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Indian frankincense combines ancient spiritual associations with reducing inflammation in the body

Boswellia

Boswellia serrata Burseraceae

Boswellia is a source of incense, that has long traditions for use in inflammatory disease. Modern research shows it is also useful for modern long-term health problems.

  • How does it feel?

    Boswellia resin requires a high content of alcohol for extraction into liquid (ideally 90%). For this reason, it is more conveniently available as a tablet or capsule. If you can find either form and take a little in your mouth you will be struck by the powerful acrid, resinous and bitter tastes that linger uncomfortably. Above that there is a significant aromatic high note due to its content of essential oils which give boswellia its use as incense.

    Boswellia is clearly stimulating, and this can be felt in increased warming or circulation, and also as a mental stimulant. From what we now know about how key ingredients cross into the central nervous system we can better understand the ancient link between incense and its spiritual and psychological applications.

  • What can I use it for?

    Consider boswellia as a natural alternative to anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen. It can be tried for long term inflammatory joint problems like osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis, especially when any pain is relieved by heat. There is a long tradition in India of combining boswellia with turmeric for this purpose.

    There are both traditional reputations and modern research to consider using it in chronic lung problems, especially if there are asthmatic elements.

    The ability of this plant when externally applied to exposed tissue to reduce inflammation and to aid granulation means that  it is useful for both pain and  inflammation for improved wound healing.

    There is new and so far little explored potential of boswellia in managing inflammation in the gut. An affect in reducing disturbances of gut flora (the microbiome) is also possible.

  • Into the heart of Boswellia

    Boswellia has the dual energetic reputation of being both heating and cooling. It heats by stimulating circulation and cools with its anti-inflammatory action.

    Boswellia resin contains triterpene constituents collectively known as ‘boswellic acid’. This fraction has anti-inflammatory properties that is quite distinct from conventional non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen. NSAIDs reduce enzymes called cyclo-oxygenases (COXs) that produce prostaglandins. However they leave unchanged an enzyme called 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX) that produces leukotrienes, which can damage the stomach wall (and induce asthma). Boswellic acid inhibits 5-LOX (not COX) and can therefore protect the gut wall from damage and also improve asthmatic like respiratory problems.

    There is a persistent traditional reputation for boswellia affecting the brain and central nervous functions. It has had a long-term connection with the spiritual realm and religious ceremony. It is also used in psychiatric and mental conditions.

    We now understand that unusually among anti-inflammatory remedies that some of its constituents can cross the ‘blood-brain barrier’ meaning it can access the brain. This puts boswellia into contention for a wide range of neurological and psychiatric conditions, depression, dementia, and even chronic fatigue, all linked by elements of ‘neuroinflammation’.

  • Traditional uses

    In traditional Indian medicine boswellia is used as a stimulant and expectorant (internal use) and an astringent and anti-inflammatory agent (topically).   It was used for pulmonary diseases, especially if chronic, rheumatic disorders, diarrhoea, dysentery, painful periods and liver disorders. It is also used for general weakness and to improve appetite.

    The plants essential oils are said to support the spiritual body and work where we would now place the pituitary and hypothalamus gland.

  • Traditional actions

    Traditional Western herbal actions are:

    • Anti-inflammatory
    • Antiarthritic
    • Antitumour
  • What practitioners say

    Inflammation: useful in inflammatory diseases, especially of the joints (osteo and rheumatoid arthritis), lungs (especially asthma), inflammatory bowel disease (eg Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis) and skin (eg psoriasis).

    Gut health: boswellia can be considered in long-term inflammation gut disease, like Crohns and ulcerative colitis or any other persistent low gut problem with inflammatory or dysbiosis elements.

    Pain: all types of pain, specifically arthritic or post trauma where there is inflammation and congestion. Energetically applied to cold and damp types of pain and swelling (ie. where the pain is relieved by heat).

    Women’s health: a traditional remedy in the treatment of fibroids, cysts, painful periods with clots and pain caused by congestion the uterus.

    Men’s health: a specific herb for impotence and sexual debility; it brings blood to the reproductive organs and therefore facilitates issues such as erectile dysfunction.

    External uses: used to hasten the healing of wounds, broken bones and bruises, especially it there is local inflammation.

