With nicknames like “Queen of the Herbs,” “Incomparable One,” and “Mother Medicine of Nature,” holy basil (tulsi) is an herb for all reasons and seasons. It’s one of India’s most revered plants spanning cultural, social, religious, and medicinal roles. Modern medicine has a long way to go in catching up with the thousands of years of use in Ayurveda and other traditional systems of medicine. Nonetheless, meet the plant behind the medicine and 13 health benefits of holy basil supported by science.
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What is Holy Basil (aka Tulsi)?
It’s not just your ordinary basil. You likely won’t find holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum, syn. O. sanctum), also known as tulsi or tulasi, on your pizza or in your pasta. Unlike the common Italian basil (O. basilicum), holy basil is a plant with more medicinal uses than culinary uses. It carries with it an incredibly deep history of cultural, spiritual, and medicinal significance. And in much of India, holy basil is highly revered as a sacred plant.
Quick Facts About Holy Basil
- Holy basil is a small annual or short-lived perennial shurb. It’s highly aromatic, in the mint family, and typically grows up to about 3 feet in height.
- Much like many of its mint family relatives such as lemon balm, basil, catnip, or peppermint, holy basil also has the characteristic square stem.
- Depending on the variety, the leaves of holy basil run from green to purple. Its flowers are often purple or white.
- The flavor of holy basil is much like a cross between mint, clove, sweet or Italian basil (O. basilicum) with a slight peppery spice as well.
- Holy basil is native to Indian and Southeast Asia and grows abundantly in subtropical climates.
- There are at least two varieties of holy basil: Rama (or Sri) and Krishna (or Shyama). You can fairly easily distinguish them by the color of their leaves. Rama has more green leaves and Krishna has dark green-to-purplish leaves.
- A third variety called Kapoor (also green leaved) may or may not also be the same species (O. sanctum). However, the 3 varieties are generally used interchangeably.
- For thousands of years, holy basil has been widely used in Ayurveda, one of the world’s oldest systmes of medicine.
- In Ayurveda, holy basil is also known as “The Incomparable One,” The Queen of Herbs,” and “Mother Medicine of Nature.”
- In India, it’s revered as an “elixir of life.” In Hinduism, holy basil is considered to be sacred.
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13 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Holy Basil
Holy basil has thousands of years of medicine use in its pocket. I think it’s pretty safe to say that there’s not a thing that tulsi has not been used to help treat. And to treat with some degree of efficacy too!
It has been used to treat everything from hiccups and coughs to the common cold and parasitic infections. It’s even been used to treat high blood pressure and stress. And it’s also been used as a contraceptive and mosquito repellant. Luckily, modern science is confirming more and more of its traditional medicinal applications every day.
In Ayurveda, holy basil is best used when it’s raw and fresh. Most often the fresh plant is made into an herbal tea (or hot water infusion). However, many of the studies done today typically use alcohol extracts of holy basil (ie. tinctures).
Here are 13 health benefits of holy basil. Keep in mind, this is still a very small sample of the many potential health benefits of this incredible plant.
Adaptogen | Anti-Inflammatory | Immune Health
Digestive Health | Stress, Anxiety, & Depression
Cholesterol | Joint & Musculoskeletal Pain | Herpes Simplex Virus
Contraception | Allergies | Cognitive Health
Dental Health | Diabetes & Blood Sugar
1. Holy Basil as a Potent Adaptogen
Adaptogens are plants that help us better respond to stressful influences by helping the body to support itself. Essentially, they help us adapt and make us stronger so that we’re able to cope with everyday stressors. These stressors may include exposure to environmental or household pollutants, prescription pharmaceutical use, on-the-job or relationship stress, excessive alcohol or tobacco uses, and more.
More and more studies are showing that holy basil can help us to better adapt to physical, chemical, metabolic, and psychological stress. And it can do so by a unique variety of mechanisms.
Not only has holy basil been found to help protect organs and tissues from chemical stress, but it’s also been found to help counteract metabolic stressors too. Considering that many metabolic stressors can lead to things like high blood pressure and poor blood sugar regulation, adaptogenic herbs like holy basil are important plant medicines.
Countless studies have shown holy basil to be an effective treatment for many lifestyle-related chronic diseases including diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and psychological stress.
Due to its incredible versatility and broad spectrum of medicinal actions, holy basil is an herb for all reasons.
In a nutshell, holy basil can help to increase our resistance to disease, creating greater overall health and vitality.
2. Holy Basil for Inflammation
As an anti-inflammatory, holy basil has a wide variety of applications from wound healing to cardiovascular health and more. A 2015 study found that due to holy basil’s high polyphenol content, an alcohol extract of holy basil leaves was effective in reducing inflammation in heart tissue. Accordingly, it may be useful in helping to prevent heart attacks, one of the leading causes of health worldwide.
A 2020 study found that an alcohol extract of tulsi prevented lung inflammation in mice with cigarette smoke-induced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This hints that tulsi may be of benefit in the future development of pharmaceuticals for inflammatory lung diseases.
