Frankincense has great historical value, having been burnt as an incense in religious and cultural ceremonies and utilized medicinally in India, Africa, Arabia, Asia – and throughout the world – for thousands of years. But did you know that frankincense comes from the resin of a few distinct tree species within the Genus Boswellia from the family Burseraceae? (1)
Each type of boswellia tree has its own unique characteristics. The related species of frankincense-producing boswellia trees are Boswellia serrata which is native to India and is also known as Indian frankincense, shallaki (in Sanskrit), and salai; Boswellia sacra. Boswellia sacara can be found growing on the Arabian Peninsula whileBoswellia carterii and Boswellia frereana both grow in Africa. Boswellia carterii and Boswellia sacra were previously thought of as synonymous, but recent research has determined that they are two distinct frankincense species. (2) For the purpose of this article; however, we’ll mainly focus on the potential health benefits and uses of Boswellia serrata or Indian frankincense.
What is Boswellia, and How Does It Work?
Boswellia serrata is a moderate to large-sized deciduous tree from the family Burseraceae that grows in the dry, mountainous regions of central India, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. The tree produces a natural oleo-gum-resin, which is a form of sap made of a mixture of volatile oil (essential oil), terpenoids (aromatic chemical compounds), gum, and resin that oozes out of the tree when its bark is cut. (3) Oleo-gum-resin compound contains approximately 30-60% resin, 5-10% essential oils, and polysaccharides (arabinose, galactose, xylose). (4)
According to clinical research, the essential oil from boswellia may have antimicrobial activities that could make it medicinally useful. (5) The resin’s terpenoids contain boswellic acids that are considered the active constituents in boswellia. Standardized extracts of boswellia can contain up to 37.5–65% of these boswellic acids. (6)
Studies have shown that boswellic acids may have anti-inflammatory properties similar to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) by inhibiting 5-lipoxygenase, an enzyme that produces leukotrienes. Leukotrienes have been identified as a cause of inflammation and a possible trigger for asthma symptoms. However, unlike NSAIDs, long-term use of boswellia does not appear to cause stomach ulcers or other similar adverse effects. (7) Boswellia resin contains four types of boswellic acids that may contribute to the herb’s anti-inflammatory properties including Acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA), which is thought to be the most potent of the boswellic acids. (8)
To extract oleo-gum-resin for its potentially beneficial boswellic acids, an incision is made on the boswellia tree trunk and then the sap that oozes out is captured and stored in a special bamboo basket until the resin solidifies and can be scraped off. Traditionally, the oleo-gum-resin hardens slowly into fragrant teardrops over a period of about a month. Then it is broken down into smaller pieces – usually by a wooden mallet or similar tool, and any impurities are removed manually. (9)
After processing the resin, it is classified by flavor, color, shape, and size. It is then categorized into four grades (Superfine, Grade I, Grade II, or Grade III) to be sold on the natural health market. The fresh warm gummy resin may also be chewed but it may have a slightly bitter taste. When dried, the resin is generally used in making incense powder and incense sticks for a sweet, citrusy scent that can be used for aromatherapy or ceremonial burning. Various parts of the resin are also used in Ayurvedic medicine, in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and by herbalists all over the world in its dry form or in its steam distilled form as an essential oil extract.
Brief History of Boswellia and Frankincense
Natural plant resins are important to humankind because they can be used as adhesives, in cosmetics, as fragrances, as coating materials, and in medicines. Throughout history, ancient civilizations such as the Hebrews, Hindus, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Chinese and Greeks have used natural resins for embalming and as incense during sacrificial ceremonies, religious ceremonies, or other rituals to please the gods, honor their dead, cast off evil spirits, or celebrate the living. (11)
According to the New Testament of the Bible, frankincense was one of the gifts given to the baby Jesus by the magi (the three Wise Men) upon his birth. According to the Hebrew Bible, frankincense was often burned as incense in during rituals in Jerusalem’s sacred temples during ancient times. (12)
Historians have found mention of frankincense in ancient texts and found proof of its use in archaeological digs showing that frankincense was used medicinally alongside another herb, myrrh, for everything from oral health to skin health support. Frankincense specifically was believed to have useful antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.
According to History.com, frankincense was traded in the Middle East and North Africa for 5,000 years. The ancient Egyptians used boswellia resins in incense, insect repellent, perfumes, and wound-healing salves, as well as during the embalming process. It was also a staple of TCM since at least 500 B.C.E. (13)
However, the most common form of frankincense used as incense in religious or ceremonial practices, perfumery, pharmaceutical, and fumigating preparations comes from the Boswellia carterii tree. (Boswellia serrata, or Indian frankincense, is primarily used in dietary supplements or for medicinal purposes.) (14)
Today, Boswellia serrata is being researched for its possible effect on chronic illnesses such as ulcerative colitis (UC), Crohn’s disease, anxiety, and asthma. However, further research is needed. As outlined below, clinical data does suggest that there are some real potential health benefits of boswellia (specifically Boswellia serrata) that may make it worth incorporating into your healthy lifestyle.
