Researchers in Germany are taking a new look at an ancient incense prized for thousands of years for its aroma and medicinal value. Frankincense, which was carried by the Magi along with myrrh and gold to the baby Jesus according to the Bible, may be used to treat inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Chron’s disease, colitis, asthma, dermatitis, and even some cancers.
Professor Oliver Werz and his colleagues at Friedrich Schiller University Jena are analyzing the curative properties of frankincense, the milky white resin that comes from Boswellia trees. The resin has long been known to have anti-inflammatory properties, but until now researchers didn’t know how it worked
“The resin from the trunk of Boswellia trees contains anti-inflammatory substances,” explained Dr. Werz, who is chairman of Pharmaceutical and Medical Chemistry department. “Boswellic acids interact with several different proteins that are part of inflammatory reactions, but most of all with an enzyme which is responsible for the synthesis of prostaglandin E2.”
One of the mediators of the body’s immune system response, prostaglandin E2 plays an important role in the evolution of pain, process of inflammation, and in the development of fever.
“Boswellic acids block this enzyme efficiently and thereby reduce the inflammatory reaction,” says Werz, who believes frankincense resin could someday be used to treat inflammatory diseases. He says Boswellic acids may also have fewer side effects than some of the anti-inflammatory medications used today, such as indometacin and diclofenac, which can impact renal function and increase the potential for stomach ulcers.
“Boswellic acids exclusively occur in the resin of Boswellia trees and are very difficult to produce synthetically,” said Werz, who notes the trees are often used as firewood and are endangered in some areas. “Without sustained protection not only plant species are endangered, but at the same time medicine loses promising active ingredients,” he warned.
There are over 10 Boswellia tree species and most grow in harsh desert environments. The most common is the Boswellia serrata, which exists in central and northern India. Another species, the Boswellia papyrifera, can be found in Ethiopia, Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula. Its resin is ten times more potent than that of other Boswellia trees.
One study has already confirmed the medicinal value of frankincense. Boswellia serreta was used to treat osteoarthritis patients in a 90-day, double-blind, placebo controlled study. Within seven days, patients receiving the Boswellia serreta extract displayed significant improvement in their arthritic condition. In addition, no major side effects were seen. The study authors concluded that the extract was safe for long-term human use. In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, Boswellia serrata has also shown anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.