As you most likely know, basil is used to add flavor to a variety of recipes, but what may surprise you is the many benefits of basil that make it well-known for its immunity-enhancing properties.
The herb itself as well as the essential oil that it’s used to produce have been shown help prevent a wide range of conditions, making it one of the most important medical herbs and spices known today.
One specific type, called holy basil, also has a long history of religious and medical use in India, where it’s considered one of the most important of all herbs and spices. It’s a sacred herb in the Hindu religion and believed to be protective and healing.
What Is Basil?
All basil plants for the most part grow as small plants that produce large green leaves, measuring around two inches in length. Their season is through the warm summer months when they can often be found at farmers markets across the U.S.
Basil is an important medicinal plant in various traditional and folk systems of medicines, such as those in Southeast Asia and India.
Holy basil is usually referred to as tulsi in India and is actually considered a sacred herb. It’s been used in over 300 different Ayurvedic herbal treatments for thousands of years, including tinctures, teas, ointments and tonics.
Did you know there are actually 35 different types of basil? The plant comes in a range of varieties and sizes, and there are actually some significant botanical differences between various types.
Some of the many species include:
- sweet basil
- lemon basil
- Italian or curly basil
- holy basil
- thai basil
- lettuce-leaf basil
The flavor and smell varies depending on the unique chemical components and the amount of essential oils the variety contains.
The following oils are common across all basil types but are found in varying quantities:
The most common cooking basil used as a fresh herb in recipes is Italian basil, which is high in antioxidants, magnesium and vitamins.
Basil oil is also used to create perfumes, household cleaners and in dental-care products since one of the known benefits of basil is its ability to act as an antibacterial and antimicrobial agent that fights germs and bacteria.
Holy basil is the most researched type in regard to having medicinal properties. To date, at least six different essential oils have been identified in tulsi within its seeds, roots, leaves and stem.
With the scientific name Ocimum sanctum L. or Ocimum tenuiflorum L., this variety is known to be an anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and powerful adaptogen — meaning it helps the body to respond to stress and fight disease.
Cinnamon and lemon basil are also known to provide high amounts of protective compounds, such as caffeic acid and derivatives (dimers, trimers and tetramers), along with flavonoids, mainly glycoside derivatives of quercetin.
Historical Basil Uses:
Basil belongs to the genus Ocimum, which is derived from the Greek word ozo, meaning “to smell.” The exact origins of the herb are somewhat unclear, but it’s believed that it’s native to areas in Asia and Africa.
Basil plants began growing as wild perennials on some Pacific Islands thousands of years ago and then were brought from India to Europe through the Middle East in the 16th century. Sometime during the 17th century the herb made its way over to the Americas.
In historical European culture, it has been tied to superstition and the scorpion.
What is the herb basil good for? Scientific studies show that Ocimum basilicum has some of the following positive effects:
- Pain-reducer (analgesic)
- Fever-reducer (antipyretic)
- Liver-protector (hepatoprotective)
- Blood vessel-protector
- Anti-stress solution
Here’s more about some of the main benefits of basil:
1. Contains Disease-Fighting Antioxidants
This herb’s antioxidants and oils have the ability to help fight free radical damage while protecting DNA structure and cells. This herb contains flavonoid antioxidants, such as orientin and viceninare, which help protect white blood cells responsible for immune function, as well as cellular structures where DNA is stored.
Studies suggest that antioxidants found in this spice, including phenolic acids and at least 18 different types of flavonoids, also keep chromosomes from becoming altered and resulting in cell mutations and cancerous cell growth. Oxidative stress occurs inside the body due to the effects of toxins in the diet, environmental pollution and radiation — but antioxidants like the kind found in basil help fight oxidation and slow down the effects of aging.
2. Acts as an Anti-Inflammatory
Basil contains powerful essential oils, including eugenol, citronellol and linalool. Findings from studies indicate that these enzyme-inhibiting oils help lower inflammation, which is at the root of most diseases like heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel conditions.
