The origin of guggul is the commiphora wightii plant which grows on rocky, hilly areas and by rivers in areas of India and Pakistan. This is a small thorny tree which is usually leafless, whose most notable quality is the thick sticky resin which its branches produce when breached.
It is from this resin which guggul gum is extracted. Guggul farms use a process called tapping to repeatedly breach the plant and extract the gum en masse. Each guggul plant contains between 60 and 100 grams of sappy resin, designed to heal the injury like its own natural antiseptic. Either the pure guggul resin can be used for medicinal purposes or a standardised extract known as gugulipid can be created, which is high in the active medicinal components called guggulsterones Z and E.
Why has guggul been so beloved for so long? Indians believe that it can treat a ton of ailments – the word guggul translates into Sanskrit as “one that protects against diseases”.
Guggul was believed to mystically treat obesity without even altering your calorie intake. Guggul is believed to treat paralytic seizures, liver dysfunction, and tumours. Another booming area of the guggul gum industry is as an incense; local Indians believe that burning the raw gum over coal to create a thick dense smoke can drive evil spirits away from the household and remove the “evil eye” from nearby humans.
Superstition aside, there’s no doubt that guggul does have active medicinal properties as numerous active compounds have been identified already, including steroids called guggulsterones, muscanone and myrrhanones. Most famously, guggul is touted as a natural way to lower cholesterol levels, which it does by 11.7% according to one study, and that accounts for the vast majority of guggul gum sales in India and increasingly across the globe today…
…but the real reason we’re discussing this random sticky resin from Asia is some excellent studies on acne, studies which showed excellent results when analysing guggul gum’s effects on pimple counts directly.
Two excellent studies
Our first study on guggul gum was a simple comparison test between the standardised extract, gugulipid, and tetracycline, which is one of the most common oral antibiotics against acne (which I recommend that you avoid). The dosages were gugulipid featuring 25mg of the active compound guggulsterones and 500mg of tetracycline, a standard dose.
20 acne patients were gathered, divided into two groups, and ordered to take each supplement for 3 month, twice per day. As the scientists expected, tetracycline led to a 65.2% reduction in total pimples counts after 3 months. What they probably didn’t expect was that guggul gum was even better, with a 68% reduction.
Even better, 4 out of 10 patients taking the tetracycline experienced a relapse 3 months after the study, a result you would expect given that oral antibiotics massacre your acne-friendly gut bacteria (which is why they should be avoided) as well as the p.acnes bacteria in your skin pores. With guggul gum, on the other hand, only 2 patients relapsed after 3 months.
The scientists also observed that the acne patients with the oiliest skin experienced a far greater reduction in overall pimple counts. The scientists commented that both treatments “produced a progressive reduction in the lesions in the majority of patients”. The study was conducted in 1994, yet there has been very little research on guggul and acne since then.
What we have here is guggul gum, an obscure Asian herb, matching one of mainstream dermatology’s most widely used and prescribed treatments, and in fact, actually beating it. A 68% reduction would revolutionise your skin if your acne were severe; you would look like a completely new person. That would happen without crippling the quantity and diversity of acne-friendly gut bacteria.
Our other study also examined a gugulipid supplement, this time without a comparison. 30 patients with moderate to severe acne were prescribed gugulipid for 6 weeks. The results were as follows: an excellent response in nine (30%), a good response in fourteen (46.66%), and a moderate response in seven (23.33%).
In other words, 30 out of 30 patients experienced some benefit. Gugulipid had excellent tolerance and only 3 patients reported a relapse after 3 months of the treatment, which shows that the benefits were long lasting even if they probably wouldn’t be permanent (few acne supplements are).
The team of scientists commented that “gugulipid, a standardized drug of ancient Indian medicine, has a remarkable effect on acne vulgaris”, and made some other interesting observations. They theorised that the benefits of guggul gum were due to a systematic hypolipidic effect, or in other words, reducing sebum production due to a decrease in excess fats across the whole body.
They likely deduced this from guggul gum’s cholesterol lowering effect. Secondly, they commented that guggul may inhibit the lipolysis of triglycerides by acne bacteria, and eliminate the resulting inflammation. Regardless of the cause, this is another excellent study.
Does guggul gum reduce sebum production?
All in all, the two studies we have directly on guggul gum and acne are highly promising. The interesting thing, however, is that mainstream dermatology couldn’t care less. Despite the first study occurring 22 years ago, only one follow up has been conducted.
The result is that guggul gum is shrouded in mystery. We have no proof as to how it works these acne-clearing wonders, unlike saw palmetto for example, which we know slashes acne by inhibiting the production of the androgen DHT.
