Boswellia Serrata: A Natural Pain Killer More Powerful than Ibuprofen
As the story goes, three wise men brought gifts from their homeland to present to a newborn child that was to be king (I am talking about Jesus here folks). The gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The gold makes sense. It would have been highly revered (heck, it still is!) and seen as an enormous gift fit for a king. Similarly, at that time, myrrh was a rare, highly prized perfume and incense that was thought to be equal in value to gold.
But the last one, the frankincense, is where it REALLY gets interesting… Not only was it dangerous to harvest, due to the poisonous snakes that often lived in the branches of the trees it was harvested from, but its healing properties helped to improve everything from pain and infection to cancer and depression.
In fact, there is ample evidence to show that it’s just as effective, if not more effective, than the dangerous NSAIDs at reducing pain and inflammation. And a body of research has emerged that shows it can help with the battle against arthritis, cancer and even diabetes.
Those are some pretty bold claims, so let’s take a closer look to separate fact from trumped-up fiction.
Boswellia itself is actually the genus name for several trees, all of which are renowned for their fragrant and medicinal resins. There are 16 species of Boswellia, including Boswellia sacra (frankincense), Boswellia carterii (or Boswellia carteri), and Boswellia serrata.
Boswellia serrata in particular has been widely studied for its medicinal benefits. Its claim to fame lies in its anti-inflammatory benefits. In fact, Boswellia serrata is so effective at reducing inflammation that it has even been deemed a promising alternative to prescriptive inflammation fighters such as NSAIDs.1
Due to these inflammation-busting properties, many claim that Boswellia serrata is an effective treatment for a wide variety of inflammation-related conditions, including osteoarthritis, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
But, as we know, claims and facts are two different things. So let’s head to the research.
Boswellia and Arthritis…
One of the best-studied areas of Boswellia serrata is with osteoarthritis. And, time and again, the research does bear out the incredible benefits of this humble herb.
In one double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study (i.e. gold standard),2 Indian researchers divided 60 participants with osteoarthritis in the knees into two groups. The first group received 100 mg of Aflapin®, a Boswellia serrata extract. The second group received a placebo.
After 30 days, researchers found that those taking the Aflapin® had both clinically and statistically significant improvements in pain and physical function. Best of all, it worked within five days!
A similar study also looked at patients with osteoarthritis of the knee. In this double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized, crossover study, researchers divided 30 participants into two groups.3 One group received Boswellia serrata extract for eight weeks while the other received a placebo. The groups then had a “washout” period, then switched groups. The placebo group took the Boswellia for eight weeks while the original Boswellia group took a placebo.
Researchers found that when the participants took the Boswellia serrata, they enjoyed less knee pain, improved movement, could walk farther for longer, and had less incidence of swelling. Additionally, there were very few side effects, only minor gastrointestinal upset in a handful of participants.
Lastly, in yet another double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study,4 researchers divided 75 participants into three groups. The first group received 100 mg of 5-Loxin (a trademarked Boswellia serrata extract) for 90 days. The second group received 250 mg of 5-Loxin, and the third group received a placebo.
At the end of the 90 days, researchers found that both dosages of the 5-Loxin conferred clinical as well as statistically significant improvements in pain and physical function. The main difference was that those taking the 250 mg dosage felt relief within seven days.
Researchers also found that those taking the Boswellia (at either dosage) had a reduction in matrix metalloproteinase-3. Wait, what? This is good news, as this compound breaks down connective tissues, including collagen. By reducing it, you reduce pain and improve knee function.
Clearly, when it comes to osteoarthritis, Boswellia serrata not only works, but is highly effective, safe, and tolerable. But what about those other claims?
Boswellia and Inflammation…
Given Boswellia’s effectiveness in easing arthritis pain, researchers wondered how effective it would be at treating other inflammation-related conditions, namely edema (swelling) and Crohn’s disease.
To test its effects on edema, German researchers performed a double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study with 44 patients, all of whom had either primary or secondary brain cancer accompanied by swelling of the brain.5
Patients were divided into two groups. The first received 4,200 mg of Boswellia serrata extract a day in conjunction with radiotherapy. The second group received the radiotherapy and a placebo.
At the end of the study period, researchers found that 60 percent of those taking the Boswellia enjoyed more than 75 percent reduction in brain swelling, as compared to just 26 percent in the placebo group. Additionally, only six people from the Boswellia group had minor GI discomfort as a result of taking the herb.
When it comes to Crohn’s disease, German researchers found that Boswellia serrata’s benefits are not as clear cut. In this double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study, researchers scoured 22 German health centers for Crohn’s patients who were in remission.6
They found 82 patients, whom they divided into two groups. The first received three capsules of Boswellia serrata twice a day. The second received a placebo. The goal was to see the number of patients in each group who maintained remission during the study period.
The study was slated to run for 52 weeks but ended early, in large part because there was little distinction early on between the Boswellia group and placebo. In fact, 60 percent of the Boswellia group stayed in remission as compared to 55 percent in the placebo group.
In addition to the slight difference in remission rates, participants’ responses to the Crohn’s Disease Activity Index and the IBD Questionnaire yielded no advantages between the two groups. Given this, researchers concluded, “Superiority [of Boswellia serrata] versus placebo in maintenance therapy of remission could not be demonstrated.”
