Holy basil, otherwise known as tulsi in Hindu, is known for its therapeutic power when it comes to maintaining homeostasis and fighting the effects of stress. The tulsi plant has a rich history dating back 3,000 years ago to ancient India, as it’s long been considered a medicinal herb and sacred plant in Ayurvedic medicine. Historically, it was used as medicine and still today holy basil leaves are regarded as natural adaptogens (anti-stress agents) that promote health throughout the entire body.
What does holy basil do for the body? In the last few decades, several Indian scientists and researchers have studied the pharmacological effects of various parts of the tulsi plant on the immune system, reproductive system, central nervous system, cardiovascular system, gastric system, urinary system and blood biochemistry.
Today, tulsi is commonly consumed in supplement form or as holy basil tea. Research tells us that holy basil benefits include naturally decreasing anxiety, helping to manage adrenal fatigue/dysfunction and decreasing symptoms caused by hypothyroidism, unbalanced blood sugar, acne and more.
What Is Holy Basil?
Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum or Ocimum sanctum) is an aromatic shrub in the Lamiaceae basil plant family. It’s thought to have originated in north central India and now grows native throughout the Eastern world. Also known as tulsi, which means “the incomparable one” in Hindu, the holy basil plant is a perennial that has a light lemon scent and purple-pink flowers.
Extracts, oils and supplements can be made from holy basil seeds, leaves, flowers and stems. The holy basil leaf, an oval-shaped leaf with a slightly sharp tip is used to make tulsi tea, is where the majority of the plant’s healing compounds are found. There are two common types of tulsi: Rama tulsi, which has a white stem and green leaves, and Shyam tulsi, which has a dark pinkish-purple stem and leaves. Both types are similar in terms of their health benefits and uses.
Researchers describe holy basil as a natural protector of organs and tissues, defending against chemical stress caused by factors like industrial pollutants, heavy metals, physical stress from prolonged physical exertion, ischemia, physical restraint and exposure to cold and excessive noise. Many of its protective effects are due to its rich concentration of phytochemical constituents, including: eugenol, oleanolic acid, ursolic acid, rosmarinic acid, carvacrol and others.
Holy Basil vs. Basil
More than 40 different basil varieties (and possibly as many as 150) are grown around the world for their edible and medicinal uses. All types of basil are species of the genus Ocimum. Compared to the commonly sold type of “traditional” basil (O. basilicum) that has a sweet taste, holy basil is described as being more peppery, spicy and also minty, which is why it’s sometimes called “hot basil.” There are also many other varieties of basil that have aromas and tastes of lemon, cinnamon, clove, etc.
Both types of basil can be cooked with, including using fresh or dried leaves, but holy basil has therapeutic uses that traditional basil does not. Traditional basil is still a good source of antioxidants and a great addition to healthy recipes, but it’s less commonly used to make extracts, essential oils or supplements.
10 Holy Basil Benefits
1. Fights Skin Infections and Acne
Holy basil has been found to have antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and analgesic (painkilling) properties. It can help kill bacteria that can cause breakouts and skin infections, so it’s a great natural remedy for wounds, plus a home remedy for acne and other skin irritations. It’s believed to benefit the skin and treat skin infections both internally and externally.
The primary active compound of holy basil oil is eugenol, also the active ingredient in the powerful antimicrobial clove oil, which is widely believed to help combat many skin disorders. Holy basil also contains other therapeutic components, including gamma-caryophyllene and methyl eugenol.
Research published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science shows that when used with coconut oil as a carrier, holy basil absorbs into the skin even better and could be even more effective against acne.
2. Protects Against Diabetes
Holy basil benefits appear to include the ability to control blood glucose levels as demonstrated by several test tube and animal experiments, as well as human clinical trials.
A randomized placebo-controlled, single blind trial of holy basil leaves points toward holy basil’s anti-diabetic activity. In this trial, patients with noninsulin-dependent diabetes experienced decreases in fasting blood sugar levels, postprandial (after a meal) blood sugar levels, urine blood sugar levels as well as mean total cholesterol levels during the holy basil treatment period. Overall, the researchers conclude holy basil may be prescribed as part of a treatment plan for people with mild-to-moderate non-insulin dependent diabetes.
3. Helps Fight Cancer
In general, holy basil may not only possibly work as a natural cancer treatment, but another of the many holy basil benefits include that it may also help to prevent it. Research shows that people who regularly consume tulsi are less likely to be immunocompromised and less susceptible to developing cancer cells.
According to research published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer, tulsi and its phytochemicals (including eugenol, rosmarinic acid, apigenin, myretenal, luteolin, β-sitosterol and carnosic acid), in some cases, may help prevent chemical-induced lung, liver, oral and skin cancers because they increase antioxidant activity, alter healthy gene expressions, induce cancer cell death, prevent blood vessel growth contributing to cancer cell growth and stop metastasis — which is the spread of cancer from one organ to another.