3. Holy Basil for Immune Health
Holy basil can also help strengthen and modulate the immune system. In fact, traditionally, tulsi taken on an empty stomach was used to increase immunity. One 2011 study administered an alcohol extract of holy basil leaves (ie. tincture) to healthy volunteers for 4 weeks and saw an increase in the immune response.
And since 2020, there have been many studies examining the potential role of holy basil in combating COVID-19 due to its scientifically proven ability to strengthen the immune system.
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4. Holy Basil for Digestive Health
Holy basil is a slightly warming, aromatic, and carminative herb that can help to ease the digestive process. In doing so, it may help to prevent symptoms of poor digestion such as gas and bloating, constipation, painful stomach cramping, indigestion, and more. Consequently, we’re also able to better absorb more nutrients from the foods we eat.
A study evaluating natural treatments for gastric ulcers found that the fixed oil of holy basil demonstrated gastric antiulcer activity in ulcers induced by aspirin intake, alcohol use, stress, and more.
5. Holy Basil for Stress, Anxiety, & Depression
As an adaptogen, holy basil is a great herb to help us better deal with stress and anxiety. A 2017 study in rats determined that holy basil showed clinical promise in treating stress and anxiety when rats given an alcohol extract of holy basil showed less anxiety, less aversion to light, and more exploratory behavior.
A 2021 study demonstrated significant anti-depression effects of an aqueous extract (ie. tea) of holy basil and cardamom in elderly patients suffering from depression. Researchers have compared these anti-depressive effects of holy basil to anti-depression pharmaceuticals like Diazepam.
6. Holy Basil for High Cholesterol
Holy basil has also shown promise in helping to reduce cholesterol, although much of this research has been conducted in rats and cats. There was even a 2021 study that demonstrated that a combination of powdered garlic and tulsi leaves was effective in reducing cholesterol in broiler chickens.
However, a 2018 study did find that tulsi was effective in reducing both total and LDL cholesterol in short-term duration (up to 3 months) in elderly patients with metabolic disease.
7. Holy Basil for Joint & Musculoskeletal Pain
Studies have also shown that holy basil can be effective in easing joint and musculoskeletal pain both when applied externally and taken internally. The high antioxidant content and huge anti-inflammatory potential of holy basil make it a great option for helping manage pain, especially pain associated with chronic inflammation due to rheumatoid and osteoarthritis.
A 2012 study found that holy basil oil was effective in helping with joint pain and arthritis, and another study in 2017 found that a poultice of mustard and holy basil was effective in reducing knee pain in elderly patients.
8. Holy Basil for Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV)
Alcohol extracts of holy basil have also demonstrated antiviral activity against herpes simplex viruses. With the emergence of resistance to acyclovir, a common pharmaceutical used to help manage symptoms of HSV, traditional therapies are being increasingly considered in treating HSV. These traditional therapies include many medicinal plants including common herbs like rosemary and sage.
Holy basil’s ability to help increase immunity is also helpful in fighting viral infections.
9. Holy Basil for Anti-Fertility & Contraception
With all these beneficial effects of tulsi, it’s a slight bummer that high doses can affect reproductive health for both males and females. High doses of tulsi have been shown to result in reduced sperm count and increased sperm mortality.
It’s a little unclear as to what dosage may cause infertility, as most studies have been conducted in rats and even rabbits, not humans.
Nonetheless, it’s been shown to demonstrate anti-estrogenic effects and promote uterine contractions. For this reason, Ayurvedic physicians have been reported to use the leaves of holy basil for an anti-fertility effect. This effect is attributed to a chemical compound called ursolic acid.
Interestingly, holy basil is being evaluated along with many other herbs for their potential role in the development of a safe and effective male contraceptive.
**I think it’s important to also note that holy basil is not a reliable form of birth control and that it should generally be avoided if trying to conceive. However, it’s always best to speak with your licensed healthcare practitioner and/or a practicing clinical herbalist.
10. Holy Basil for Allergies
Holy basil has a whole team of health benefits helping to manage symptoms of allergies. As an adaptogen, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulator, holy basil is a great ally for those who suffer from a variety of allergies. A 2017 study showed that steam inhalation with holy basil leaves in combination with taking the extract orally helped with symptoms of cold, flu, and allergies.
Interestingly, holy basil extracts have also shown a reduction in symptoms associated with wheat allergies.
11. Holy Basil for Mental Clarity & Cognitive Health
In the book Adaptogens, holy basil is referred to as a cerebral stimulant and is especially recommended for people with brain fog. When used in combination with other cerebral stimulants such as rosemary and ginkgo, holy basil may be used for menopausal brain fog, attention deficit disorder (ADD), as well as to help speed recovery from head trauma.
Studies in rats have also shown an alcohol extract of holy basil to help protect again aging-related memory loss. And other studies have shown it to not only help to prevent memory loss but that it also helped to enhance memory and cognitive function.
