Boswellia, also known as Indian Frankincense, is an herbal extract taken from the Boswellia serrata tree.

Resin made from boswellia extract has been used for centuries in Asian and African folk medicine to treat chronic inflammatory illnesses, as well as a number of other health conditions. It is available as a resin, pill, or cream.

Studies show that boswellia may reduce inflammation and may be useful in treating:

  • osteoarthritis
  • rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
  • asthma
  • inflammatory bowel disease

Besides being an effective anti-inflammatory, boswellia can be an effective painkiller and may prevent the loss of cartilage. Some studies have found that it may even be useful in treating certain cancers, such as leukemia and breast cancer.

Boswellia may interact with and decrease the effects of anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen and other medications. Talk to your doctor before using boswellia products, especially if you’re taking other medications to treat inflammation.

Important: Boswellia may be an emmenagogue and abortificient. This means it can stimulate menstruation and induce miscarriage by increasing blood flow in the uterus. Pregnant women are advised to avoid this herb.

How It Works

Some studies show that boswellic acid can prevent the formation of leukotrienes in the body. Leukotrienes have been identified as a cause of inflammation and may trigger asthma symptoms.

Four acids in boswellia resin contribute to the herb’s anti-inflammatory properties. These acids inhibit 5-lipoxygenase (5-LO), an enzyme that produces leukotriene. Acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid (AKBA) is thought to be the most powerful of the four boswellic acids. However, some studies suggest other boswellic acids are responsible for the herb’s anti-inflammatory properties.

Boswellia products are generally rated on their concentration of boswellic acids.

Applications

Osteoarthritis (OA)

Many studies of boswellia’s effect on OA have found that it’s effective in treating OA pain and inflammation.

One study published in the journal Phytomedicine found that all 30 patients with OA knee pain who received boswellia reported a decrease in knee pain. They also reported an increase in how far they could walk and knee flexion.

Another study, funded by a boswellia production company, found that increasing the dosage of enriched boswellia extract led to an increase in physical ability. OA knee pain decreased after 90 days with the boswellia product, compared to a lesser dosage and placebo. It also helped reduce the levels of a cartilage-degrading enzyme.

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Studies on the usefulness of boswellia in RA treatment have shown mixed results. One study published in the Journal of Rheumatology found that boswellia might help to reduce RA joint swelling. However, it also revealed that boswellia does not work any better than a placebo in affecting other RA measures.

Some research suggests that boswellia may interfere with the autoimmune process, which would make it an effective therapy for RA.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Due to the herb’s anti-inflammatory properties, boswellia may be effective in treating inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

A study compared H15, a special boswellia extract, to the anti-inflammatory prescription drug mesalamine. It showed no “statistical difference” in the Crohn’s Activity Index. This indicated that boswellia “may play a helpful role in Crohn’s disease.”

Separate studies found the herb could be effective in treating ulcerative colitis as well.

Asthma

Boswellia can play a role in reducing leukotrienes, which causes bronchial muscles to contract. A study of the herb’s effect on bronchial asthma found that patients who took boswellia experienced decreased asthma symptoms and asthma indicators.

This 1998 German study showed the herb could play an important role in treating bronchial asthma.

Cancer

Boswellic acids act in a number of ways that may inhibit cancer growth. Boswellic acids have been shown to prevent certain enzymes from negatively affecting DNA.

Studies have also found that boswellia may fight advanced breast cancer cells, and it may limit the spread of malignant leukemia and brain tumor cells. Another study showed boswellic acids to be effective in suppressing the invasion of pancreatic cancer cells.

Dosage

Boswellia products can differ greatly. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and remember to speak to your doctor before using any herbal therapy.

General dosing guidelines suggest taking 300-500 milligrams (mg) by mouth two to three times a day. The dosage may need to be higher for inflammatory bowel disease.

The Arthritis Foundation suggests 300-400 mg three times per day of a product that contains 60 percent boswellic acids.

Adverse Effects

Boswellia may stimulate blood flow in the uterus and pelvis. It can accelerate menstrual flow and may induce miscarriage in pregnant women.

Other possible side effects of boswellia include:

  • nausea
  • acid reflux
  • diarrhea
  • skin rashes

Boswellia extract may also interact with medications, including ibuprofen, aspirin, and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).