Holy basil benefits also appear to help protect the body from radiation poisoning and help minimize damage from radiation treatment, according to research published in 2016 in the the Journal of Cancer Research and Therapeutics. It selectively protects the normal tissues against the destructive effects of radiation.
In fact, the journal Nutrition and Cancer published an interesting review outlining the important research involving tulsi’s ability to help fight against cancer that we’ve seen in the past several years. The doctors involved in this research agree that conventional chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments used during the past three decades haven’t been able to contain the disease, plus they have serious side effects. Many natural agents — especially holy basil leaves and extracts from other plants — prove to be non-toxic, easily available and have potential anti-cancer properties.
4. Balances Stress Hormones
There’s evidence that tulsi can address physical, chemical, metabolic and psychological stress through a unique combination of pharmacological actions. One of the most well-researched holy basil benefits is its ability to keep hormone levels balanced naturally and to lower symptoms of anxiety.
According to a scientific article published in 2014 in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, “Tulsi has also been shown to counter metabolic stress through normalization of blood glucose, blood pressure and lipid levels, and psychological stress through positive effects on memory and cognitive function and through its anxiolytic and antidepressant properties.”
Some other evidence of this stress-lowering effect includes the ability of holy basil to improve reaction times and error rates in human subjects compared to placebo. There also seems to be a positive effect of holy basil on cortisol levels.
Holy basil includes three phytochemical compounds that help achieve these results. The first two, ocimumosides A and B, have been identified as anti-stress compounds and may lower blood corticosterone (another stress hormone) and create positive alterations in the neurotransmitter system of the brain. According to an article published in Alternative and Complementary Therapies, the third, 4-allyl-1-O-beta-D-glucopyronosyl-2-hydroxybenzene, is also able to lower stress parameters in lab studies.
To use holy basil for anxiety, research suggests taking holy basil leaf extract twice daily after meals can help with managing symptoms. You can also try drinking tulsi tea, or adding tulsi to your meals.
Does holy basil increase testosterone? While some speculate that it can boost testosterone production, perhaps by possibly reducing stress and supporting thyroid/adrenal function, there isn’t much evidence proving it has this effect. Some preliminary research in animals actually shows the compound called ursolic acid found in holy basil may reduce fertility by damaging sperm. This has led some researchers to believe that holy basil may be used as an effective male contraceptive agent.
5. Relieves Fever
Holy basil is often recommended as a natural fever reliever, especially by practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine. Holy basil leaves are thought to act as antibiotic, germicidal and disinfectant agents, which means they can protect us from bacteria and viruses. When we have a fever, it’s proof that our bodies are fighting against an infection. Therefore, with its infection-fighting properties, tulsi may help to fight a fever.
6. Helps Improve Respiratory Disorders
Holy basil benefits are found in the components of tulsi leaves, including camphene, eugenol and cineole, which help provide relief from congestion and other symptoms of respiratory disorders. Scientific studies have confirmed that holy basil possesses impressive anti-asthmatic abilities and may make breathing easier, which is why it’s a commonly recommended herb for respiratory issues in Ayurvedic medicine.
7. Good Source of Vitamin K
Vitamin K is an essential fat-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in bone health and heart health. It’s one of the main vitamins involved in bone mineralization and blood clotting, but it also helps maintain brain function, a healthy metabolism and cellular health. One cup of tulsi leaves has more than your daily recommended value of vitamin K, making it a perfect source to prevent vitamin K deficiency. Plus, vitamin K can be beneficial to your bone density, digestive health and brain function.
Animal studies published in the Alternative Medicine Review also demonstrate that holy basil benefits include cardio-protective properties. In other words, it appears to boost heart health.
8. Supports Dental Care and Oral Health
Tulsi may fight bacteria in your mouth that can lead to dental issues, such as cavities, plaque, tartar and bad breath. It serves as a natural mouth freshener and cleanser because compounds found in the leaves kill bacteria and germs hiding in your mouth. Using a mouthwash containing basil leaf extract twice daily seems to help reduce plaque and the risk for developing gingivitis.
Holy basil benefits include helping to diminish ulcers in the mouth, and in vitro studies demonstrate it may stop the growth of oral cancer cells. For natural dental care, try adding a drop of tulsi essential oil to your toothpaste or drinking one cup of tulsi tea every day.
9. May Relieve Headaches
Practitioners of Ayurveda recommend holy basil as a natural headache remedy that can help relieve migraine pain. Research suggests this is due to its ability to relieve inflammation, sinus pressure and muscular tension due to stress. Try diffusing holy basil essential oil or making tulsi tea to reduce headache symptoms.
10. Supports Eye Health
Our eyes are susceptible to viral, bacterial and fungal infections that can be very dangerous. Thankfully, holy basil benefits include helping to fight these detrimental infections. Tulsi is commonly prescribed in Ayurveda to fight against conjunctivitis — also commonly known as pink eye — thanks to its anti-inflammatory and soothing properties.