  • Research

    From laboratory studies it appears that boswellic acid inhibits the inflammatory enzyme 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX) with little effect on cyclo-oxygenase (COX). COX enzymes produce inflammatory prostaglandins and are the main target of conventional non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen. 5- LOX generates leukotrienes. These are also potent inflammatory agents that particularly are involved in asthmatic problems, but perhaps even more significantly in damage to the gut wall. One reason conventional NSAIDS can damage the stomach is that they upset the COX/LOX balance and allow more leukotrienes to be produced (1). Boswellia’s mechanism of action is therefore quite distinct from NSAIDs and are not likely to have their complications.

    Other immunological and anti-inflammatory mechanisms have been identified, including the inhibition of NFkappaB activation and consequent down regulation of proinflammatory cytokines TNF-alpha and decrease of IL-1, IL-2, IL-4, IL-6 and IFN-gamma (2). There is additional evidence pointing to an intriguing possible role on another anti-inflammatory marker, cathepsin G, this demonstrated against placebo ex vivo, that is in blood taken after oral consumption (3).

    A double-blind trial on 48 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee with a boswellia extract or placebo for a period of 120 days, revealed that boswellia treatment significantly improved the physical function of the patients by reducing pain and stiffness compared with placebo. Radiographic assessments showed improved knee joint gap and reduced spurs. Boswellia also significantly reduced the serum levels of C-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker associated with osteoarthritis (4).

    Inflammatory mediators are strongly associated with ischaemic stroke. Unlike NSAIDs, boswellic acids cross the blood-brain barrier and there is a case for appropriate modulation of inflammatory pathways in aiding stroke recovery. A double-blind placebo-controlled pilot trial randomized 80 ischaemic stroke patients within 72 hours of onset of neurological signs, for a month follow-up. Patients who were allocated to the boswellia group had a significant recovery in neurological function during the 1-month follow-up, compared with the placebo. The levels of plasma inflammatory markers were significantly decreased after 7 days of intervention in TNF-α, IL-1β, IL-6, IL-8, and PGE2 (5).

    Patients irradiated for brain tumours often suffer from cerebral oedema and are usually treated with dexamethasone, which has various side effects. To investigate the activity of boswellia a prospective, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, pilot trial was conducted. Forty-four patients with primary or secondary malignant cerebral tumours were randomly assigned to radiotherapy plus either boswellia 4200 mg/day or placebo. Compared with baseline and measured immediately after the end of radiotherapy and treatment, a reduction of cerebral oedema of >75% as measured by MRI was found in 60% of patients receiving boswellia and in 26% of patients receiving placebo (6).

    Local effects in reducing inflammation has been supported in an uncontrolled clinical trial that showed boswellia can reduce the use of topical corticosteroids and is able to reduce skin rash and other superficial symptoms after radiation for breast cancer (7).

  • Did you know?

    Indian frankincense can grow up to 15 metres and is a popular avenue tree in Indian cities.

Additional information

  • Safety

    Boswellia (frankincense) essential oil may be safe to use in pregnancy after the first trimester. However, it is advised to consult with a medical herbalist before taking boswellia using internal preparations during pregnancy or lactation.

  • Interactions

    None known

  • Contraindications

    None known

  • Preparation

    • Resin
    • Capsule
    • Tincture
  • Dosage

    Tincture (1:5 90%): Take between 1-5ml twice daily

    2.5-5 grams of powdered resin per day

  • Plant parts used

    • Resin
    • Frankincense oil is prepared from aromatic hardened gum resins obtained by tapping boswellia trees
  • Constituents

    • Oleo-gum resin including pentacyclic triterpene (boswellic) acids and tetracyclic triterpene acids (including tirucallic acid).
    • Essential oil including alpha-thujene, pinene, dipentene and other monoterpenes, as well as sesquiterpenes
    • Terpenols, uronic acids and sterols
  • Traditional energetics

    • Rasa (taste) Bitter, pungent, astringent, sweet.
    • Virya (action) Heating and cooling.
    • Vipaka (post-digestive effect) Pungent.
    • Guna (quality) Dry, light, penetrating.
    • Dosha effect balances vatapitta and kapha, in excess may aggravate either pitta or vata.
    • Dhatu (tissue) Plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone, nerve, reproductive.
    • Srota (channel) Circulatory, nervous, reproductive.
  • Habitat

    Boswellia prefers hot and dry conditions, on the exposed slopes and ridges of rocky hills. Sometimes it is also found with other plants in open forests. It is native to central and certain peninsular of India, Northern Africa and Middle East.

