The Indian frankincense tree may hold a key to relieving pain from arthritis and other conditions, and without undesirable side effects.
Inside the Boswellia serrata tree, which grows on dry hills throughout most of India, are phytochemicals called boswellic acids. Researchers believe that these acids control the production of leukotrienes, biochemicals in the body that maintain inflammation.
Boswellic acids differ from corticosteroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which affect different parts of the arachidonic acid cascade, a chain reaction that is largely responsible for pain and inflammation in our bodies. The cascade is like a tree trunk with several large branches, which in turn split into smaller branches. The trunk represents chemicals the body uses for a wide range of reactions, and the smaller branches represent more specific, localized bodily functions. A reaction can travel one of many pathways to the top of the tree.
Corticosteroid drugs, which often are prescribed for arthritic pain, treat severe inflammation. However, they aren’t designed for long-term use, because they interfere with the “tree” at the trunk level. Treating pain in this way is like chopping down a tree to get rid of a hornet’s nest high up in the branches—the pain is gone, but the side effects are costly. Also, corticosteroids are associated with suppression of the immune system.
NSAIDs (for example, aspirin, ibuprofen, indomethacin, and phenylbutazone) are used more often than steroids to treat chronic pain and inflammation. NSAIDs block action at one or more of the larger branches, which is preferable to steroids’ action, but NSAIDs may lose their effectiveness with long-term use and cause side effects such as intestinal bleeding and ulcers.
On the other hand, boswellic acids take more specific action higher up in the tree’s smaller branches, where they prevent or reduce leukotriene formation. This, in turn, slows the progression of inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, tendinitis, bursitis, and repetitive motion injuries. And boswellic acids haven’t produced any toxic or severe side effects.
When the bark of a B. serrata tree is cut, an aromatic balsam, or gum resin, oozes out; it is related to the fragrant frankincense brought by the wise men as a gift to baby Jesus. In Ayurvedic medicine, which has been practiced in India for thousands of years, B. serrata bark preparations are used to treat asthma, dysentery, skin diseases, and ulcers, and as a tonic and blood purifier. The tree’s gum is also taken to increase perspiration, to promote expulsion of mucus from the respiratory tract, and to help the digestive tract operate more smoothly. Ayurvedic practitioners also use gum preparations to treat rheumatism, coughing, bronchitis, and liver disease, and they prepare a gum ointment for boils, wounds, and sores.
Currently, the major B. serrata medicinal product, an ethanol extract from the gum resin, can be found in health-food stores. The product, called Boswellin, is a standardized extract of B. serrata containing 60 to 65 percent boswellic acids. According to researchers at the Sabinsa Corporation, which holds a patent on the product, Boswellinr has been shown in human studies to improve blood supply to the joints and prevent the breakdown of tissues affected by all types of arthritis.
In a 1991 double-blind, crossover study in India, a combination of boswellia, curcumin, ashwagandha, and zinc was given to forty-two osteoarthritis patients for three months. Treatment produced a significant drop in both severity of pain and disability. Although the results did not test boswellia alone, they were promising; all but three patients preferred the treatment over the placebo and reported no side effects.
In a 1987 clinical trial of 175 Indian rheumatoid arthritis patients aged five to seventy-five, 166 reported moderate to excellent improvement after three to four weeks of treatment with a standardized boswellia extract. The treatment effectively reduced pain, swollen joints, and morning stiffness; grip strength and physical performance also improved without any undesirable side effects.
Ammon, H. P. T., et al. “Mechanism of antiinflammatory actions of curcumine and boswellic acids.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 1993, 38:113.
Gupta, V. N., et al. “Chemistry and pharmacology of gum-resin of Boswellia serrata.” Indian Drugs 1997, 24: 221-231.
Kulkarni, R. R., et al. “Treatment of osteoarthritis with a herbomineral formula: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study.” Journal of Ethnopharmacolgy 1991, 33: 91.
Majeed, M., et al. Boswellin: The Anti-inflammatory Phytonutrient. Nutriscience Publishers: Piscataway, New Jersey, 1996.
C. Leigh Broadhurst holds a doctorate in geochemistry and is a nutrition consultant in Clovery, Maryland.
James Duke spent thirty years working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is a member of the Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board. His most recent book, The Green Pharmacy , (Rodale, 1997) was released last fall.