What is Boswellia?
Boswellia is the genus of trees in the order of Sapindales, comprising nearly 25 species in total 1,2,3. The main species of Boswellia are B. sacra, B. frereana, B. papyrifera, and B. serrata. Boswellia serrata, also known as “Indian Frankincense,” is known for many pharmacological and medicinal applications 3,4. Boswellia are moderately sized flowering plants (trees and shrubs) and are native to tropical regions, predominantly India, Africa, and the Middle East. Boswellia has been studied for its potential as a natural product for ayurvedic medicinal use 4. Originally, its medicinal use in elephants was observed by ayurvedic healers and eventually was translated to human health benefits. In ancient times, boswellia extracts were procured from the sap of the boswellia tree and used to treat chronic ailments responding to anti-inflammatory agents including arthritis, diarrhea, and pulmonary diseases 5. Recently, Boswellia has gained much attention in the medicinal community because of its active ingredients and unique chemical signature; “boswellic acid” possesses anti-inflammatory properties equivalent to prescription medications without any signs of side effects 6. Moreover, Boswellia has been studied for its potential as a natural product for medicinal use because of its high boswellic acid content, particularly AKBA (acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid) as the predominant active component in Boswellia. Most supplements in the marketplace have specialized to maximize that component 7. However, recent research has indicated that few of the water soluble polysaccharides in Boswellia are critical components in initiating and supporting anti-inflammatory activity, while the lipid-soluble boswellic acid facilitates a slow and sustained action. Indeed, a specific boswellin polysaccharide extract (Polysal) primarily consisting of galactose, arabinose, D-glucuronic acid, and 4-o-methyl-glucuronoarabino-galactan has demonstrated a dose dependent anti-inflammatory potential, similar to the boswellic acids 7.
Clinical Benefits of Boswellia
The clinical benefits of Boswellia include supporting the immune system, digestion, blood circulation, joint health, pain management, and cognition 8-13. Several studies have reported that Boswellia is relatively safe and potent. While most anti-inflammatory drugs function as Cox enzyme inhibitors, B. serrata exerts a novel inhibitory effect of pro-inflammatory enzymes (5-lipxygenase)14 and effectively blocks cytokine synthesis, which are strong contributors to inflammation-associated diseases. Cytokines (leukotrienes) play a major role in promoting a battery of age-associated diseases including joint pain, intestinal disorders, cancer, and pulmonary diseases. The anti-inflammatory effects of Boswellia have been investigated for their benefits in osteoarthritis (OA), pain, and inflammation that are common in many conditions such as asthma, swelling, and gastrointestinal (GI) health. Further, boswellic acid suppresses the proliferation of tissues at the site of inflammation and inhibits the breakdown of connective tissues caused by TNF-α, a potent inflammatory agent. In addition, Boswellia has been proven to improve blood circulation to the joints, restoring the integrity of damaged blood vessels, and again it is a natural way of preserving the vascular function unlike the traditional drugs of choice with side effects. Safety and efficacy studies indicated that a threshold of 5000 mg/kg of boswellia extract with 30 percent AKTA correlated to 2000 – 3000 times the effective daily dose in humans with no safety concerns. An oral dose of up to 160 mg boswellia extract/day kg equivalent to 11g/150 pound adult was derived based on an oral supplementation (5000 mg/kg bw) studies in rat 15.
The most important potential health effects of Boswellia have been based on the results of ancestral usage and some pre-clinical and clinical studies. Boswellia is also used as a phytopharmaceutical for brain edema associated with radiotherapy due to its general anti-inflammatory 16-19. Additionally, frankincense. the resin from the B. serrata tree, is used to relieve depression and anxiety via aromatherapy, in religious ceremonies to purify air, and in topical applications 20. Some preclinical and clinical studies have shown that frankincense could also improve the learning and memory in animals and humans. In conclusion, the use of Boswellia might have a potential role in wholistic medicine not only to treat chronic inflammation, but also for cognition and memory concerns.