Most people are familiar with basil as a common garden herb and culinary seasoning. But many don’t realize that there’s more than one type of basil or that one of these types— holy basil—has a long history of use in Ayurveda, a traditional medicine system that originated in India.1
Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), also known as tulsi, has some key differences from more common varieties, such as sweet basil and Thai basil. While those types are often used in cooking, holy basil is more often used in herbal teas and supplements. It has a hot and bitter flavor profile, so tulsi is also sometimes used to cook Asian dishes.1
The aromatic shrub that holy basil comes from originally grew in north central India. Holy basil is one of the most commonly used herbs in Ayurveda, and it is known as “the queen of herbs” within the traditional system of medicine.1
Ayurvedic practitioners recommend tulsi for a wide variety of conditions, including asthma, arthritis, back pain, and gastrointestinal issues. And scientific studies are confirming holy basil’s usefulness as a tool for wellness.1
Read on to learn about the many ways that holy basil can be beneficial to health.
Health Benefits of Holy Basil
Studies have demonstrated that holy basil has many potential pharmacological uses, including supporting the immune system and helping combat stress and anxiety.1
Holy Basil as an Adaptogen
Research has shown that holy basil is an adaptogen, a plant that increases the body’s resilience in dealing with various stressors. Some of the actions that adaptogens demonstrate in the body include:1,2
- stimulating the central nervous system
Adaptogens can help the body and mind continue to perform even when faced with stress and fatigue. They may be able to help people maintain homeostasis, or balance between several interdependent elements, even under difficult circumstances. Research has demonstrated adaptogens’ protective abilities at the molecular level too.2
As an adaptogen, holy basil may be able to help people deal with a variety of stressors, including physical, emotional, chemical, and infectious ones. Researchers have identified a long list of tulsi’s adaptogenic abilities, including being immunomodulatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, neuroprotective, anti-stress, and a memory enhancer. These abilities suggest that holy basil may help to reestablish physiological and psychological function for a person experiencing stressors.1,2
Immune System and Holy Basil
In Ayurveda, holy basil is frequently used to heal wounds and prevent infections. Modern research has confirmed that the herb has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties. In particular, studies have shown that holy basil is effective at fighting Streptococcus mutans, a bacteria that causes tooth decay. Because of this, some people use a mouthwash made from tulsi to prevent and combat tooth decay, along with gum disease, bad breath, and mouth ulcers.1
Some animal studies have demonstrated holy basil’s immunomodulatory effects on both stressed and unstressed animals. Another study on healthy human volunteers found that the herb also had an immunomodulatory role for them. Further studies are needed to confirm tulsi’s effects on unhealthy or stressed humans, but these results suggest that holy basil could be effective in balancing people’s immune systems.1,3
How Holy Basil Affects Stress and Anxiety
Holy basil’s status as an adaptogen may make it effective against stress and anxiety. In Ayurveda, drinking tea made from holy basil is considered a preventative measure against mental stress. This daily practice is meant to help the mind and body adapt to stressors before they arise, therefore preventing diseases caused by stress.1
Studies on the effects of holy basil on humans have shown that it lowers anxiety, stress, and depression. In one randomized, double-blind study, participants took either a placebo or a holy basil extract for six weeks. They self-evaluated their stress-related symptoms every two weeks. The participants who took the holy basil extract reported a significant decrease in stress, in particular forgetfulness, exhaustion, sleep problems, and sexual problems. The participants didn’t experience any adverse reactions to the holy basil extract. These results suggest that holy basil may be an effective herbal intervention for stress and anxiety.1,4
Detox with Holy Basil
Holy basil has been shown to have several protective qualities against toxins, such as chemicals and heavy metals. Laboratory studies have demonstrated that tulsi is an antioxidant, giving it the ability to fight free radicals and prevent them from causing cell damage that could lead to chronic illnesses.1
Additionally, numerous studies have shown that tulsi may be able to protect against the chemicals and heavy metals that accumulate in the human body due to living in an industrialized society. These toxins have no purpose in the body, and they can cause health issues after building up. Research has indicated that holy basil can help protect against genetic, immune, and cellular damage caused by pesticides and chemicals, as well as the toxic effects of the heavy metals arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, and lead.1
How to Use Holy Basil
There are several ways to incorporate holy basil into a daily routine to make the most of its benefits. Many people drink a cup of tulsi tea each day. Some purchase pre-made tea, while others grow the herb at home, snipping off some leaves to steep in hot water before straining and drinking it.
It is possible to cook with holy basil, as well. Its leaves have a spicy, bitter taste, so it’s best to incorporate them into dishes with a similar flavor profile.
Finally, others choose to take a supplement that includes holy basil. This has the benefits of being convenient and providing a consistent amount of the herb each day. As with any new supplement, it’s imperative to talk to a healthcare professional before taking it to make sure that it won’t react badly with any currently taken supplements or medications.
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FAQ about Holy Basil
What are the differences between sweet basil and holy basil?
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) and holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) are different varieties of basil. They look very similar but have different flavors and uses. Sweet basil is the most commonly grown type of basil. It is often used to flavor Italian dishes and is easy to find in grocery stores.1
Holy basil tastes spicy and bitter. It is sometimes used to cook Thai dishes, but its most common uses are as tea and herbal supplements. Also known as tulsi, this variety of basil has been used by practitioners of Ayurveda for thousands of years.1
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- Cohen MM. Tulsi - Ocimum sanctum: A herb for all reasons. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2014;5(4):251-259. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4296439/.
- Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress-protective activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010;3(1):188-224. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/
- Mondal S, Varma S, Bamola VD, et al. Double-blinded randomized controlled trial for immunomodulatory effects of Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum Linn.) leaf extract on healthy volunteers. J Ethnopharmacol. 2011;136(3):452-456. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21619917/.
- Saxena RC, Singh R, Kumar P, et al. Efficacy of an extract of Ocimum tenuiflorum (OciBest) in the management of general stress: A double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:894509. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21977056/.