3. Helps Fight Cancer
Clinical studies published in Nutrition and Cancer also show that basil contains phytochemicals, which can help naturally prevent cancer, including chemical-induced skin, liver, oral and lung cancers.
Compounds within this herb seem capable of increasing antioxidant activity, positively altering gene expressions, inducing cancerous-cell apoptosis (death of harmful cells) and stopping cancerous tumors from spreading.
In studies using animals, basil extract has shown protection against cancer and mortality while also selectively protecting normal tissue and cells from negative effects of cancer treatments like radiation or chemotherapy. This means that using basil extract can be beneficial as a supplemental cancer treatment even when someone is already undergoing traditional forms of treatments.
4. Contains Antibacterial Properties
Another one of the benefits of basil essential oil is to provide protection against harmful bacterial growth. In studies, basil extract is even shown to be helpful in inhibiting resistant strains of bacteria that don’t respond to antibiotic treatments.
When researchers involved in one study tested the antibacterial activity of basil oil against strains of E. coli and other powerful bacteria that were gathered from sick patients with infections, the results showed that it was effective in acting against the bacteria strains and helping to inhibit their growth.
This has led researchers to continue to study how its antibacterial oils may help fight antibiotic-resistant illnesses and infections.
5. Contains Antimicrobial Properties that Fight Viruses and Infections
Basil essential oils have been found to exhibit antimicrobial activity against a wide range of bacteria, yeasts, molds and viruses. This means it may offer protection against the candida virus and various forms of skin irritations.
6. Combats Stress by Acting as an Adaptogen
Studies show that basil has strong potential to act as a natural adaptogen, an herbal medicine that helps the body adapt to stress and normalize the harmful effects of stressors.
For example, when researchers studied the anti-stress effects of fresh basil leaves given to rabbits that were exposed to a high-stress environment, they found a significant improvement in oxidative stress levels following its use.
After the rabbits received supplementation of two grams of fresh basil leaves for 30 days, they experienced cardiovascular and respiratory protection in response to stressors. A significant decrease in blood sugar levels was also observed, while a significant increase in antioxidant activity was observed.
7. Fights Depression
Benefits of basil also apply to those with mental disorders or mood-related illnesses, including depression and anxiety.
This herb is considered an antidepressant by some since it can positively impact brain function within the adrenal cortex, helping stimulate neurotransmitters that regulate the hormones responsible for making us happy and energetic.
8. Promotes Cardiovascular Health
Both an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory food, basil can help the muscles that control blood vessel function contract and relax, promoting healthy blood pressure.
It seems to have the ability to help prevent dangerous platelet aggregation, clumping together of blood platelets that can form a clot within the arteries and cause cardiac arrest.
It may also reduce inflammation that can cause cardiovascular disease by inhibiting the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, proteins that are secreted from cell to cell in order to communicate and raise the body’s immune defenses.
When this happens for prolonged periods of time, the body experiences an “inflammatory cascade,” which puts stress on the organs and slows down blood circulation, hormone regulation and cognitive processes. When it comes to heart health, inflammation can build up fatty, cholesterol-rich plaque in blood vessels and raise the risk for a heart attack or stroke.
9. Supports Liver Function and Helps Detoxify the Body
A study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that when sickly rats were given basil extract over a period of five days, they experienced significant improvements in producing detoxifying enzymes, higher antioxidant defenses and a reduction of fat buildup in the liver that can cause liver disease.
10. Helps Alkalize the Body and Improve Digestion
This herb has been shown to help balance acid within the body and restore the body’s proper pH level in animal studies. This can improve digestion and immunity by helping healthy bacteria flourish within the gut microflora, while also decreasing harmful bacteria that can cause disease.
Traditionally, basil has also been used to help reduce bloating and water retention, loss of appetite, stomach cramps, acid reflux, and even to kill stomach worms or parasites.
11. Can Act as a Natural Aphrodisiac
In Italy, basil has been considered a symbol of love for centuries. The aroma is believed to increase libido and arousal, possibly by increasing blood flow and energy levels, while reducing inflammation.
