Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
By now, everyone’s heard of turmeric and its remarkable anti-inflammatory benefits. But here’s the newest herb you’ve never heard of that may be even better than turmeric at easing pain, reducing inflammation, and protecting against cancer.
Boswellia, also known as Indian frankincense, comes from the Boswellia serrata tree, native to India. It’s been used for thousands of years in Ayurveda and other traditional healing systems to treat conditions like arthritis, pain, fever, and heart disease. Other types of boswellia, including Boswellia sacra, Boswellia frereana, and Boswellia carteri, have similar effects.
It’s similar to turmeric in mechanisms of action and conditions treated; used together, curcumin and boswellia may have synergistic effects that make them more powerful than using each alone. In one study, a combination of boswellia and turmeric was significantly more effective in reducing pain than the prescription NSAID celecoxib, commonly used for arthritis.
The anti-inflammatory benefits of boswellia come mainly from boswellic acids and terpenes, strong-smelling antioxidant compounds that are also found in citrus, eucalyptus, mint, and other plants. Studies suggest boswellic acids work by inhibiting the synthesis of a specific pro-inflammatory enzyme, 5-lipoxygenase (5-LO). One of the most important boswellic acids is acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid, or AKBA.
Studies show that boswellia may reduce inflammation and may be useful in treating the following conditions:
Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis
The anti-inflammatory actions of boswellia have been shown in several studies to ease pain, reduce swelling, and improve mobility in people with arthritis or osteoarthritis. Some research shows a profound effect, including a reduction in arthritis symptoms by 45 to 67 percent, which is comparable to prescription medications, and a 35 percent reduction in inflammation. It appears to be especially helpful in osteoarthritis of the knee; several studies have found significant reductions in knee pain, knee jerking, swelling, and pain while walking, and improvements in flexion in test subjects who took boswellia. Unlike some herbs, which may take weeks to be effective, boswellia works quickly: in one study, boswellia extract reduced pain and considerably improved knee-joint functions, in some cases providing relief even within seven days.
Inflammatory bowel disease
Because of its powerful anti-inflammatory effects, boswellia may be effective in treating inflammatory bowel diseases, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Studies also suggest boswellia can improve gastrointestinal health by maintaining immune activity in the lining of the digestive tract and offering antioxidant protection. In one study comparing boswellia extract with an anti-inflammatory prescription drug, the herb performed as well as the drug in managing Crohn’s disease. Another study found boswellia was effective in treating ulcerative colitis as well, and older studies show up to 82 percent of ulcerative colitis patients who took boswellia went into remission.
Frankincense, derived from boswellia, has traditionally been used to treat respiratory system ailments, including coughs, bronchitis, and breathing disorders; now, modern studies show boswellic acids in frankincense modulate the inflammatory process that drives asthma, and can dramatically improve asthma symptoms. In one study of patients with asthma, 70 percent of those who took 300 mg of boswellia three times daily showed significant improvement, including disappearance of physical symptoms and signs of asthma, such as difficulty in breathing and the number of attacks. In another study, asthma patients who took a combination of boswellia, curcumin, and licorice root showed a significant decline in levels of inflammatory compounds and markers of oxidative stress.
AKBA and other boswellic acids appear to act in several ways that can inhibit cancer growth. They may prevent changes to DNA, and studies show boswellic acids can induce apoptosis (cell death) of cancer cells. Other compounds called triterpenoids in various Boswellia species have demonstrated antitumor properties. A number of studies show boswellia can:
- Slow even aggressive tumor growth in breast cancer cells.
- Halt the spread of malignant leukemia and brain tumor cells.
- Suppress pancreatic cancer progression and metastasis.
- Inhibit prostate tumor growth.
- Stop cancer cell viability and induce bladder cancer cell death.
- Reduce cerebral edema in patients with brain tumors following radiotherapy.
You’ll find boswellia serrata extract in capsules, powders, and tinctures. Because preparations vary, look for standardized boswellia extracts that contain at least 37.5 percent boswellic acids (sometimes listed as boswellin). Some preparations contain as much as 65 percent boswellic acids. Though dosage recommendations vary, a typical dose is 300 mg, three times a day, or follow the directions on the package. Some experts say boswellia is safe for children at half the adult dosage. Check with your physician first, or if you’re pregnant or taking other medications.