What exactly is boswellia serrata?
Boswellia, also known as Indian Frankincense, is the extract obtained from the Boswellia Serrata tree. Boswellia serrata is a plant that is native to South East Asian countries particularly India and Pakistan, Middle East and Northern parts of Africa. In Sinsikrat, its extracts are known as shallaki. It belongs to the family Burseraceae.
The extracts of this plant have been used in traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine since ages, mainly for the treatment of Arthritis. Its more recent applications include the topical use of its extracts as an anti-wrinkle formulation. The resins obtained from the trunk of Boswellia contain 30-60% resin, 5-10% essential oils and the rest is made up of polysaccharides (Siddiqui, M. Z.; 2011). The medicinal uses of the drug prepared from Boswellia extracts are numerous.
The resins are composed of monoterpenes, diterpenes, triterpenes, pentacyclic triterpenic acids (particularly Boswellic Acid) and tetracyclic triterpenic acids.
How does it work?
The active component of the extracts of Boswellia serrata is Boswellic acid. Boswellia works by blocking the infiltration of leukocytes into their target sites, thus preventing the symptoms of inflammation. It also causes the inhibition of pro-inflammatory enzymes, especially 5-lipooxygenase including 5-hydroxyeicosatetraenoic acid (5-HETE) and leukotriene B4.
This function is most potently performed by the Boswellic Acid. Another mechanism by which these extracts work is by decreasing the synthesis of primary antibodies. It also inhibits the classical pathway of the complement cascade. They also cause a decrease in the glycosaminoglycan degradation.
Another research (Gayathri et al.; 2007) reported that Boswellia serrata extract exhibits anti-inflammatory effect of the human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) and mouse macrophages via inhibition of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta), NO and mitogen activated protein (MAP) kinases.
This function is also proposed to be the basis of its anti-cancer properties. Other mechanisms through which Boswellia Serrata extracts exert their anti-cancer effects include induction of apoptosis in the cancerous cells, inhibition of angiogenesis and destruction of the invasive property of the malignant cells.
Boswellia extracts are usually available in the form of tablets, capsules or topical formulations. Usually it is taken for 8-12 weeks. The topical cream form can be used as long as required.
Uses of Boswellia serrata tamjan extracts
In modern medicine, Boswellia extracts are used for their anti-cancer effects. They are useful for inhibiting the growth of a large variety of cancers including pancreatic cancer, colorectal cancer, prostatic cancer, glioma, leukemia, breast cancer etc. Boswellia is also used as a remedial measure for the side effects associated with cancer treatment like nausea, anorexia etc. (Aggarwal et al.; 2006).
Its extracts are known to induce toxicity in the rapidly proliferating cancer cells (Bhushan, Shashi, et al., 2012). Its effects on the cancer cells equal those of the cancer chemotherapeutic agents called topoisomerase inhibitors. By reducing the level of elastase released by the leukocytes, Boswellia is also known to inhibit the induction of metaplasia that is responsible for carcinogenesis.
Another research established the role of Boswellia in causing cell growth suppression, apoptosis and cell cycle arrest in clinical trials held on the patients of transitional cell carcinoma of the bladder (Frank, Mark B., et al.; 2009). Plenty of evidence exists to establish the efficacy of Boswellia serrata extracts in curing cancers.
The historical accounts have plenty of evidence about the beneficial role of Boswellia extracts in treating different forms of arthritis particularly osteoarthritis (OA). Among the list of Boswellic acids is acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid (AKBA) which is widely known for the treatment of OA. These effects are due to its anti-inflammatory properties which arise from its ability to strongly inhibit the tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), a potent mediator of inflammation.
In a randomized double blind trial, 30 patients suffering from OA of the knee were subjected to intervention. 15 of these patients received active drug while the other half were given the placebo for 8 weeks. All of the patients who received the active drug reported a significant reduction in the amount of pain, increased range of motion and increased walking distance (Kimmatkar, N., et al.; 2003).
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
Boswellia helps in reduction of joint pain and swelling associated with rheumatoid arthritis. A special extract of boswellia called H15 has been found useful in treating RA. When its effects were measured against the placebo, it was found to be better than the placebo in terms of ESR, joint stiffness, tolerance and other criteria (Etzel, R.; 1996).
It is also used for treatment of asthma, cough and bronchitis. By inhibiting the formation of Leukotrienes in the body, Boswellia stops bronchoconstriction which relieves the cough that is symptomatic of Asthma. In a double-blind study, 20 out of 40 patients received active drug while the others were placed on placebo for 6 weeks at the end of which, those being given the active drug recounted a marked decrease in the symptoms (Gupta, I., et al.; 1998).
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Boswellia is an effective remedy for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It has been proved to prevent recurrence of the symptoms in patients of Crohn’s disease (Holtmeier, Wolfgang, et al.; 2011).
Its extracts are also used for the treatment of brain edema that develops as a result of radiotherapy for brain cancer treatment. In a randomized, double-blind, pilot trial, there was reported a 60% decrease in cerebral edema in patients receiving Boswellia compared to a mere 26% in those receiving the placebo drug (Kirste, Simon, et al. 2011). This study further went on to establish that Boswellia can be an extremely safe alternative to steroids in patients receiving radiotherapy for brain tumors.
It is also used in the traditional Ayurvedic medicine as a remedy for fever, ringworm infestation, diarrhea, boils, hair loss, jaundice, syphilis, hemorrhoids, dysentery and menstrual abnormalities in women (Siddiqui, M. Z.; 2011).
Side effects of boswellia serrata extract
Since Boswellia increases the flow of blood and has the ability to induce menstruation, it acts as an abortificant and must be avoided at all costs by the pregnant women.
Other minor, reversible side effects of Boswellia include nausea, diarrhea, skin rashes, acid reflux, heart burn etc.
When used with certain drugs like NSAIDs, ibuprofen, aspirin etc., Boswellia serrata extracts may cause drug interactions.
The benefits of Boswellia serrata extracts are too many to be enumerated. Except for its use during pregnancy, it has been rendered completely safe for use. Self-medication should, however, be avoided and it must be used only after proper consultation with a doctor.