Holy Basil: The Top 9 Health Benefits of This Adaptogenic Herb

by Meenakshi Nagdeve last updated - Medically reviewed by Dr. Sandesh Krishna Bhosale (BAMS, PGDHA)

Holy basil is an aromatic shrub native to India. Within Ayurveda, the Hindi name for holy basil is Tulsi, also known as “the incomparable one”, “mother medicine of nature”, or “the queen of herbs”. It grows in West Africa, Australia, and few Middle Eastern countries. It is used in Ayurvedic medicine as an “adaptogen” to counter stress. Moving on to its health benefits, they include oral care, relief from respiratory disorders, fever, asthma, lung disorders, and stress.

What is Holy Basil (Tulsi)?

Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) or tulsi is a powerful herb that has been used in Ayurveda and other traditional medical treatments in India for thousands of years. The small holy basil shrub has tiny lavender flowers and is considered a sacred plant in India. It was believed that the holy basil leaves had potent powers to flush out toxins from the body. In India, people have tulsi water (water which has tulsi leaves soaked overnight) or chew on a tulsi leaf to improve overall health. Several health products are available with tulsi extracts to help treat cold, cough, and flu. [1]

Holy basil is beneficial for our health, primarily due to the unique composition of its essential oil, containing eugenol, camphor, flavonoids, nerol, and various terpenes. It can help relieve acne, asthma, inflammation, respiratory issues, lower your chances of atherosclerosis [2]

Holy basil differs from the basil used in Italian dishes or Thai basil used in curries in Southeast Asia. Holy basil or tulsi has a pungent and bitter taste and it is not usually used for cooking. It is however used to make tulsi tea which has adaptogenic properties. 

Holy Basil Nutrition

According to FoodData Central, a 100-gram serving of holy basil is highly nutritious. It fetches you a good amount of potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamin C. It also contains iron, sodium, zinc, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, and vitamin B6, A, and K. [3]

Holy Basil Health Benefits

The holy basil leaves are versatile and are used for a variety of culinary preparations. Also, they offer a plethora of health benefits. Let us look at them in detail.

Reduces Fever

The miraculous healing properties of holy basil come mainly from its essential oils and the phytonutrients in it. Holy basil has antibiotic, germicidal, fungicidal, and disinfectant properties. It is very effective in protecting our body from all sorts of bacterial, viral, and fungal infections. The disinfectant, germicidal, and fungicidal properties present in tulsi help in fighting the pathogens and heal the resulting fever. It is an old practice in India to have a decoction of tulsi leaves and flowers if anyone is suffering from a fever. [4] [5]

May Relieve Symptoms of Respiratory Disorders

Tulsi, along with curing viral, bacterial, and fungal infections of the respiratory system, gives miraculous relief from congestion due to the presence of components like camphene, eugenol, and cineole in its essential oils. It is very effective in curing chronic and acute respiratory disorders including bronchitis and asthma. It also heals the damage caused to the lungs due to smoking. Moreover, according to a 2021 study, it contains a substance called eugenol that can help stop the COVID-19 virus from entering our body’s cells. [6] [7] [8]

Close up of tulsi or holy basil leaves

Holy basil is the most revered medicinal herb on the planet. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

May Lower Blood Sugar

Holy Basil, also known as Tulsi, has shown promise in aiding individuals with diabetes. Research encompassing both animal and human studies indicates its potential in managing diabetes-related concerns. In animal experiments, Holy Basil extract demonstrated a remarkable 26.4% reduction in blood sugar levels within a span of 30 days. Moreover, rats fed with Holy Basil leaf powder also experienced a decline in their blood sugar levels.

These findings are substantiated by human clinical trials. A placebo-controlled study involving patients with noninsulin-dependent diabetes found that Holy Basil contributed to lower fasting and post-meal blood sugar levels, along with reduced urine blood sugar levels and mean total cholesterol during the treatment period.

However, individuals taking diabetes medications should exercise caution, and should consult with a healthcare professional before integrating Holy Basil into one’s diabetes management regimen is advisable. [9] [10] [11]

May Reduces Stress

Holy basil, an adaptogen herb, aids the body in managing stress from various sources, promoting mental balance, and naturally balancing hormone levels to alleviate anxiety symptoms A study published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine says that tulsi soothes the nerves, lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation, and thus reduces stress. Potassium, in Tulsi, also reduces blood pressure-related stress by replacing sodium and loosening the tensed blood vessels.
[12] [13]

Further studies highlight three key phytochemical compounds in Holy Basil responsible for alleviating stress. Ocimumosides A and B lower stress hormones, while 4-allyl-1-O-beta-D-glucopyranosyl-2-hydroxybenzene reduces stress parameters. [14] [15]

Mouth Freshener & Dental Care

Tulsi is an excellent mouth freshener, oral disinfectant, and adjunctive plaque control agent, due to the compounds present in the leaves, that destroy germs and bacteria in the mouth and this effect lasts all day. It also aids in providing relief from mouth ulcers. A study shows that chewing on tulsi leaves is an effective, safe, and economical option for maintaining good oral health.  [16] [17] [18]