Potential Health Benefits of Boswellia
Boswellia serrata is an Ayurvedic herb classified as a phytopharmaceutical for its anti-inflammatory properties due to its active boswellic acids that may promote joint comfort and flexibility or have other potential health benefits. (15)
Overall, research suggests that Boswellia serrata supports:
- Bone health during the natural aging process
- Clear bronchial pathways and upper respiratory health
- Healthy-looking skin
- Joint health, mobility, and temporary pain relief (as a natural alternative to lieu of NSAIDs)
- Female reproductive health and comfort during the menstrual cycle
- Digestive tract health
- And more
Boswellia May Support Healthy Aging of Joints, Bones, and Muscles
Boswellia is commonly used as a natural alternative to NSAIDs (over-the-counter pain relievers). Boswellic acids within the herbal resin are thought to support joint health and mobility, muscle health, cartilage, and connective tissue integrity. (16)
As the body ages or endures an injury, it may experience what is known as inflammation – a series of processes the body uses to help heal itself. However, chronic, long-lasting inflammation (expressed through symptoms such as swelling or tenderness) could lead to health problems such as arthritis or unhealthy cellular changes.
According to clinical data, boswellia appears to have the ability to temporarily counteract minor inflammation that may benefit the health of people with chronic illnesses like arthritis, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. (17) For example, one study found that 30 patients with chronic knee pain who took boswellia supplements reported a decrease in knee pain and an increase in knee flexibility. (18) Another study reported that test subjects who took boswellia extract for 90 days had an increase in physical ability and a decrease in their body’s level of a cartilage-degrading enzymes. (19) A separate study found that boswellia might also help reduce joint swelling. (20) And yet another study found that a novel lecithin-based delivery form of Boswellia serrata extract supported the management of osteo-muscular pain. However, more research is needed to support these claims. (21)
Boswellia May Support Cellular Health
In addition to healthy aging support, studies have also found that boswellia promotes cellular health that may be effective in preventing cell changes due to oxidative damage from free radicals. (22, 23)
Boswellia May Support Digestive Health
A study on chronic digestive issues and bowel irregularities found that boswellia extract may play a helpful role in supporting overall gut and colon health. (24) Clinical research also reports that boswellia may play a role in supporting health in patients with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. (25)
Boswellia May Support Female Reproductive Health
Indian frankincense has been used in Ayurvedic medicine as a stimulant to promote urine flow and to stimulate menstrual flow. In this way it may induce a miscarriage, so it is not recommended for use by pregnant women.
Boswellia May Support Healthy-Looking Skin
Ancient civilizations used boswellia in salves to help heal skin wounds. It is used today in modern skin creams to temporarily relieve achy joints and muscles.
Boswellia May Support Upper Respiratory System Health
A study of boswellia’s effect on bronchial asthma found that patients who took the herb experienced fewer symptoms and had less restricted breathing. This could be due to boswellia’s role in reducing leukotrienes that cause bronchial muscles to contract. (26) Data from other clinical trials also indicate the possible effectiveness of boswellia for bronchial asthma. (27)
How to Buy Boswellia
Boswellia, specifically Boswellia serrata, is available in various forms. You can shop for boswellia from Natural Healthy Concepts in veggie capsules or standardized tablets to help fill daily nutritional gaps in your diet and support joint mobility. Or, you could try 100% certified organic boswellia resin powder formulated to support joint and connective tissue health, which can be mixed with warm water and consumed as a beverage up to twice daily.
Boswellia is also available as an extract in softgels to support a healthy immune response to internal challenges, promote a normal stress response, support a healthy mood and normal sleep schedule. A standardized boswellia extract is also available as an herbal supplement in convenient vegetarian-friendly capsules to provide support for healthy joint function.
In addition, you could try a topical skin cream containing Boswellia serrata extract, methyl salicylate, and capsaicin to provide warming support for the temporary relief of symptoms related to joint or muscle discomfort.
Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrata) resin oil and extracts are also used in soaps, cosmetics, foods, and beverages.
When it comes to recommended dosages of boswellia, always follow instructions on the label of the product you’re using. However, the standardized extract has been used as follows:
For achy joints and muscles, 150 mg of boswellic acids can be taken up to three times per day for eight to twelve weeks. According to one clinical trial, people with ulcerative colitis used 550 mg of boswellia extract three times per day. (28) The Arthritis Foundation suggests taking 300-500 mg orally up to three times daily. (29)
Note that boswellia should not be confused with guggul or myrrh, although they have some similar functions.
Possible Boswellia Side Effects
Boswellia extract may interact with medications including ibuprofen, aspirin, and other NSAIDs. High doses of boswellia may cause liver damage or dysfunction. Other side effects may include nausea, acid reflux, diarrhea, or skin rashes. (30) Boswellia may also stimulate blood flow in the uterus and pelvis, accelerating menstrual flow and potentially causing a miscarriage. Therefore, pregnant women should not use boswellia supplements. (31)
Although boswellia is considered safe for use by most people, it is always important to first consult with your healthcare provider before starting a new supplement regimen.