12. Holy Basil for Oral & Dental Health
Yes, holy basil may even be beneficial to your dental health! A 2014 study showed mouthwash made with holy basil to have an anti-plaque effect, as well as an antibiotic effect against some common periodontal pathogens.
Due to holy basil’s anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant, and immune-enhancing properties, it’s a promising herb in dentistry.
13. Holy Basil for Type 2 Diabetes & High Blood Sugar
Holy basil has traditional uses in India as an antidiabetic. Studies done in rats have shown an alcohol extract of holy basil leaves to have a positive effect on blood glucose and other physiological markers for diabetes by way of stimulating insulin secretion.
A 2018 review highlighted the efficacy of both water and alcohol extracts, as well as the essential oil of holy basil, in helping to manage symptoms of diabetes.
The Take-Away on Tulsi According to Modern Science
Despite the thousands of years of medicinal use that holy basil (tulsi) has under its belt, modern science is still catching up to its huge spectrum of health benefits. However, this is also the case with many plant medicines. Nonetheless, slowly, but surely, modern science is confirming many of the traditional, tried, and true health benefits of holy basil.
Going forward, there is much more room for additional studies confirming its efficacy in humans, as well as its safety for long-term use with high doses. Aside from its anti-fertility effects and contraindications in pregnancy, tulsi is generally well-tolerated and beneficial to overall health.
Holy Basil FAQs
How can I use holy basil?
There are so many ways to use and enjoy this wonderful herb as it’s incredibly versatile. Here are some quick ideas for you:
- Use the fresh or dried leaves to make an herbal tea. Make your own adaptogenic, immune-boosting, or digestive blend using this guide to blending herbal teas.
- Throw some leaves, fresh or dried, into your homemade veggie broths for an extra boost of adaptogenic immune support.
- Many an herbal honey. Try this recipe for Elderberry & Fig Galettes with Lavender-Tulsi Honey that uses dried, powdered tulsi.
- Infuse your water with fresh tulsi. Just throw a sprig of tulsi into your water bottle and leave it in there all day long, even as you empty and refill your bottle.
- Toss some fresh leaves with your fruit salad.
- As a mineral rich green, holy basil is a great herb to infuse into vinegar for salad dressings, braising hearty greens, and more.
What are the possible side effects of holy basil?
Tulsi is generally well-tolerated by most people. However, it can have an anti-fertility effect on both men and women. For this reason, it’s recommended to avoid consuming holy basil if you are pregnant or trying to conceive.
Additionally, holy basil may interact with certain medications. If you are diabetic and taking insulin, it’s best to consult with your licensed health practitioner before consuming holy basil and/or using it to help decrease insulin dependence.
It’s also important to note that while studies show that holy basil is generally safe for all, there are no long-term studies that can verify the safety of consuming holy basil long term (more than 3 months), especially for consuming in high amounts. A helpful peace-of-mind practice is to always rotate the herbs you are using. For example, you may use holy basil for its adaptogen properties for 2-3 months and then swap it out for another adaptogen, giving you and your body a little break.
Can I use regular culinary basil instead of holy basil?
No, holy basil and regular culinary basil are not interchangeable medicinally. While culinary (or Italian) basil does have its own nutrition and health benefits, it’s not a substitute for holy basil.
And as for a culinary substitution, holy basil and basil taste and smell very different. Holy basil will definitely change the flavor of your marinara or pesto, which you may or may not enjoy.
Should I take holy basil at night or in the morning?
Both and/or whatever works for you. Taking holy basil in the morning may help to lessen the amount of stress you experience during the day. And due to its ability to help calm nerves, taking tulsi at night may help you to sleep better.
Does holy basil make you sleepy?
Holy basil is an effective nervine that can help calm your nerves and put you in a more relaxed state. While it’s not considered to be a sedative herb, it can help you relax, better deal with stress and anxiety, and prepare you for better sleep. It generally doesn’t make you sleepy.
Does holy basil affect hormones?
Yes, as an adaptogen, holy basil can have an effect on many of our hormones. It can help to balance hormones and may be helpful in treating symptoms associated with hormonal imbalance such as menopause, fatigue, weight gain, etc. It can help to lower elevated cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone.
Holy basil can also stimulate the secretion of insulin, an important hormone involved in blood sugar regulation. And as a plant with anti-fertility properties, it also can also affect testosterone and estrogen.
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Resources & Further Reading
- Holy Basil by Gayle Engels and Josef Brinkmann (Herbal Gram, American Botanical Council)
- The No BS Guide to Adaptogens for Hormonal Balance & Stress (Jennifer Chesak, Healthline.com)
- Monograph: Holy Basil (Rosalee de la Forêt, LearningHerbs.com)
- Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, & Stress Relief by David Winston & Steve Maimes
- Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging & Resistant Viral Infections by Stephen Harrod Buhner
DISCLAIMER: The information given in this article is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before consuming certain herbs & medicinal foods, especially if pregnant, nursing, or taking any prescription medications.