We are left with only indirect evidence and theories, the first of which was stated by the scientists in the study above – that guggul gum’s cholesterol reducing powers also translate into a sebum reducing effect.
There’s definitely plenty of evidence that guggul gum lowers cholesterol. It all started back in the 1960s when a group of Indian archaeologists read an ancient Sanskrit text describing the use of guggul gum to treat a hardening of the arteries. After a positive few studies on animals, the gugulipid form was granted approval in June 1986 for marketing as a lipid-lowering drug in India.
Since then more positive studies have come out; a 1994 study examined 61 patients with hypercholesterolemia, giving them either 50mg gugulipid or a placebo twice daily. After 24 weeks, the guggul group had 11.7% lower overall cholesterol, 12.5% lower LDL cholesterol (the artery clogging type), and no change in HDL (the “good” type).
Another two studies from 1986 and 1989 found that guggul increases HDL but lowers LDL cholesterol. The active steroid compound itself, guggulsterone, has been found to lower cholesterol levels by 14-27%.
There’s clearly evidence that guggul gum in its many forms helps to lower cholesterol, but will this translate to a reduction in sebum, oily skin and blocked pores? The answer is probably not. Just because cholesterol is a lipid, a type of fat like sebum is, does not mean that the effects of guggul will be identical with sebum.
Consider olive oil; eating some with your salad every day can reduce your LDL cholesterol levels according to studies. But has anyone ever noticed it reducing your sebum output? Eating 3 boiled eggs for breakfast each day can lower LDL cholesterol, but nobody would do that for oily skin (except if you needed the vitamin A). The truth is that this theory is half-baked, there’s no plausible connection.
The reduction in cholesterol from guggul gum is theorised to be due to the active guggulsterone compounds. Apparently, they are antagonists of the farnesoid X receptor in the liver, which decreases the liver’s creation of LDL cholesterol. Most factors that control sebum production, whether it be vitamin A, decreasing DHT, or applying topical green tea, tend to work by modulating the androgen receptors or other types of receptors in your skin’s sebaceous glands.
Even if there is a connection, the studies on guggul and cholesterol have been far more contradictory of late. This study and this study on humans found that guggul could actually increase LDL cholesterol slightly. The one piece of evidence supporting the theory is that acne patients with highly oily skin enjoyed the biggest reduction, but that could be explained by another factor.
Anti-inflammatory properties may be the answer
There’s a ton of these studies and even though most of them were conducted on mice and rats, they’re still highly promising. For instance, if you’ve got a swollen shoulder from a weight injury, a doctor will give you a shot of hydrocortisone, one of the strongest anti-inflammatory drugs in his arsenal. Guggul gum was shown in an animal experiment to be 20% as anti-inflammatory as hydrocortisone, and also equal in strengthen to the drugs ibuprofen and phyenylbutazone.
Guggul gum resin can also prevent rat paw edema (swelling), and in mice with induced colitis (an inflammatory disease of the colon that causes abdominal pain and malnutrition), significantly reduce the levels of inflammatory damage (study). Guggulsterone could also heal rats with uveitis, another inflammatory disease which is characterised by swelling of the middle layer of the eye (study).
There’s also two other compounds found in guggul gum resin known as myrrhanol A and myrrhanone A, and when extracted from the whole guggul gum, these two were found to be equal to hydrocortisone when used to treat inflammation in mice in this study.
None of these studies are on acne directly, but the inflammation that swells up a rat paw is essentially the same barrage of chemicals that swells up pimples – just located in a different part of the body.
Tales from the scriptures of Ayurvedic medicine are also very positive. For many years, guggul gum was a recommended human treatment for rheumatoid arthritis in India, and an overactive immune system assaulting the joints and connective ligaments is a large cause of arthritis. This old 1972 study on arthritis seemed to identify guggulsterone before it was ever discovered and formerly named. It references a crystalline steroid extracted from guggul gum which inhibited the full development of arthritis lesions in rats, and lessened the severity of secondary inflammatory lesions.
Finally, this study seemed to pinpoint one of the specific mechanisms behind guggul gum’s anti-inflammatory properties. Guggulsterone had a strong inhibitory effect on NF-kappaB, a master molecule that transcripts and regulates a variety of pro-inflammatory chemicals. In their words: “such repression of NF-kappaB activation by guggulsterone has been proposed as a mechanism of the antiinflammatory effect of guggulsterone”.
Overall, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that guggul gum has potent anti-inflammatory properties against acne. It hasn’t been proven, but there has to be some mechanism behind guggul gum’s fantastic effects on acne, and the signs point towards keeping the immune system in check.
What about the rest of Ayurvedic medicine – do any of the tales and ailments guggul gum was used to treat tell us anything? Some other target illnesses include…
- Weak digestion.
