentacyclic and boswellic triterpenic acids, one of which is acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid, considered the most potent inhibitor of 5-lipoxygenase, an enzyme responsible for inflammation (4)
What does all of this mean in simple terms?
Boswellia helps lower inflammation and prevents autoimmune diseases. Inflammation is the response of bodily tissues to any form of irritation, injuries, infections or disorders of the immune system. Whenever you feel pain, redness, swelling and sometimes loss of function, this is inflammation attempting to heal you.
Leukotrienes are small chemicals that contribute to inflammation by promoting free radical damages, autoimmune responses, cell adhesion and migration of the cells to any injured areas.
5 Benefits of Boswellia
1. Lowers Inflammation
Among the valuable boswellia tree extracts that researchers have identified, several stand out as being most beneficial, including terpenes and boswellic acids, which are strongly anti-inflammatory and protective over healthy cells. Terpenes are strong-smelling chemicals found in certain plants, including some we associate with having antioxidant abilities, such as eucalyptus, basil, peppermint and citrus trees. (5)
Terpenes play a vital role in protecting the plants that contain them, since their strong aroma can fight off insect predators, defend plants from environmental stresses and act as building blocks for important chemical processes. In the human body, terpenes can do the same thing, lowering free radical damage and prolonging health.
Other chemical compounds have been identified in boswellia that naturally reduce the inflammatory response by controlling T-lymphocytes, especially one called AKBA (3-O-acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid). Although it works similarly to NSAID pain relievers, AKBA’s exact mechanisms of action are very different because they target different inflammatory enzymes. Because they’re better able to preserve the integrity of the stomach and gut lining, boswellia extracts cause less side effects and pose less risk for toxicity compared to NSAIDs. (6)
AKBA helps fight pain thanks in part to its ability to inhibit an enzyme called 5-LOX (5-lipoxygenase) and therefore shuts down mechanisms of leukotrienes, which are inflammatory mediators produced by the process of oxidation (specifically of arachidonic acid). AKBA has shown to be effective in helping to fight against a large number of inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis, bronchial asthma, chronic colitis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and cancer.
Another active component of boswellia is called incensole acetate, which has similar powers over lowering inflammatory reactions, especially those that target the brain and speed up cognitive decline. Studies show that incensole acetate is protective over neurons, helps fight the formation of tumors and has mood-enhancing benefits, making it a potential natural antidepressant and anti-anxiety compound.
2. Reduces Joint and Arthritis Pain
A study published in the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database showed that boswellia serrata extract can help reduce pain, swelling and trouble moving in people with arthritis or osteoarthritis (a common, chronic, progressive, skeletal, degenerative disorder, which commonly affects the knee joint) and other forms of inflamed joints. Some experienced a significant reduction in joint pain by up to 32 percent to 65 percent, which is comparable to prescription medications, showcasing boswellia’s ability as a potential natural arthritis treatment. (7)
Another study published in the Journal of Phytotherapy and Phytopharmacology found that boswellia serrata assisted in treating osteoarthritis symptoms such as knee pain, knee jerking and pain while walking significantly better than treatment with a placebo. Researchers concluded that the anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic and analgesic activities of boswellia make it a promising treatment for decreasing knee pain, increasing knee flexion and increasing walking distances in those prone to frequent swelling in the knee joints. (8)
3. May Help Fight Cancer
Frankincense oil, which is formed by purifying the resin taken from the trunk of the boswellia tree, has been used for thousands of years medicinally, as well in religious and cultural ceremonies. Today, research tell us that frankincense essential oil is strongly tied to cancer prevention. Frankincense is taken by many people around the world with no known side effects. It effectively helps target cancer cells while preserving healthy cells, which is why it’s used in conjunction with traditional cancer treatments by many holistic practitioners.
Research shows a link between AKBA and protection against brain, breast, colon, pancreatic, prostate and stomach cancers. The potential cancer-killing properties of boswellia extracts and frankincense oil are in part due to how they influence our genes to promote healing, plus how they curb serious side effects of cancer treatments. One of the most challenging and devastating things about battling cancer is suffering through the life-threatening and painful side effects that treatments like chemotherapy and radiation often cause. However boswellia extracts, such as those derived from the species boswellia carteri, shows promise for fighting these complications. (9)
For example, frankincense and boswellia extracts have been shown to fight joint pain, swelling in the brain, digestive complications and migraine headaches without destroying healthy cells that leave people vulnerable to infections. In addition to helping fight cancer, frankincense also supports the immune system in other ways by preventing infections, lowering inflammation, promoting hormonal balance, improving skin health and lowering anxiety (sometimes described as improving “spiritual awareness”).
