More Than Incense: Boswellia’s Wide-Ranging Potential

By Sandra Nomoto

Commonly Called Frankincense, Boswellia Species Have Been Used to Treat Ailments for Thousands of Years in Traditional Medicine, Which Still Applies Today

Boswellia is a genus of trees, flowering plants, and shrubs. Boswellia sacra, commonly known as frankincense or olibanum-tree, is native to the Arabian Peninsula and northeastern Africa. It grows up to eight metres and its paper-like tree bark can be removed easily. Its milky liquid can be extracted after eight to ten years.

Boswellia serrata or Indian frankincense is the other most common and clinically studied species native to India, the Middle East, and Northern Africa.

Traditional Usage of Boswellia

Boswellia resin was used for incense and embalming in religious and cultural ceremonies for many ancient civilizations. Ayurvedic medical texts dating thousands of years in India cite its treatment of inflammatory diseases, diarrhea, dysentery, pulmonary disease, and ringworm.

Boswellia was documented to combat cancerous diseases, heal wounds, and have antimicrobial properties.

Gajabhakshya, the Sanskrit word for boswellia, suggests that elephants also consume it as part of their diet.

Despite boswellia’s role in traditional medicine, a gap still exists between this anecdotal use and scientific data.

Photo: Conscious Design

Boswellia Products and Scientific Studies

Today, B. serrata appears most commonly as incense powder or sticks. It is also sold in mineral, vitamin, and herbal supplements—often in combination with turmeric—and as a cream.

The gum resin in the bark of B. serrata contains boswellic acids, which provide its anti-inflammatory properties.

B. sacra is commonly sold as an essential oil; its raw resin is more expensive than that of B. serrata, though both are of high quality.

In a pilot study of 49 patients between the ages of 23 and 92 years with osteoarthritis in 2015-6, a combination of B. serrata and bromelain supplements improved quality of life.

There have been studies using B. serrata in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, but the results are conflicting and more research is required.

In 2020, researchers in the United States and Germany discovered the enzyme 5-lipoxygenase, the active substance that targets the inflammatory enzyme, which could inform new treatments for chronic inflammation.

Medicinal Benefits and Potential Side Effects

B. serrata is said to aid with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diarrhea, asthma, ulcers, bronchitis, depression, hematemesis, headaches, and bleeding. In addition, it contains properties that may prevent cancer, prevent liver damage, combat cholesterol and high fat levels, and keep blood sugar low.

Boswellia-containing creams have a softening effect and anti-aging effect on the skin.

Both species of boswellia aid memory and learning. Potential exists for boswellia to prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, with further study.

Studies on animals suggest that boswellia compounds may have anticancer properties, reduce inflammation and swelling caused by radiation therapy, and treat asthma, colitis, Type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease, but more human studies are needed.

Possible side effects include skin rashes, diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, acid reflux, and heartburn. If used with anticoagulant and/or antiplatelet medications or substrates of P-Glycoprotein (P-Gp), it may reduce benefits or increase side effects of other medications.

For those with osteoarthritis, B. serrata is well-tolerated if ingested for up to six months; long-term effects are not known at this time.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. We advise readers to always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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