Boswellia, a Versatile Herb for Arthritis, Colitis and Cancer

Boswellia serrata is a tree found in the Middle East that produces a sap, or resin, used medicinally for thousands of years. Boswellia resin is also called Indian frankincense, similar to the frankincense we know from Biblical stories. The dried and powdered resin is often recommended by practitioners of Ayurveda, or traditional Indian medicine, for relief of inflammatory conditions such as asthma, rheumatism, arthritis and intestinal problems such as colitis. Modern science has begun to examine the potential of boswellia for treating some of these disorders and for preventing or improving the outcome for several types of cancer.


Arthritis is a common condition among older Americans, caused by repeated joint injury or by years of wear and tear on the joints. Boswellia may help relieve the inflammation and resulting pain that accompanies arthritis. The biologically active component in boswellia is called boswellic acid. This compound is naturally anti-inflammatory, inhibiting an enzyme called 5-lipoxygenase that helps produce inflammatory molecules in your tissues. It also quiets immune cells called macrophages. These cells produce inflammatory molecules that start a cascade of events leading to painful changes in your joints if you suffer from arthritis. Several clinical trials have examined boswellia for treatment of arthritis. In one of these, published in 2008 in Arthritis Research and Therapy, arthritis patients who took boswellia had improvement of their symptoms compared to other patients who took a placebo.


Colitis is a gastrointestinal condition in which the intestines become inflamed, leading to abdominal pain and other symptoms such as frequent diarrhea. Boswellia is an herbal treatment that may help relieve some of these symptoms by suppressing inflammatory changes in the colon and rectum. A number of clinical studies have looked into possible use of boswellia for treating colitis. In one of these, published in the European Journal of Medical Research in 1997, treatment for 6 weeks with boswellia produced improvement in colitis patients similar to that seen in another group of patients who took a prescription, anti-colitis medication.


Cancer is actually a group of diseases, all characterized by the out-of-control growth of cells. Sometimes the problem is restricted to a single organ, but in other cases malignant cells spread beyond the original site to invade different parts of the body. In recent laboratory research, boswellic acid has effectively blocked growth of cancer cells. In one of these, published in 2009 in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, boswellic acid stopped bladder cancer cells from dividing in culture while it left normal bladder cells unaffected. In Norway, a small clinical trial with boswellia was carried out in human subjects with brain cancer. These patients experienced some improvement in their symptoms after taking boswellia. However, the study lacked control subjects, so more studies are still needed on this promising alternative treatment for cancer.

How to Use Boswellia

Boswellia may be purchased from most health food stores as a supplement, in capsules or tablets. The usual dose is 300 mg, two to three times each day. Look for products containing a standardized amount of boswellic acid, usually 60% or greater. Boswellia has no serious side effects, although you might experience some nausea or bloating. Talk to your doctor before taking boswellia to be sure it’s a good choice for you.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center: Boswellia

“European Journal of Medical Research”; Effects of Boswellia Serrata Gum Resin in Patients with Ulcerative Colitis; I. Gupta et al.; 1997

Arthritis Research and Therapy”; A Double Blind, Randomized, Placebo Controlled Study of the Efficacy and Safety of ….; K. Sengupta, et al.; 2008

“BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine”; Frankincense Oil Derived from Boswellia carteri Induces Tumor Cell Specific Cytotoxicity; M. Frank et al.; 2009