4. Speeds Up Healing From Infections
Boswellia is capable of lowering severity of infections of the respiratory or sinus tracts, which means you can experience relief from coughing, colds, the flu or a sore throat faster. Research shows boswellia also helps prevent allergies and asthma, eliminates phlegm in the lungs and acts as an anti-inflammatory in the nasal passages, which makes it easier to breath.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, frankincense has been used as a natural remedy for improving blood circulation, speeding up healing time and in relieving pain from a variety of bacterial or viral infections, such as colds or the flu, leprosy or gonorrhea. Studies also show that boswellia carteri and boswellia serrata extracts serve as a natural antiviral and can help treat strong and serious viruses, such as the flu or those caused by insect bites. (10, 11)
5. Helps Prevent Autoimmune Disease
One of the oldest uses of frankincense oil and boswellia is treating a variety of autoimmune ailments, especially common inflammatory diseases including asthma, arthritis and chronic bowel diseases. Boswellia interferes with autoimmune disease development, since it seems to help control the production of immunoglobulins, or antibodies, which are made by the immune system to fight potential threats: bacteria, viruses, fungi and toxins.
The fact that boswellia serrata has inhibitory actions that decrease production of leukotrienes has received high attention by researchers who study chronic inflammatory diseases that are rooted in increased leukotriene activity. As one study published in the International Journal of Phytotherapy and Phytopharmacology puts it, “At the end of the cascade of events in the cellular immune system, as far as it directs to various tissues of the body — i.e. autoimmune diseases — formation of oxygen radicals and proteases play an important destructive role … it’s not surprising that positive effects of boswellia in some chronic inflammatory diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, bronchial asthma, osteoarthritis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease have been reported.” (12)
Your immune system constantly makes different types of antibodies to fight off various diseases (or “antigens“), but sometimes this process goes wrong and antibodies can actually be created that fight your very own bodily tissue, including healthy tissue that forms your organs. When this takes place, autoimmune disease occurs, which can affect nearly every system within the body.
Many studies have shown that boswellia extracts help treat inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) including ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and collagenous colitis. IBS is a term for a group of intestinal disorders that cause prolonged inflammation of the digestive tract, especially the bowel lining that’s important for normal nutrient absorption and waste elimination. IBS can also affect other parts of the digestive system, including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and small and large intestines. Research shows that leukotrienes play a large role in igniting inflammation that disrupts normal bowel function.
Boswellia may help patients enter remission from IBS since it reduces inflammation/swelling associated with bowel diseases, restores normal bowel cell structures, improves stool properties significantly and helps heal openings in the bowel wall. One study published in the European Journal of Medical Research found that 350 milligrams of boswellia serrata extract given three times daily for six weeks resulted in patients experiencing improvements in all parameters tested. A whopping 82 percent of IBD patients went into remission, which was even more than the percentage of patients who were using the standard prescription for IBD called sulfasalazine! (13)
Similarly, supplementation with boswellia has been shown to be effective for facilitating remission in patients with collagenous colitis, another type of IBD that causes abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, diarrhea and lots of discomfort. In a study done by the Department of Medicine at Medical College Jammu in India, boswellic acids were found to inhibit the enzyme 5-lipoxygenase, which is a major contributor to the disease. Twenty patients were given boswellia serrata (900 milligrams daily divided in three doses for six weeks), and at the end of the trial, 18 out of 20 patients showed an improvement in one or more of the parameters tested while 14 out of 20 went into remission. (14)
Types Of Boswellia
While Boswellia serrata is likely the most popular type of boswellia used to treat various disorders and symptoms, it’s not the only type. There are at least three other popular forms of boswellia: boswellia carteri, boswellia frereana and boswellia sacra. Other species also exist, although they are used less frequently in oils and supplements. Each type comes from a different boswellia plant species, although all are closely related so they tend to be used medically in similar ways. While boswellia serrata grows in India, boswellia sacra grows in Oman (a country located near Saudi Arabia, Yemen, United Arab Emirates) along with parts of Northern Africa, such as Somalia. (15) Boswellia carteri also grows in parts of East Africa and in China. (16)
Boswellia carteri contains high levels of incensole acetate and triterpene acids, two chemicals tied to tumor prevention and strong anticancer effects. Boswellia carteri has been the subject of many studies investigating tumor cells and shows positive effects on stimulating the immune system and treating various forms of cancer, including bladder cancer. (17)
The species of boswellia that produce frankincense resin (or extract) are made into oils that come in varying concentrations or “grades”. An oil’s grade/concentration depends on a few factors, including variables such as:
- the time of year that extracts were harvested
- how extraction and processing were performed
- and how pure the finished product is.
The soil and climatic conditions used to grow boswellia trees are partly responsible for the different types of frankincense resins available on the market today. However not all frankincense essential oils will contain Boswellic acids (BAs), even if they are of high quality. Research shows that boswellia carteri and serrata extracts usually contain around seven types of Boswellia acids.
