For over 3,000 years the health benefits of tulsi, or holy basil, have been revered and tulsi is one of India’s most sacred and powerful plants. Think about that. Ayurveda, one of the oldest and most sophisticated systems of medicine in the world, reveres this plant. That’s saying a lot!
As you might imagine, a plant that holds such high esteem in an entire culture must be an amazing plant. And it is. Holy basil is yet another herb with powerful properties that will leave you asking, “What can’t it do?”
Holy basil is a sacred plant in the Hindu religion and grows abundantly in subtropical climates. The species epithet (name), sanctum, refers to this sacredness. In Sanskrit, tulsi means “beyond compare.” It is also referred to as an elixir of life, queen of herbs, and Mother Nature of medicine in the Hindu culture.1
Cultivation of tulsi has both spiritual and practical significance that connects the grower to the creative powers of nature, while offering solutions for food security, rural poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, and climate change. The use of tulsi in daily rituals is a testament to Ayurvedic wisdom and provides an example of ancient knowledge providing solutions to modern problems.3
Holy basil is wonderfully aromatic and slightly warming and pungent herb. As such, it moves stagnation and its scent lifts the spirits.
A cold infusion of the flowering tips is noticeably demulcent.
There are at least five different types of holy basil, and while they can be used somewhat interchangeably, they also have their slight differences.
Rama tulsi (Ocimum sanctum syn. O. tenuiflorum) has green leaves and is the most commonly cultivated holy basil and the easiest to find in commerce.
Krishna tulsi (Ocimum sanctum syn. O. tenuiflorum) has leaves that are more purple in color.
Amrita tulsi (Ocimum sanctum syn. O. tenuiflorum) has green leaves with purplish highlights.
Kapoor tulsi (Ocimum sanctum syn. O. tenuiflorum) has green leaves, compact growth, and a fruity fragrance.
Vana tulsi (Ocimum gratissimum), also known as African basil, is a perennial basil that is less commonly found in commerce. Native to India and East Africa, it grows in the wild and it can be easily cultivated in tropical or subtropical climates.
In a two-month study, 35 patients with anxiety were given 500 mg of holy basil twice daily after meals. The final observations were that holy basil positively affected general anxiety levels as well as the stress and depression that accompany anxiety. The researchers concluded that “O. sanctum may be useful in the treatment of GAD [generalized anxiety disorder] in human[s] and may be a promising anxiolytic agent in the near future.”5
In the book Adaptogens, Winston and Maimes refer to holy basil as a cerebral stimulant and recommend it for people with mental fog. They say, “It can be combined with other cerebral stimulants such as rosemary, bacopa, and ginkgo to help people with menopausal cloudy thinking, poor memory, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and to speed up recovery from head trauma.”6
Holy basil extract capsules were shown to have a positive effect on cognitive health, including better reaction times and minimized error rates in humans taking it for as little as 30 days.7
Herbalist Christophe Bernard describes his experience of holy basil as follows: “It brings me back into my body, from the overactive Vata part of me. When there is a whirlwind of ideas and planning of future projects, when I am gardening but not even there, lost in my head, it brings me back into my body. Mind clarity, yes, but a clarity of the present moment, and a sharpening of all the senses. I see and hear more sharply, I feel the sun on my skin, the weight of my body. I am more in tune with intuition. Things slow down a bit. What Matt Wood uses wood betony for, I would use holy basil for (reconnecting with your enteric nervous system).”8
Holy basil has many positive effects on the digestive system. As a slightly warming/pungent and aromatic herb, it is used to improve stagnant or stuck digestion, characterized by bloating, gas, decreased appetite, and/or nausea. It’s often paired with dried ginger for this purpose.
A 2019 clinical trial found pharmaceutical drugs for gastric ulcers were more effective when taken with a combination of coconut oil and holy basil.9
Holy basil has been extensively studied for its ability to support oral health. An in vitro study showed that a holy basil extract was effective against periodontal pathogens.10
Another study found that a holy basil extract mouthwash was more effective at reducing the bacteria that causes cavities than a mouthwash using sodium fluoride.11
A third study performed on volunteer medical students found that holy basil mouthwash was equally effective in reducing plaque and gingivitis as the disinfectant chlorhexidine gluconate (CHG). Those using the holy basil mouthwash didn’t experience the same negative effects associated with CHG. The researchers concluded, “The results of the present study indicate that Ocimum sanctum mouthrinse may prove to be an effective mouthwash owing to its ability in decreasing periodontal indices by reducing plaque accumulation, gingival inflammation and bleeding.”12
An in vitro test also showed that holy basil has potential against oral cancer cells.13 Human clinical trials are needed to further assess this action.
Holy basil has been shown to have positive benefits for people with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
A 2016 study showed that young people taking 250 mg of holy basil extract twice a day on an empty stomach for eight weeks had significant improvements in lipid profiles and insulin levels.14
A one-month study of 27 patients with non-insulin-dependent type 2 diabetes showed a significant lowering of blood glucose and a significant reduction in total cholesterol, low-density-lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, very-low-density–lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides.15
Herbalists also often recommend holy basil as a way to support general cardiac health, and we know that heart disease is a common simultaneous symptom of metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes. In Ayurveda, a famous formula for protecting the heart includes holy basil, arjuna, and hawthorn. It seems likely that holy basil’s action on blood sugars and blood lipids is also protective against cardiovascular disease.
