My wife and I recently returned from a trip to India. One of the travelers that we met in New Delhi asked me about boswellia as a treatment for arthritis.
What is boswellia? The herb boswellia (Boswellia serrata) is commonly referred to as Indian Frankincense. It is a plant extract that has been used in India, China, and the Middle East for thousands of years to treat a host of ailments including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
What have doctors today learned about boswellia?
Laboratory studies have shown that boswellia does have anti-inflammatory effects on the body. Specifically, Boswellia serrata blocks the pro-inflammatory 5-lipoxygenase enzyme. Because of this anti-inflammatory action, some researchers have begun to study whether boswellia may be used effectively to treat osteoarthritis. In 2004, researchers in India published a study that looked precisely at this question1 (Kimmatkar N et al. Phytomedicine. 10(1): 3-7, 2003). They identified 30 patients with knee osteoarthritis. Half of these patients were given Boswellia serrata extract and the other half was given a placebo sugar pill. The researchers found that the patients who were given the boswellia had significantly less pain and swelling and they had increased walking tolerance compared to the patients who were given the placebo sugar pill.
These results appear promising, however, before getting ahead of ourselves, we need to understand that the sample size (number of people enrolled in this study) was very small. Further, this is the only reported study of Boswellia serrata for knee osteoarthritis. Clearly, more studies evaluating the efficacy and safety of Boswellia serrata for the treatment of osteoarthritis are greatly needed.
Should you take boswellia?
Only your doctor can tell you if boswellia may be right for you. While Boswellia serrata appears to be generally well tolerated, its safety is not well studied and long-term effects on the body are unknown. If you and your doctor decide that this supplement might be appropriate for you to try, ask your doctor to monitor your kidney and liver function while taking it. Also make sure your doctor is aware of all the medications and supplements that you are taking because this supplement may interact with those medications and supplements as well. As with other supplements, if you decide to purchase this one, make sure that you buy only from a reputable company. If you are pregnant, considering becoming pregnant, breast-feeding, or under the age of 18, you should not take this supplement.
It would be unrealistic to take Boswellia serrata supplement as a sole treatment for osteoarthritis. If you and your doctor decide you should try Boswellia serrata, I would encourage you to think of it as one part of a more comprehensive approach to your arthritis, which should include appropriate diet and exercises. Also, other supplements, including glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate have larger bodies of research supporting their usage for knee osteoarthritis. Talk to your doctor about these supplements as well.