Clinical studies suggest that the Ayurvedic plant Boswellia serrata may be effective in reducing diarrhoea in patients with inflammatory bowel disease. In the present study, we evaluated the effect of a Boswellia serrata gum resin extract (BSE) on intestinal motility and diarrhoea in rodents. BSE depressed electrically-, acetylcholine-, and barium chloride-induced contractions in the isolated guinea-pig ileum, being more potent in inhibiting the contractions induced by acetylcholine and barium chloride. The inhibitory effect of BSE on acetylcholine-induced contractions was reduced by the L-type Ca(2+) channel blockers verapamil and nifedipine, but not by the sarcoplasmic reticulum Ca(2+)-ATPase inhibitor cyclopiazonic acid, by the phosphodiesterase type IV inhibitor rolipram or by the lipoxygenase inhibitor zileuton. 3-acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid, one of the main active ingredients of B. serrata, inhibited acetylcholine-induced contractions. BSE inhibited upper gastrointestinal transit in croton oil-treated mice as well as castor oil-induced diarrhoea. However, BSE did not affect intestinal motility in control mice, both in the small and in the large intestine. It is concluded that BSE directly inhibits intestinal motility with a mechanism involving L-type Ca(2+) channels. BSE prevents diarrhoea and normalizes intestinal motility in pathophysiological states without slowing the rate of transit in control animals. These results could explain, at least in part, the clinical efficacy of this Ayurvedic remedy in reducing diarrhoea in patients with inflammatory bowel disease.