But some oils labeled as frankincense, such as those made from boswellia frereana, are not likely to contain much (or any) Boswellic acids because they aren’t naturally prolific in the plant’s resin. This doesn’t mean that other species of Boswellia are not beneficial however; boswellia frereana extract has still been shown to contain powerful compounds that help prevent collagen degradation and inhibit production of pro-inflammatory mediators. (18)
It’s believed that boswellia sacra trees are capable of growing in tough climates and in soil that is very rocky, which allows them to survive and live longer. (19) Boswellia sacra trees begin to yield frankincense resin after they’re about 8–10 years old, at which point they give off the precious sap several times per year. The last tap of the year is said to be the best, producing the highest-quality oil, which is mostly concentrated with bioavailable terpenes, diterpenes and sesquiterpense.
Experts say that the color of frankincense resin is directly related to its quality. When resin is clearer, it’s considered higher quality. Frankincense CO2 is said to be an exceptional grade, which is usually grown in the wild in parts of Somalia. The CO2 process helps to capture a broader spectrum of the beneficial volatile oils and produces a “clear, rich, smooth, and outstanding aroma.” (20)
Boswellia vs. Turmeric: How the Two Compare
Both boswellia and turmeric (which contains the active ingredient curcumin) are botanicals that have been trusted by holistic practitioners for many, many years. They’re similar in many ways since both help treat various inflammatory conditions and have similar mechanisms of action, including modulation of cytokines, downregulation of NF-kB (a pro-inflammatory pathway) and the inhibition of cyclooxygenase enzymes.
Turmeric has constituents that have been found to exert antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-mutagenic activity, which means it helps combat many of the same illnesses that boswellia does.
Researchers believe that anti-inflammatory herbal agents might be even more protective when they’re used together, which makes curcumin and boswellia a great team. The strong synergy of multiple constituents seems to be more effective than using single purified compounds alone. (21)
Another benefit of turmeric and boswellia used together is that interactions of their co-occurring phytochemicals might help prevent toxicity that can occur when using only one of these herbs. It doesn’t seem dangerous to use both together, and you might see improvements in symptoms faster if you do — but remember that it’s still important to read directions and follow dosage instructions carefully even when using natural herbal products.
How to Use Boswellia Seratta
You can take boswellia as a supplement or use frankincense essential oil. Frankincense oil has many uses ranging from healing your skin to speeding up recovery when you’re sick, making it one of the most popular essential oils used worldwide.
Use a few drops of pure frankincense essential oil placed under your tongue, on the roof of your mouth or mixed into tea to safely take it internally. You can also use frankincense essential oil by adding it to an oil burner or diffuser, which helps break up mucus, cleanse the nasal passages, and ease pain from respiratory or sinus conditions.
To use frankincense on your skin, mix it with a carrier oil like coconut oil or jojoba oil and do a patch test first to make sure you don’t react negatively before using it on larger areas of your skin. If you’re prone to sinus infections, allergies or asthma, then add a few drops to a cloth and inhale deeply several times per day.
If you rather take boswellia in supplement form, look for a high-quality powdered capsule that’s convenient and just as effective. Check for the species name— whether Boswellia Seratta, Boswellia Sacra or Boswellia Carteri— and avoid brands that use artificial fillers and additives.
Look for standardized extracts that contain at least 37 percent boswellic acids, which might be labeled as boswellin. Higher percentages around 65 percent or more are even more pure and effective. When it comes to proper dosages, it depends on how concentrated the extract is and the level of boswellic acids present, so always start slowly and carefully follow the directions on the package.
The following dosages of boswellia are often recommended, although it depends on your specific goals and current health condition:
- For lowering inflammation, take 600 to 900 milligrams of boswellia standardized (60 percent to 65 percent boswellic acid). This dosage might require taking several capsules daily.
- For treating inflammatory conditions like arthritis, osteroarthritis, asthma, chronic pain, inflammatory bowel disease or injuries, try a higher dose between 900–1,200 milligrams per day. (22)
Are There Any Boswellia Side Effects?
Boswellia and frankincense seem to be well-tolerated by children, but if you’re pregnant, don’t plan on taking boswellia without speaking with a qualified health care practitioner first. If you’re currently taking NSAID medications, don’t take boswellia extract without guidance from your doctor.
Keep in mind that it might take several months for boswellia to have the most effects, so give it time to work best and reduce pain or swelling before stopping.
- Boswellia serrata extract is so powerful that today it’s considered comparable to NSAID pain relievers.
- The five biggest benefits of boswellia include lowering inflammation, reducing joint and arthritis pain, helping fight cancer, speeding up healing from infections and potentially preventing autoimmune diseases.
- Boswellia and turmeric are very similar in their benefits, and researchers believe that anti-inflammatory herbal agents might be even more protective when they’re used together.