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Boswellia: Good For Joints

Even people who are in good physical condition can suffer joint pain, and many adults wind up with osteoarthritis. Often, these people use over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatory drugs. But there is an alternative, called boswellia.

Boswellia refers to the resin of various species of Boswellia, which are shrubs and small trees native to the Red Sea region, northeastern Africa,  and the mountains of central India.  The gummy resin of the boswellia tree has a long history of internal use in Indian herbal medicine as a treatment for arthritis, bursitis, nervous diseases, urinary disorders, and diarrhea. Externally the gum and its oil preparations are used for ulcerations and sores.

The aromatic resin from boswellia, frankincense, was once highly prized from Rome to India, and considered essential for a host of uses ranging from religious to cosmetic to medicinal.  Ancient caravan routes, including the Silk Road, evolved to transport the priceless resins from areas where the trees grew, to the markets where kings and emperors vied for the finest grades.

Large scale exploitation of frankincense began in Oman approximately 8,000 years ago. Frankincense was used by the Egyptians for embalming, and for cosmetic purposes. In 1400 BC, Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt sent a plant-collecting expedition to the eastern coast of Africa. Among the botanical prizes garnered were 31 boswellia trees that were subsequently planted at the Temple Of Karnak along the Nile.

Medical investigations into boswellia show that the gum is beneficial in cases of arthritis, asthma, and ulcerative colitis. According to a review of unpublished studies, preliminary double-blind trials have found boswellia effective in relieving the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.  Two placebo-controlled studies, involving a total of 81 individuals with rheumatoid arthritis, reported significant  reductions in swelling and pain over the course of 3 months.

Boswellia gum is painstakingly collected by hand in India, Egypt and Somalia. At the beginning of April, collection begins by making incisions in the bark. The freshly exuded gum initially appears as a milky-white resin. This resin solidifies upon exposure to air, and turns into white to yellow crystals. Boswellia crystals are harvested about two weeks after the gum exudes from the cut bark, are cleaned by hand to remove debris, and are graded according to color and fragrance.

The means by which boswellia works is not fully understood. However, boswellia has been analyzed extensively, due to its traditional medicinal uses, and its use in perfumery and frangrances. Boswellia contains a broad range of phytochemicals in its gum, including a group called the boswellic acids, which are terpenes. These compounds possess anti-inflammatory propertries, which may possibly explain the contemporary and traditional anti-arthritic uses of boswellia.  Interestingly, boswellia also contains a number of anti-cancer compounds, though it is not used for cancer inhibition.

Usage Tips

Look for boswellia products standardized to specified levels on boswellic acids.

A typical dose of boswellia is 400 mg 3 times a day of an extract standardized to contain 37.5% boswellic acids.

July 2010