Frankincense is a fragrant resin harvested from the trunks of Boswellia trees. These trees grow natively in tropical regions of Asia as well as Africa. Like many other miraculous herbal medicines, Boswellia trees have become increasingly endangered.
Frankincense resin is used in aromatherapy, herbal medicine, and in religious and spiritual practices across the globe. Aside from the wonderful fragrance it produces, frankincense has also been used to promote oral health and hygiene, reduce inflammation of the gut, inhibit asthmatic attacks, and to alleviate symptoms of arthritis (A. Petre). The main medicinal components of frankincense consist of boswellic acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties in and on the body. One of the most promising and efficacious uses of frankincense comes in the form of treatment for IBDs (inflammatory bowel diseases).
Extracts of frankincense, particularly Boswellia serrata, have been used in several studies to evaluate its usefulness in treating gastrointestinal diseases such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome. In such studies, frankincense extracts have shown great promise as medicine for inflammatory bowel diseases, often meeting or surpassing current allopathic medicines and standards.
In 2001, a study found Boswellia serrata extract to be potentially superior to mesalazine, a commonly prescribed anti-inflammatory drug used to treat Crohn’s Disease. Scientists wrote that, “considering both safety and efficacy of Boswellia serrata extract H15 it appears to be superior over mesalazine in terms of a benefit-risk-evaluation” (H. Gerhardt et al). In this study, scientists used the Crohn’s Disease Activity Index to determine that there was a 90% reduction in symptoms when this extract was used.
In 2018, a similar study was conducted to assess Boswellia serrata extract’s ability to treat irritable bowel syndrome. In this study, a group was assigned to take Boswellia serrata extract once a day. The control group was told to manage their symptoms with diet and were given hyoscine butylbromide (Buscopan®) or papaverine hydrochloride + 10 mg of Atropa belladonna extract to use as needed. The participants recorded the need for such “rescue” medications and medical intervention throughout the duration of the study. The scientists found that, “At follow-up, compared with the [control group] SM group, the Boswellia group showed lower mean score values for almost all self-ass[ess]ed IBS symptoms. A significantly lower need for rescue medications and consultations or medical evaluation/admissions was found in the Boswellia group compared with the SM group” (Antonella Riva, et al). This study showed that boswellia extract was an efficacious form of treatment for this disease.
In yet another study, scientists found that with a daily 4-week long trial of Boswellia serrata extract, participants with ulcerative colitis in the remission phase experienced less severe symptoms, needed fewer drugs, and had less frequent visits to medical personnel (L. Pellegrini et al).
While these studies scientifically show what herbalists have known to be true, they also put a target on the precious Boswellia trees that remain. Due to increased demand for use in medicine, cosmetics and perfume, and as a spiritual tool, these trees have been overharvested and unethically used up.
Protecting this species can include purchasing alternatives, opting for locally grown and/or harvested options where available, and buying frankincense and its extracts from ethical harvesters. Ethical harvesters protect the trees they harvest from by taking small amounts of bark from their trunks. They harvest responsibly and actively ensure the survival of this species by planting new trees in their native ranges. By spreading awareness of frankincense’s status as an endangered plant derivative and by purchasing from ethical harvesters, we can band together to promote more ethical harvesting practices, and continue to make use of its amazing medicine.
Gerhardt H, Seifert F, Buvari P, Vogelsang H, Repges R. Therapie des aktiven Morbus Crohn mit dem Boswellia-serrata-Extrakt H 15 [Therapy of active Crohn disease with Boswellia serrata extract H 15]. Z Gastroenterol. 2001 Jan;39(1):11-7. German. doi: 10.1055/s-2001-10708. PMID: 11215357.Retrieved March 25, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11215357/
Petre, A. (2023, February 23). 5 benefits and uses of frankincense – and 7 myths. Healthline. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/frankincense#-2.-May-improve-gut-function
Riva, A., Giacomelli, L., Togni, S., Franceschi, F., Eggenhoffner, R., Zuccarini, M. C., & Belcaro, G. (2019, March). Oral administration of a lecithin-based delivery form of Boswellic Acids (Casperome®) for the prevention of symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome: A randomized clinical study – Minerva Gastroenterologica E dietologica 2019 march;65(1):30-5. Oral administration of a lecithin-based delivery form of boswellic acids (Casperome®) for the prevention of symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome: a randomized clinical study – Minerva Gastroenterologica e Dietologica 2019 March;65(1):30-5 – Minerva Medica – Journals. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from https://www.minervamedica.it/en/journals/gastroenterology/article.php?cod=R08Y2019N01A0030
Pellegrini, L., Eggenhoffner, R., & Giacomelli, L. (2016, June 1). Managing ulcerative colitis in remission phase: usefulness of Casperome®, an innovative lecithin-based delivery system of Boswellia serrata extract. Europe PMC. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from https://europepmc.org/article/med/27383325