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Alternative names: Frankincense, boswllin, salai guggal, guggulu.
Origin: Red sea region, northeastern Africa, Yemen, Oman, Somalia, and mountains of central India.
What it is: Boswellia is the bacteriostatic resin from boswellia serrata trees.
Boswellia in History
The use of frankincense was first recorded in Sumeria around 2,500 BC. Frankincense, the aromatic resin from boswellia, was once highly prized for its medicinal, cosmetic, and religious uses. Egyptians used boswellia for embalming and for makeup. Kohl, a black eyeliner, was made from the charred remains of burnt boswellia. Large-scale trading of frankincense began nearly 8000 years ago in Oman and the Silk Road, along with other caravan routes, was used to transport this priceless commodity. In the Western world, the best known story of boswellia is perhaps religious. It is said that the Magi (the three wise men) who came to worship Christ in the manger brought with them to Bethlehem gold, myrrh, and frankincense as gifts to honor Christ.
Boswellia contains disinfectant phenols, and has been used by doctors in ancient times for a host of treatments. In China, it was (and still is) used for leprosy, cancer, gonorrhea, and carbuncles. In Medieval Europe, it was used for protection from the plague. Hindu physicians used it to treat patients for joint diseases (including arthritis), ulcerative colitis, respiratory diseases (including asthma), ringworm, diarrhea, and dysentery. Externally, the gum/oil preparation of boswellia was used for ulcers and sores. During the 1st century, Pliny the Elder used boswellia as an antidote to hemlock poisoning. During the 10th century, the Iranian physician Avicenna used it for tumors, vomiting, dysentery, and fevers. Today, the gum of the boswellia serrata tree has been shown to possess anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic, and analgesic properties.
How to Take Boswellia
How to take it/dose: Boswellia is best taken with foods/drinks containing fat to help with its absorption into the body. A standard product contains 37.5% boswellic acids (the active ingredient) and it is effective to take 400mg three times a day. Specially manufactured extracts should be taken, rather than crude preparations, because safety in crude preparations has not been studied. Boswellia should be taken for 8-12 weeks. Avoid taking it for longer than 12 weeks, as the effects of boswellia in long-term use are still being studied. There are topical cream formulations of boswellia on the market – rub a pea-sized amount into the area of pain every 4-6 hours for as long as needed. Always speak with your physician prior to taking any new supplement.
Side effects/drug interactions/cautions: Clinical trials using pharmaceutical grade standardized boswellia extract have shown no serious side effects. Very rarely, some people experience rashes, diarrhea, and nausea. There are no known drug interactions at this time, but there has been limited research into this. It has not yet been established if boswellia is safe to take during pregnancy and breast feeding. There are also no established safety guidelines for children and those with kidney or liver diseases. Always consult your doctor before taking boswellia, especially if you are pregnant or have a weak immune system.
A word of caution: Never ingest boswellia/frankincense essential oils, as they are highly toxic – the oils should be used in a diffuser for the sole purpose of scenting a room.
The Science Behind Boswellia For Arthritis
Although the exact mechanism of how boswellia works is not fully understood, studies have shown that the boswellic acids (terpenes) do possess anti-inflammatory properties. This is achieved by preventing the formation of leukotrienes which are involved in promoting the migration of inflammation-producing cells into affected areas.
NSAIDs, such as aspirin, only block the synthesis of prostaglandins (another mediator of inflammation) and do not interfere with leukotrienes. In addition, they can disrupt glycosaminoglycan synthesis and increase joints’ cartilage damage in arthritis.
Boswellic acids are non-redux inhibitors of 5-lipoxygenase, which is how they inhibit leukotriene B4 synthesis. This in turn means that less leukocytes/white blood cells (WBC) are recruited to the inflammatory site, which results in a decreased inflammatory response. It has been shown to significantly reduce the total WBC count in joint fluid, leading to faster healing. In contrast to NSAIDs, some studies have also indicated that boswellic acids prevent degradation of glycosaminoglycan, thus producing a protective effect on articular cartilage.
A randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled trail conducted by Kimmatkar, et al. provided positive results in the use of boswellia for the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee. In the study, all patients receiving boswellia reported a decrease in knee pain, increased knee flexion, increased range of motion, increased walking distance, improvement in climbing stairs, kneeling, squatting, and cross-legged sitting. Although there were no radiological changes, the reported frequency of knee swelling was also reduced.
Other Uses of Boswellia
Boswellia is also thought to have anti-cancer properties, and has been studied as an adjunct to standard care for malignant glioma brain tumors. One lab claims that boswellic acids can inhibit leukemia cell growth. These anti-cancer properties, however, have not been proven and cancer patients should not take boswellia without physician approval.
Boswellia is an anti-inflammatory, so it is thought to help in relief of inflammatory diseases. Some studies have shown that boswellia is effective in reducing the frequency of asthma attacks and in decreasing the severity of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (both are inflammatory bowel diseases).
Authors: Yukari Kawamoto, B.A., Creighton University School of Medicine, Omaha, NE
Aaron Levine, M.D., New York-Presbyterian
Hospital, The University Hospital of Columbia and Cornell, New York City, NY
Fin, Arthur Yin, et al. “Effects of an Acetone Extract of Boswellia carterii Bidw. (Burseraceae) Gum Resin on Rats with Persistent Inflammation.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11, 2, 2005. pg 323-331.
Kimmatkar, N. et al. “Efficacy and tolerability of Boswellia serrata extract in treatment of osteoarthritis of knee – A randomized double blind placebo controlled trial.” Phytomedicine 10; 3-7, 2003.
Sashwati, Roy, et al. “Human Genome Screen to Identify the Genetic Basis of the Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Boswellia in Microvascular Endothelial Cells.” DNA and Cell Biology 24, 4, 2005. p.g. 244-255.
Highet, Juliet. “End of a 5,000-year era?” The Middle East, December 2004. pg 62-63.
Roberts, David, et al. “On the frankincense trail.” Smithsonian, October 1998, 29, 7.
Tyler, Verro E. “Gifts of healing… from herbs of the season.” Prevention, December 1998, 50, 12.
“Check out boswellia.” Better Nutrition, July 2005. pg 10.