It also protects the teeth. It has astringent properties that make the gums hold the teeth tighter, thereby preventing them from falling. However, tulsi also has certain compounds like mercury, which has rich germicidal properties. It can harm the teeth if kept in direct contact for too long. Therefore, it is advised to avoid chewing these leaves.  [19]

Reduces Risk of Kidney Stones

Tulsi, being a detoxifier and a mild diuretic, helps to reduce the uric acid level in the body. It also helps clean out the kidneys through increased frequency of urination. Acetic acid and certain components in Tulsi essential oil facilitate the dissolution of the stones. The analgesic properties of tulsi also help in bearing the pain of kidney stones passing the body. [20]

Relieves Headache

A headache caused due to a migraine, sinus pressure, cough, and cold or high blood pressure can be effectively controlled by the use of a single tulsi serving. Camphene, eugenol, cineol, carvacrol, and methyl-chavicol, in holy basil, have excellent analgesic, sedative, anti-congestive, and disinfectant properties. [21]

Boosts Immunity

Holy basil is one of the most powerful natural sources for building immunity. It protects against nearly all infections from viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. [22]

Eye Care

Tulsi is very effective in providing relief for eye infections like conjunctivitis, boils, and other disorders. It is especially effective for viral, bacterial, or fungal infections. It also soothes eye inflammation and reduces stress. Regular consumption can protect your eyes from the damage done by free radicals, such as cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma, vision defects, and ophthalmia. These protective properties are due to the high antioxidant content of its essential oils, vitamin A, and vitamin C. [23]

Uses of Holy Basil

  • Holy Basil Tea: You can use holy basil as a relaxant, typically in the form of a tea. The tea also acts as an anti-inflammatory agent. Holy basil tea can be used to clear up congestion and respiratory conditions, while also boosting the strength of your immune system. It is often used to detoxify the body.
  • Skincare: A skincare regime is beneficial with holy basil. Apply the paste of its leaves on an infected area if there’s a skin disease. You can also consume Tulsi leaves and manage to keep your skin free from all infections. Rubbing holy basil leaves or its extracted oil on the body keeps mosquitoes and other insects away. It helps cure skin disorders both internally and externally, without any side effects. Moreover, in Ayurveda, holy basil leaves are considered a tonic to retain youthful vigor and avoid premature aging. [24] [25]
  • Eye care: To use, soak some basil leaves in water for about a couple of hours and then use this water to wash your eyes.

Where to Buy Holy Basil?

You can buy holy basil from a nearby health store or a specialist Asian grocer. In fact, basil is grown on every continent and is one of the most common herbs in the world. If you cannot find fresh basil, look for tulsi tea, preferably organic. This should be available at health food stores. Alternatively, you can also get it online.

How to eat holy basil or tulsi leaves?

You can consume tulsi leaves in various ways. You can chew them raw. However, don’t do this frequently or take a high quantity. Holy basil tea is perhaps the most common and popular use of this herb. You can brew the dried leaves or use a dried leaf powder. You simply put a teaspoon of the powder in one cup of boiling water and allow it to steep for 5-6 minutes. The flavor is strong, but its health effects are undeniable.

Should I take holy basil at night or morning?

To reduce cravings, lower sugar levels, and improve cognitive functioning, it is advised to consume holy basil in the morning.

However, for those who want better sleep and an alternative to a late-night kick of caffeine, consuming holy basil at night makes more sense. Depending on the situation, you can consume basil at any time of the day.

How to Grow Holy Basil?

Those who want to use holy basil should try to grow the plant. Avoid overwatering the basil plants. Basil is a shrub and if allowed, it can grow rapidly. Removing the mature leaves several times every week is essential to encourage fresh leaf growth.

Historical Significance of Holy Basil (Tulsi) in India

Holy basil is believed to have multiple medicinal properties. It is worshiped and highly valued in Hindusim. Many Hindus believe it is very holy, worshiping the plant twice a day. They light lamps near the plant in the morning and evening. It was and still is, believed to protect the whole family from evil and bring good luck.

Word of caution: All reviewed studies concluded favorable clinical effects with minimal or no side effects. However, it is advisable to avoid holy basil if you are pregnant, lactating, or trying to conceive. It is recommended that you speak to your doctor before including holy basil into your diet.

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About the Author

Meenakshi Nagdeve, Co-Founder, Organic Facts is a health and wellness enthusiast and is responsible for managing it. She has completed the Nutrition And Healthy Living Cornell Certificate Program, Cornell University, US. She holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Management from IIM Bangalore and B. Tech in Metallurgical Engineering and Materials Science from IIT Bombay. Prior to this, she worked for a few years in IT and Financial services. An ardent follower of naturopathy, she believes in healing with foods. In her free time, she loves to travel and taste different types of teas.

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