  • Sustainability

    In the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species Boswellia is classified as ‘near threatened’. Additionally, B. serrata is listed as Critically Endangered – Possibly Extinct (CEPE) on the National Red List of Sri Lanka.

  • Quality control

    Herbal Medicines are often extremely safe to take, however it is important to buy herbal medicines from a reputed supplier. Sometimes herbs bought from unreputable sources are contaminated, adulterated or substituted with incorrect plant matter.

    Some important markers for quality to look for would be to look for certified organic labelling, ensuring that the correct scientific/botanical name is used and that suppliers can provide information about the source of ingredients used in the product.

    A supplier should be able to tell you where the herbs have come from. There is more space for contamination and adulteration when the supply chain is unknown.

  • How to grow

    Boswellia requires hot and dry conditions and cannot withstand frost. Seeds and plants are rare and expensive to buy, even on the internet, but the plant grows well from cuttings. If one should be able to obtain a plant or cutting, the best chance will be to grow indoors.

    • Obtain stem or root cuttings from an existing Boswellia plant. Observe for sprouts coming from roots at the base of the plant and carefully detach those roots from the plant, these are the samples that will grow most successfully. Otherwise, measure 6 to 8 inches from the tip of a healthy stem and make a diagonal cut for a stem cutting.
    • Plant rooted cuttings at the same height as they were in the original pot into pots filled with pure pumice. Plant stem cuttings about one-third of their lengths into the soil. Press down firmly around the plant for extra support.
    • Place the planted cuttings indoors in a warm area with filtered light. Water directly after planting. Keep the cuttings just moist enough so that they do not dry out.
    • Move the boswellia cuttings to full sun when they start to grow on their own. They grow best in temperatures around 80 degrees. F. Boswellia is a slow grower, especially if it resides in cooler weather. If grown outdoors, the seedling can withstand temperatures down to 40 degrees.
    • Water sparingly during the growing season, only enough to prevent the plant from drying out completely. Watering once a week will keep the plant healthy in most cases. Do not water during the dormant season in winter.
  • Recipe

    Joint protector tea

    It’s almost an inevitable human condition that we will suffer from some sort of joint pain as we get older. All that wear-and-tear through our life can catch up with us but we have a herbal tea recipe that will help keep the red-hot inflammation of arthritis and gout at bay.

    Ingredients:

    • Turmeric root powder 3g
    • Boswellia resin 2g
    • Ginger root powder 2g
    • Celery seed 2g
    • Ashwagandha root 1g
    • Licorice root 1g
    • Meadowsweet leaf 1g
    • Honey to taste

    This will serve 2–3 cups of ache-free tea.

    Method:

    • Put all of the ingredients (except for the meadowsweet leaf and honey) in a saucepan with 600ml (21fl oz) cold filtered water. Cover with a lid and simmer for 15 minutes.
    • Take off the heat and add the meadowsweet leaf.
    • Leave to steep for 10 minutes, strain and add some honey to taste.

    Recipe from Cleanse, Nurture, Restore by Sebastian Pole

  • References

    1. Martel-Pelletier J, Lajeunesse D, Reboul P, et al (2003) Therapeutic role of dual inhibitors of 5-LOX and COX, selective and non-selective non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases 62: 501-509
    2. Ammon HP. (2010) Modulation of the immune system by Boswellia serrata extracts and boswellic acids. Phytomedicine.17(11):862-867
    3. Tausch L, Henkel A, Siemoneit U, et al. (2009) Identification of human cathepsin G as a functional target of boswellic acids from the anti-inflammatory remedy frankincense. J Immunol. 183(5): 3433-3442
    4. Majeed M, Majeed S, Narayanan NK, Nagabhushanam K. (2019) A pilot, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to assess the safety and efficacy of a novel Boswellia
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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