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Boswellia for Health

Updated on March 6, 2013

What is Boswellia and what does it do?

Boswellia serrata extract, as used in herbal medicine, is not quite the same substance as is sold as an essential oil. The active principle of Boswellia is the resinous gum that exudes from the tree; this gum is the traditional frankincense - most notably mentioned in the Bible as a gift for the infant Jesus. Frankincense oil, as used in aromatherapy and perfumery, is the volatile fat-soluble oil distilled from this gum; the substance most often used in herbal and Ayurvedic practice is a water-soluble extract.

The main active principle of boswellia is a complex mixture of organic acids collectively known as boswellic acid. The main constituents are the following:

Beta-boswellic acid
Acetyl beta-boswellic acid
11-keto beta-boswellic acid
Acetyl 11-keto beta-boswellic acid

The complexity of these molecules increases in the order they are presented in above. Each has slightly different activity, and the mixture of all four has effects greater than the effects of the individual compounds - a process called synergy which is quite common in herbal medicine.

Boswellic acid’s main effect, in biochemical terms, is inhibition of the enzyme 5-lipoxygenase which in turn reduces the body’s production of leukotrienes. These compounds are powerful promoters of inflammation, so reducing their production reduces inflammation.

There is a strong contrast between boswellia and the most common conventional anti-inflammatories, which are corticosteroids and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, examples being aspirin and ibuprofen). This is essentially that boswellia has far fewer, and less serious, side effects. Corticosteroids can cause immune depression, bone and cartilage loss, thinning of skin, capillary fragility and dependency; NSAIDs are famous for causing intestinal erosion and gastric ulcers. Boswellia’s side effects are largely restricted to the possibility of sensitivity and allergy.

What can Boswellia be used for?

Boswellia has been successfully used for the following inflammatory problems:

Irritable bowel syndrome
Crohn’s disease
Ulcerative colitis
Rheumatoid arthritis
Low back pain
Gout (symptoms only; the underlying uric acid overproduction needs other measures)
Improves condition of arteries damaged by inflammation

One of the reasons why boswellia is a highly effective agent for auto-immune disorders such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis is that boswellia is effective against gastrointestinal inflammation. The precise sequence is this:

An inflamed gut lining becomes more porous than it should be, leading to such things as partially digested food proteins getting into the bloodstream. These proteins stimulate the immune system, and if this goes on for long enough the immune system becomes less discriminating and starts attacking the body’s own tissues.

Clinical trials have been carried out on boswellia extracts in the two particular cases of rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease. In both cases, boswellia was shown to be equal or superior to corticosteroids as an anti-inflammatory - without the side effects.

The dose of boswellia usually used for these chronic problems is 700-800 mg of an extract containing 65% boswellic acids, twice per day. This can be reduced as symptoms subside.


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