Tulsi may also help prevent a range of eye issues, including cataracts. According to Dr. S.K. Gupta of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, topical administration of an herbal eye drop mixture containing turmeric and holy basil extracts helps to counter the oxidative stress and insoluble protein formation that lead to cataracts.
How to Use
Can you eat tulsi holy basil? Yes, the leaves have a sweet, aromatic smell and a minty taste and are used in garnishing foods, sauces and soups in places like India and Thailand. They’re also commonly used to make juices, flavored water and tulsi tea. For example, in India people eat tulsi leaves raw in order to fight off a cough or cold.
Common Holy Basil Uses
- Holy basil essential oil — Holy basil essential oil (or holy basil tincture) can be found in many health food stores or online. The essential oil is extracted from the holy basil plant and is used in lotions, soap, perfume, shampoo and conditioner. You can also diffuse the oil in your home; the calming and immune-boosting properties can be inhaled as well.
- Holy basil supplements — You can find dried tulsi leaves in capsule form, sometimes offered in fermented options, which some sources suggest make it more easily digestible. This is a convenient option if you don’t enjoy the smell or taste of basil.
- Holy basil tea — Ayurvedic practitioners recommend the regular consumption of tulsi tea as an essential lifestyle practice. Tulsi tea is a popular beverage in India that’s consumed in place of coffee. You can find tulsi tea at many health food stores; it comes in boxes of tea bags, or you can make your own using dried tulsi leaves.
How to Make Holy Basil Tea at Home
You can buy dried tulsi leaves in bulk and use a tea ball to make this beneficial and tasty tea. If you’d rather have an iced tea, it’s simple to let the tea cool and add ice and stevia or lemon for flavor. You can also prepare tulsi juice, which includes five tulsi leaves that have been infused in water.
To prepare tulsi leaves, clean them thoroughly and then chop them coarsely with a kitchen knife. It’s best to use fresh tulsi leaves within a day or two, but they can be stored in a sealed bag in the refrigerator for five days or so. Combine two to three teaspoons of dried leaves with hot water and let it sit for about five minutes before removing the leaves.
Cooking with Holy Basil
One tablespoon of fresh, chopped tulsi leaves would be a great addition to my Green Tea Chicken Soup Recipe. The tulsi addition brings the health benefits of this soup up a notch by adding infection-fighting and stress-relieving properties.
Fresh tulsi leaves or tulsi powder can add an interesting and unexpected flavor to everyday salad recipes. Adding tulsi tea to your bath is an awesome way to help enhance organ function and fight bacterial or fungal infections. Check out these 10 Detox Bath Recipes. Adding holy basil essential oil to your skin care regimen is also a great way to improve acne. Try this invigorating Homemade Honey Face Wash for Clear Skin.
You can buy and care for a tulsi plant, or you can purchase tulsi leaves and powder from a health food store. If you buy fresh holy basil, look for leaves that are vibrant and green, without any holes or dark spots.
Holy Basil Dosage
Tulsi holy basil dosage recommendations depend on how you’re using the plant and the symptoms you’re managing. Some studies have found people who take low doses between 200 and 600 milligrams (mg) of holy basil extract each day may experience improvements in symptoms like anxiety, pain, indigestion, etc. However, higher doses are usually recommended for treating persistent symptoms, such as 600 to 2,200 mg/day, divided into several doses for the best results.
Holy Basil Side Effects and Dangers
What are the side effects of basil? Researchers have found that holy basil is safe for regular consumption and topical use. However holy basil side effects may include nausea, vomiting, indigestion and changes in certain hormones when used for an extended period of time. Does holy basil make you sleepy? While it may help you feel calmer, it’s not a sedative and shouldn’t cause drowsiness.
To be safe, it’s generally recommended to use holy basil for about six weeks or less before taking a break.
One note to keep in mind is that tulsi may slow blood clotting, so taking tulsi along with medications that also slow clotting may increase the chances of bruising and bleeding. Some medications that slow blood clotting include aspirin, clopidogrel, dalteparin, enoxaparin, heparin, ticlopidine and warfarin. Due to its influence on blood clotting, you should discontinue use of holy basil two weeks before any scheduled surgery.
Holy basil may cause problems during pregnancy or breastfeeding, so you should avoid using it during these times unless working with a doctor.
The main benefits of holy basil (tulsi) include:
- Fights acne
- Protects against diabetes
- Helps fight cancer
- Balances hormones and lowers stress
- Relieves fever
- Helps improve respiratory disorders
- Good source of vitamin K
- Dental care and oral health
- Relieves headaches
- Supports eye health
Holy basil is referenced often in Ayurvedic medicine as an herb to treat a large number of conditions. Used for thousands of years, there have been very few holy basil side effects reported. This herb is available in leaf, powder, supplement and essential oil form. One of the most common uses is taking it for anxiety.
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