Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is an herb that’s been grown in India for 5,000 years. It’s a mainstay of the ancient Ayurvedic healing tradition and is one of India’s most sacred plants. It also goes by the name tulsi which means “the incomparable one.”
Indian households commonly grow this plant in courtyards, in pots by the front door, or inside as a house plant. It is cultivated for both medicinal and religious purposes. According to MedicineHunter.com, “In Hindu mythology, Tulsi symbolizes the goddess Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, who is one of the religion’s most important deities. The herb has been valued for centuries because of its benefits for the mind, body, and spirit.”
In Ayurvedic medicine, holy basil is considered an “elixir of life” that promotes longevity and is used to treat a wide variety of ailments. It was also used by the ancient Greeks and Romans. There is an uncommonly long list of traditional uses for this healing herb. It’s been used to alleviate arthritis, asthma, bronchitis, coughs, colds, sore throats, digestive complaints, earaches, headaches, fever, influenza, and skin problems. It has been used as a remedy for common childhood complaints and illnesses such as coughs, colds, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and chicken pox. It has even been used to treat scorpion and snake bites.
How Holy Basil Works
By examining the individual components of holy basil, scientists are now beginning to understand exactly what makes this herb so incomparable. It contains hundreds of phytochemicals — plant compounds with health-promoting properties. These compounds work together to provide antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antidiabetic, cardioprotective, analgesic, and antispasmodic properties.
Holy basil is a potent antioxidant with anti-aging properties. One study found that holy basil extract actively seeks out and destroys damaging free radicals to protect cells in the heart, liver and brain. The head of this research, Dr. Vaibhav Shinde, concluded that, “The study validates the traditional use of herb as a youth-promoting substance in the Ayurvedic system of medicine. It also helps describe how the herb acts at a cellular level.”
Holy Basil For Stress Relief
It’s estimated that 90 percent of all doctor’s visits are for stress-related illnesses. Holy basil stands out as a highly-regarded adaptogen. Adaptogens are herbs that increase both physical and psychological resilience to stress. Adaptogens do not alter mood directly, but rather support overall health by helping the body achieve a state of balance known as homeostasis. Adaptogenic herbs uniquely calm and energize at the same time.
When compared to two other acclaimed adaptogenic herbs — Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) — holy basil was found to be the best stress reliever of the three. The Chopra Center recommends growing your own holy basil from seeds and nibbling on a few leaves every day for stress relief.
Several studies show that holy basil extract decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Chronically elevated cortisol levels are dangerous to your health and contribute to anxiety, mood swings, forgetfulness, insomnia, weight gain, and worn out adrenal glands.
One study done on patients with generalized anxiety disorder found that 500 mg of holy basil twice daily significantly reduced anxiety and associated stress, depression, and inattention. Another study found that healthy but stressed adults experienced almost a 40 percent reduction in general stress symptoms including forgetfulness, fatigue, and stress-related sexual problems.
Other Benefits of Holy Basil
While holy basil is an excellent antidote to stress, the evidence is there that it’s good for much more than that. Holy basil shows promise in preventing and treating cancer. There’s evidence that numerous compounds in holy basil are protective against certain kinds of cancer. They work by increasing antioxidant activity, altering gene expression, and inhibiting the proliferation of cancer cells. Holy basil can also mitigate the side effects of radiation therapy.
Additionally, holy basil has antidiabetic properties and can help normalize high blood sugar levels in non-insulin dependent diabetics. It can protect the heart from the damaging effects of stress and normalize cholesterol levels. It is beneficial to digestion and boosts the immune system. It is antibacterial and helps to quickly heal wounds and prevent infection. When applied topically, holy basil extract can kill the bacteria that causes acne and shows some potential for treating herpes simplex.
Holy basil’s benefits extend beyond that of human health. This plant is also good for the environment. It releases high amounts of oxygen which helps to clean the air. It’s currently being used to preserve one of India’s greatest treasures, the Taj Mahal. This monument’s white marble has been turning yellow due to sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide in the air. Hundreds of thousands of tulsi plants have been planted around this wonder of the world to protect it from further damage caused by air pollution.
How to Use Holy Basil
There are many ways to get the benefits of this versatile herb. Holy basil supplements are available in the form of dry leaf powder capsules, liquid extract, or as an essential oil. You can drink it as a tea. Holy basil tea, which usually goes by the name of tulsi tea, is available as loose tea, tea bags, or bulk powder.
Holy basil is a member of the mint family and the leaves have a fresh, mildly spicy flavor that’s often compared to licorice or cloves. You can eat the leaves raw in salads or cooked. It’s not hard to grow your own in pots or in your garden as you would any other herb. Even though it comes from subtropical Asia, it grows prolifically in my garden in the arid Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona.
While holy basil has a history of safe use that spans several thousand years, there are a few circumstances where holy basil supplements should be avoided. It should not be taken two weeks prior to surgery as it can increase the risk of bleeding. It should not be taken if you are taking a blood thinner like warfarin (Coumadin) or if you take a daily aspirin since it can cause your blood to get too thin.
Holy basil has a reputation as a testosterone booster for men and is often taken to increase libido. But it actually lowers fertility and sperm count as well. Lastly, it should not be taken by pregnant women since it can increase uterine contractions.
When purchasing holy basil plants, seeds, tea, or dried herb, make sure you are getting genuine Ocimum sanctum. Do not confuse it with Ocimum basilicum, its cousin sweet basil. Sweet basil is a popular culinary herb but does not provide the health benefits of holy basil.