In the Hindu religion and in Ayurveda practices, tulsi is considered the “elixir of life” and is used to promote healthy sexual function and an upbeat mood.
12. Helps Protect Against Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome
Compounds within this herb have been found to reduce circulating blood glucose levels and inflammation, which makes it protective against diabetes development and other forms of metabolic syndrome.
Additionally, benefits of basil essential oil include the ability to help lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels, which diabetic patients are at a higher risk for developing.
When researchers investigated the effects of holy basil leaves on blood glucose and serum cholesterol levels in humans through double-blind clinical trials, the results showed that it caused significant improvements in blood glucose control and mild improvements in cholesterol levels.
Two tablespoons (about five grams) of chopped, fresh basil contains approximately:
- 1.2 calories
- 0.1 grams carbohydrates
- 0.2 grams protein
- 0.1 grams fiber
- 21.8 micrograms vitamin K (27 percent DV)
- 277 international units vitamin A (6 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligrams manganese (3 percent DV)
- 0.9 milligrams vitamin C (2 percent DV)
Aside from the vitamins and minerals found in this herb, it contains many antioxidant-rich volatile essential oils, which are considered hydrophobic. This means they don’t dissolve in water and are light and small enough to travel through the air and the pores within our skin.
Basil’s volatile essential oils are what give the herb its distinct smell and taste, but they’re also responsible for the healing benefits of basil.
Herbs like basil contain essential oil compounds because these help the plant defend itself from predators like bugs, rodents and strains of bacteria in the soil. When we ingest these protective oils, we experience similar benefits: a boost in immunity and protection from disease.
How to Grow and Use
Today, basil is one of the most important herbs in many cultures and cuisines, including Italian, Indian, Thai and Vietnamese.
Can basil leaves be eaten raw? Yes, the plant can be eaten both raw or cooked and used in a ton of ways:
- with sautéed vegetables
- in sauces
- to flavor meat, fish and stews
- as part of dressings
- in herbal teas
- to flavor liqueurs
- even to make mixed drinks
When buying it pre-cut, look for brightly colored leaves that are firm and aren’t wilted. It’s usually available at farmers markets during the summer and early fall and year-round at most grocery stores.
You can also try growing your own by planting some in any warm space that has a lot of access to sunlight.
What do you do with your basil plant once it’s ready to be picked? Store dried, unwashed basil in the refrigerator once you buy it or pick it, wrapped inside a damp paper towel and placed inside of a plastic or paper bag to prolong its freshness.
Wash it before using it since it can carry dirt and feel “gritty.”
Some of the most common uses for basil in recipes include making pesto sauce, marinara tomato sauce or combining it with flavors like olive oil, garlic, cheese, vinegars and nuts.
Fresh basil, dried basil and oil-infused basil are all ways to add its flavor to dishes and experience the benefits of basil. Try these healthy recipes at home:
Risks and Side Effects
Why might basil be bad for you? In fresh form it is considered very safe and is usually well-tolerated since it doesn’t commonly cause allergic reactions or side effects in most people.
However, there are some risks for certain groups of people.
If you’re pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breast-feeding, it’s a good idea to avoid too much basil (especially the essential oil) since traditionally it’s been known to have anti-fertility effects.
Basil essential oil isn’t meant to be ingested and should be diluted when used on the skin due to its potency.
Basil essential oils or supplements might also interact with cholesterol-lowering medications and diabetic medications, so if you’re currently taking prescriptions for these conditions, you’ll want to speak with a doctor before taking basil supplements.
- Ocimum basilicum is one of the healthiest herbs and spices, as well as one of the most popular, due to its signature sweet taste and high content of antioxidants and volatile oils.
- Basil health benefits include the ability to fight heart disease, diabetes, bacterial and fungal infections, viruses, inflammation and more.
- It can be eaten both raw or cooked and used in a ton of ways. Try it with sautéed vegetables; in sauces; to flavor meat, fish and stews; as part of dressings; and in herbal teas.
- When used to make essential oil, it’s also useful for managing stress, depression and indigestion.