Frankincense (Boswellia serrata)

Weihrauch (Boswellia serrata)
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Incense (Boswellia serrata)

Origins, tradition and composition

Incense, or olibanum, is the resin of the of the boswellia tree, which is used primarily for religious purposes, but now also increasingly for medical purposes once more. Boswellia (incense) was recognised centuries ago for its positive effects in the treatment of inflammatory disorders. In Ancient Egypt, incense was also called “fragrance of the gods” or “divine substance”. The boswellia tree belongs to the Burseraceae family. The stock plant is primarily found throughout India. African boswellia is native to Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, while the Arabian boswellia tree is found in South Arabia.

Boswellia serrata is a species of boswellia native to India. Most scientific investigations have been conducted using the incense resin from Boswellia serrata (Indian incense). Boswellia serrata is therefore regarded as the best-studied species of boswellia. The resin is obtained by making an incision into the bark of the trunk and thick branches of boswellia trees, causing a milky sap to emerge, which hardens to form gum resin. The resin contains essential oils (5–9 %), resin acid (15–16 %), ether-insoluble constituents(25–30 %), ether-soluble constituents (45– 55 %).

Facts & figures

  • Various clinical studies have shown efficacy in Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis
  • Effective for rheumatoid arthritis and asthma
  • Treatment of peritumoural cerebral oedema
  • Anti-inflammatory activity through inhibition of 5-lipoxigenase (5-LO) and of the NF-kB signalling pathway
  • Anti-tumoural effect through triggering of apoptosis and inhibition of topoisomerases.
  • The substances of beta-boswellia acids (KBA + AKBA) determine the effectiveness of incense.
  • There are differences in the composition of boswellia acids between African and Indian boswellia extracts with regard to concentrations of KBA and AKBA.
  • Poor oral bioavailability of KBA and AKBA, as only low plasma concentrations of 0.3 micromoles of KBA and 0.10 micromoles of AKBA are detectable in the steady state when 1,600 mg of Boswellia serrata extract is taken orally.
  • Already documented in the Supplement to the German Pharmacopoeia No. 6 (DAB 6/1953). “Indian incense” monograph also in the German Pharmacological Code (DAC 2005). "Indian frankincense" monograph defined in the European Pharmacopoeia 5, Supplementary Volume 7 (PH.EUR.5.7), and thus therapeutically useful for medical purposes.
  • Orphan drug status granted by the EMEA in 2002.