- Menstrual cramps.
- Bone fractures.
- Obesity (probably false).
- High blood pressure.
- Impure blood.
Of those, weak digestion is the most interesting. Every acne clearing enthusiast needs an optimally functioning digestive system to 1) absorb vital acne vitamins and minerals from food, 2) prevent leaky gut syndrome, and 3) prevent an overly sensitive gut which reacts to innocent foods with random allergies that cause inflammation.
One scripture claims that guggul gum kindles agni, the digestive fire. There are few studies available on digestion, but one on mice above found that guggul gum reduced inflammation in the colon.
As for other areas of acne-related health, there’s also evidence that guggul gum resin in its many forms is a decent source of antioxidants. The 1994 study on cholesterol above, the one which observed a 12.5% decrease in LDL, also observed a 33.3% decrease in overall oxidative stress. 33.3% is a pretty huge reduction in the overall quantity of free radicals floating around your bloodstream.
Guggul gum contains a wide variety of compounds as well as guggulsterone, myrrhanones, and myrrhanols; there’s also diterpenes, lignans, ferulic acid, and more. Many of those have strong antioxidant properties when they occur in other foods, like coffee.
In my reckoning, the powerful acne-clearing benefits of guggul gum can be attributed to two factors: reduced inflammation and oxidative stress, not a massive reduction in sebum.
The verdict – is guggul gum recommended for acne?
Guggul gum is an extremely interesting supplement, but for now, its complete range of powers and compounds are a secret.
There’s great evidence that this yellow coloured tree resin can slash acne, though not conclusive evidence, as we have only two studies. A group of 10 is a fairly small sample size, but the group of 30 from the second study was larger. In both cases, the results (68% reduction and excellent improvement in 30%) were very promising.
On the other hand, guggul gum was thought to be the touchstone of cholesterol lowering remedies, but it later turned out to increase LDL. One possible scenario is that the shocking benefits are all a smokescreen; guggul gum might be no better for acne than a serving of fruit or vegetables.
If the 10 and 30 acne patients were all highly deficient in antioxidants, and that’s a likely scenario because almost all acne patients are, then any antioxidant-containing substance whether it be a pomegranate or sweet potato could have pushed them over the edge back into clear skin territory.
Because guggul gum isn’t fully researched and thus could contain some nasty surprises, I won’t officially endorse it, but it definitely beats overrated scams like chlorophyll (supposed to purify the blood and liver), which doesn’t even have a shred of evidence behind it.
Dosage, and any side effects?
If you decide to take guggul gum then be sure to follow the proper requirements. The standard dose is two 325mg tablets daily of the supplemental form, equivalent to 75mg of guggulsterones. Others recommend approximately 1000mg of guggul gum per day.
Don’t megadose, since official studies haven’t tested massive doses. Guggul gum should be avoided if you’re pregnant, nursing, taking any medication, especially anticoagulant or antiplatelet medication like warfarin (guggul has anticoagulant properties as well).
As for side effects, many studies have examined guggul over many months and not observed any dangerous effects, including the studies on acne, but digestive discomfort and nausea have sometimes been reported. Generally though, guggul gum resin isn’t especially dangerous, because Indians and some Pakistanis have been using it since at least 1000BC, when it was apparently used for “clearing the coating and obstruction of channels“. One report stated that a study used a standard guggul gum dose for 75 weeks without problems.
The only real “side effect” is that the c.wightii plant is now critically endangered due to overharvesting and is listed on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. Most of the harvesting is performed by local villagers, whose tapping techniques to extract the guggul gum are pretty inefficient. They often cut the tree’s branches, and then apply horse urine with goal of keeping the sap flowing, but this just ends up infecting the guggul plant and killing it.
Usually, local growers of crops and herbs have all the ancient knowledge and traditional wisdom at hand, but in this rare instance, it seems that the corporations are more efficient, with machinery that breaches the plant’s branches with the optimal frequency.
Other deadly factors which are killing off the c.wightii guggul gum plant include desertification, habitat destruction, and the plant not proliferating well in the first place. The guggul gum plant takes at least seven years to grow enough to be harvested, so replenishing the lost supply takes years.
The result has been a sharp decline from 1963-1964 when the Indian production was a huge 51 metric tons. The good news is that both grassroots organisations and the Indian National Medicinal Plants Board are now swooping in; they’re educating local growers and harvesters on the more efficient tapping techniques, and they aim to establish a safe haven of 1200 to 2000 acres of new guggul plants.
Aside from saving the species, the point this shows is that Indians and Pakistanis are so convinced of guggul gum’s extraordinary powers that they’re willing to harvest so much that they almost kill it.
Thanks for reading!