Frankincense: Why the anti-inflammatory effect is so exceptional

Frankincense: Why the anti-inflammatory effect is so exceptional

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Frankincense for the treatment of asthma, arthritis and neurodermatitis

Frankincense has long been known as a natural remedy. It is said to alleviate numerous ailments that occur in inflammatory diseases such as asthma, arthritis and neurodermatitis. A German-American research team has now elucidated the mechanism by which the resin of the frankincense tree inhibits inflammation.

Researchers from the University of Jena and Louisiana State University (USA) have deciphered the molecular mechanism of the anti-inflammatory effect of frankincense resin. The enzyme 5-lipoxygenase acts in the body as a promoter of inflammation. Incense is used to reprogram the enzyme so that it has an anti-inflammatory effect. The research results were recently presented in the renowned journal "Nature Chemical Biology".

Frankincense - a plant with tradition

Frankincense is the resin of the Boswellia frankincense tree. For several thousand years, this resin has been used as a medicinal plant in the Indian art of Ayurveda or in traditional African medicine. In this country, incense is best known for its Christian rites, since tradition has it that the resin was one of the gifts that were given to the baby Jesus.

"Frankincense is still a valuable gift today," reports research director Professor Dr. Oliver Werz. The resin obtained from the trunk of the frankincense tree contains anti-inflammatory substances that make it suitable for the treatment of diseases such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis or neurodermatitis, according to the pharmacist.

Boswellic acid inhibits inflammation

Even though the effects of frankincense have long been known, it has so far been unclear why the resin has a healing effect. This riddle has now been solved in the current study. In the frankincense resin is the so-called boswellic acid, which is responsible for the anti-inflammatory effect.

Inflammatory enzyme under the magnifying glass

More specifically, the acid in the body acts on the 5-lipoxygenase enzyme. "It has been known for more than 40 years that this enzyme promotes the formation of leukotrienes, an important group of inflammatory messengers in the human body," explains Werz. In the first step of the research work, the researchers mapped the crystal structure of the inflammatory messenger for the first time.

The now known structure of the enzyme enabled the researchers to understand the interactions with various substances. The team tested several active ingredients that are known for their anti-inflammatory effects, such as the anti-inflammatory drug Zileuton, which is used to treat asthma.

Frankincense has an extraordinary effect

Most of the substances tested work by docking directly to the active center of the enzyme, thereby inhibiting its function. However, the boswellic acid from the frankincense binds to another part of the enzyme, which is far away from the active center. "However, this binding leads to structural changes in the active center, which also inhibits enzyme activity," explains Werz.

Boswellic acid reprograms the 5-lipoxygenase enzyme

But the effect goes beyond inhibition. The structural changes triggered by frankincense change the way the enzyme works, which means that it fights inflammation instead of promoting it. "The binding creates a domino effect, which also changes the specificity of the enzyme," adds Dr. Jana Gerstmeier from the study team.

As a result of the restructuring, the enzyme produces substances that dissolve inflammation instead of leukotrienes, which promote inflammation. “In simple terms, this means that the incense ingredient programs the inflammatory enzyme into an inflammation-resolving enzyme,” summarizes Gerstmeier.

Numerous areas of application open up

The research work is thus decoding a new type of anti-inflammatory mechanism. On the one hand, boswellic acid from frankincense can now be specifically tested for the treatment of various diseases. On the other hand, future studies can be used to test whether other substances can also bind to the newly discovered binding site of the enzyme 5-lipoxygenase. (vb)

You can find detailed information about the resin of the frankincense tree in the article: Frankincense - History, application and effects of the natural remedy.

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • Nathaniel C. Gilbert, Jana Gerstmeier, Erin E. Schexnaydre, u.a .: Structural and mechanistic insights into 5-lipoxygenase inhibition by natural products; in: Nature Chemical Biology, 2020,
  • University of Jena: Frankincense re-programs inflammation enzyme (published: 11.05.2020),

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