In other scientific studies, holy basil has been shown to be a COX 2 inhibitor, similar to many pharmaceutical pain medications, making it useful against arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.16 Holy basil is high in eugenol, a volatile constituent also found in cloves, which is helpful in decreasing pain.
Holy basil helps to strengthen and modulate the immune system.17 It can be taken to both prevent and address active/acute upper respiratory viruses like colds or influenza. As an expectorant herb, it also has an affinity for supporting the body to remove mucus from the lungs, so it can be used for bronchitis as well as pulmonary weakness.
In my own clinical practice, I’ve seen holy basil, taken over time, have a beneficial effect on asthma. It has also been shown to be helpful in alleviating allergic rhinitis (hay fever) symptoms associated with seasonal pollen allergies.
Two studies looked at a tea formula of five common herbs from India: holy basil, ashwagandha, licorice, ginger, and cardamom. They gave this tea blend to volunteers aged 55 or older with a history of recurrent coughs or colds. The study showed that “regular consumption of the tea fortified with Ayurvedic herbs enhanced NK cell activity, which is an important aspect of the (early) innate immune response to infections.”18
As an anti-microbial herb, holy basil can be used topically or internally to treat bacterial, viral, or fungal infections. It has been shown to be effective against the fungus Candida albicans in vitro.19 It is frequently used for viral herpes simplex (HSV) sore outbreaks and can also be applied externally to ringworm (fungal) infections and eczema reactions.
Numerous in vitro studies have shown holy basil’s positive effects against various cancers.20,21 Human clinical trials will be able to shed more light on this potential use.
I frequently use holy basil to treat people with allergic rhinitis and
allergies to animal dander and mold. Combined with reishi and a solid
extract from blueberries, it can reduce the symptoms of hay fever and
David Winston and Steven Maimes, Adaptogens
I’m often asked if the common culinary basil, Ocimum basilicum, can be used similarly to Ocimum sanctum.
The best answer to this is to taste, smell, and compare the basils yourself. Do they smell similar? Do they taste similar? If you ingest a small amount of the different basils, do they feel similar to you? You can go deeper by drinking holy basil tea for a week and then drinking culinary basil tea for a week. What differences do you notice?
When I’ve done this in the past, my sense is that the two basils are very different. Common culinary basil undoubtedly is a warming carminative herb with its own set of virtues, but I don’t consider it to be similar in action to holy basil. An herbalist friend of mine recently told me that she feels they are similar. That is a good reminder that herbalists often have different opinions and one of the best ways to really know something is to try it yourself.
This botanical section is about Ocimum sanctum, commonly called Rama tulsi. This is the easiest type of holy basil to find in commerce. If you can grow culinary basil, then you can grow this type of holy basil.
As a member of the mint family, it has the characteristic square stem and opposite leaves.
The flowers have the familiar lipped shape of mint family flowers.
It likes to grow in full sun, with plenty of heat and moderate amounts of water. It needs fertile, well-drained soils.
As the plant forms flower heads, gently pluck these off to avoid the plant going to seed too early in the season. By occasionally plucking off the early flowers, you also will encourage the plant to branch and continue growing. If you want to collect the seeds for next year’s crop, you can grow a special plant just for seed production, or stop plucking the flowers early enough in the season that the seeds will develop.
Holy basil normally is an annual plant that needs about 80 days to reach maturity. In some tropical climates, it may grow for up to five years as a short-lived perennial.
The most common way to prepare holy basil is as a tea. Because of its high volatile oil content, it is steeped for 5 to 10 minutes, covered. You can start with 1 teaspoon of the dried leaf and increase as desired. I have seen recommended doses of up to 4 ounces of holy basil per day, so it will be difficult to take too much of this herb.
I like to infuse a handful of the fresh flowering tips in a quart of cold water overnight. I strain it the next day and drink it throughout the day as a cooling and relaxing nervine in hot weather. This preparation is deliciously aromatic and has a noticeable demulcent quality to it. I find this to be especially soothing when my lungs are dry and irritated.
Holy basil can also be used to flavor meals.
Holy basil extracts well with alcohol and glycerin.
A holy basil infused oil can be used to nourish the skin and as a daily breast massage oil.
It is especially yummy to infuse fresh holy basil in honey.
Tincture (fresh herb): 1:2, 75% alcohol, 3 to 5 mL, 3 times per day.
Tea: 1 teaspoon to 2 cups (by volume) or 2 grams to 113 grams (by weight), up to a total.
Holy basil may have an anti-fertility effect on both men and women and thus should not be taken by couples wishing to conceive or by pregnant women.
Those who are taking insulin to control their diabetes may need to adjust their insulin levels while taking holy basil. If holy basil is being used to assist with blood sugar control, it is best to use it consistently and dependably so that insulin treatments can be somewhat consistent from day to day.
Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Healand co-author of the bestselling book Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Craft Your Own Herbal Medicine. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and has taught thousands of students through her online courses. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.