One thing that sticks out about this study was that it was performed on patients in remission. It would be interesting to see how well (or not) Boswellia would do on people with active Crohn’s.
Boswellia and Disease…
As inflammation becomes more and more associated with nearly every disease plaguing Americans, it’s no wonder that researchers question the use of Boswellia’s effectiveness in treating disorders like diabetes and cancer. Because research is fairly new in this area, much of it is animal research.
For example, researchers wondered if Boswellia serrata could be effective in treating type-1 diabetes.7 Unlike type-2 diabetes, type 1 is an autoimmune disease where chronic inflammation causes beta-cell death and insulin deficiency.
Researchers induced a type-1 diabetic condition in mice. They then treated the mice with 150 mg/kg of Boswellia serrata extract for 10 days. They found that the Boswellia helped prevent an increase in blood glucose levels while also blocking destruction of pancreatic cells. (This is critical, as the pancreas secretes insulin.) Boswellia also blocked increases in a number of inflammation markers, including:
- Tumor necrosis factor alpha
Researchers concluded that Boswellia not only prevented hyperglycemia, but also reduced inflammation in the animal model of type-1 diabetes. This is very exciting, as type-1 diabetes continues to baffle many scientists and leaves patients highly dependent upon insulin. It will be exciting to see what the future holds in this line of research.
And speaking of exciting, the research on Boswellia and cancer seems to be quite promising. In one mouse study from the renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX, researchers tested the effects of Boswellia serrata on human colorectal cancer.8
They found that mice given Boswellia extract orally (in 50 to 200 mg/kg dosages) inhibited the growth of human colorectal cancer. Better yet, it also reduced metastases to the lung, liver, and spleen.
The Boswellia extract also significantly suppressed several carcinogenic biomarkers, including:
- Nuclear factor-KB activation in the tumor tissue,
- Pro-inflammatory COX-2 enzyme,
- Inhibition of cell death,
- Vascular endothelial growth factor, and
- Angiogenic receptor 4.
In a nutshell, suppressing these biomarkers indicates a reduction in inflammation as well as limiting if not stopping the spread of cancer. Clearly good things all around. So good in fact that the researchers concluded that this boswellic acid can “inhibit the growth and metastasis of human [colorectal cancer] in vivo [in the lab].”
This is fantastic news in the war against cancer. A natural treatment that is safe AND effective.
An Herb Fit for a King…
Given this incredible research base, it is clear that the men were wise indeed to include Boswellia in their trio of gifts. Its anti-inflammatory effects appear to be nearly incontrovertible. Best of all, the only Boswellia side effects noted in just a handful of people were limited to mild GI discomfort.
If you are interested in trying Boswellia serrata to ease arthritis pain or reduce swelling or inflammation, the most commonly recommended Boswellia dosage is 1,200–1,500 mg two to three times a day. Just be sure the product is standardized to 60–65 percent boswellic acids.
Also, be sure the product you choose is free of preservatives, fillers, binders, excipients, flow agents, shellacs, coloring agents, gluten, yeast, lactose, and other allergens. Ideally you’ll also be able to find independent analysis done by a third party to verify the active ingredients and identify any contaminants.
And, as always, remember that NO supplement is a magic pill. The key to keeping inflammation at bay is to also avoid inflammatory foods and beverages such as caffeine, sugar, and processed foods. Also be sure to drink clean, filtered water and work to keep stress at bay as much as possible.
In short, treat your body like the king (or queen) you are.
Remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework… and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1Abdel-Tawab, M et al. Boswellia serrata: an overall assessment of in vitro, preclinical, pharmacokinetic and clinical data. Clin Pharmacokinet. 2011 Jun 1;50(6):349-69.
2Vishal, AA et al. A double blind, randomized, placebo controlled clinical study evaluates the early efficacy of aflapin in subjects with osteoarthritis of the knee. Int J Med Sci. 2011;8(7):615-22.
3Kimmatkar, N et al. Efficacy and tolerability of Boswellia serrata extract in treatment of osteoarthritis of knee – a randomized double blind placebo controlled trial. Phytomedicine. 2003 Jan;10(1):3-7.
4Sengupta, K et al. A double blind, randomized, placebo controlled study of the efficacy and safety of 5-Loxin for treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee. Arthritis Res Ther. 2008;10(4):R85.
5Kirste, S et al. Boswellia serrata acts on cerebral edema in patients irradiated for brain tumors: a prospective, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind pilot trial. Cancer. 2011 Aug 15;117(16):3788-95.
6Holtmeier, W et al. Randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial of Boswellia serrata in maintaining remission of Crohn’s disease: a good safety profile but lack of efficacy. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2011 Feb;17(2):573-82.
7Shehata, AM et al. Prevention of multiple low-dose streptozotocin (MLD-STZ) diabetes in mice by an extract from gum resin of Boswellia serrata (BE). Phytomedicine. 2011 Sep 15;18(12):1037-44.
8Yadav, VR et al. Boswellic acid inhibits growth and metastasis of human colorectal cancer in orthotopic mouse model by downregulating inflammatory, proliferative, invasive and angiogenic biomarkers. Int J Cancer. 2011 Jun 23.
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