Although you may associate basil with the aromatic herb added to Italian food, there are actually around 50-150 varieties of basil, including holy basil. A staple in Ayurveda for thousands of years, holy basil offers a number of potential benefits to support your health and has become an incredibly popular supplement for stress support. Read on to learn more about the history of holy basil, and how it could support your health.
What is Holy Basil?
Holy basil is also called Tulsi, Ocimun tenuiflorum, or Ocimum sanctum, and it is an aromatic plant native to Southeast Asia, particularly India. It is a member of the family Lamiaceae, which is more commonly known as the mint or dead nettle family. Typically, holy basil grows one to two feet tall and has hairy stems and green or purple leaves. These leaves have a round shape with slightly serrated edges, and the plant grows small, purplish flowers when it blooms. Holy basil has a distinctive aroma, and the flavor somewhat resembles a mix of mint, licorice, and clove. The plant grows in a bushy, shrub-like shape, and is typically an annual in the wild, although it can be perennial if it is trimmed before it seeds (or bolts).
There are thought to be three primary types of holy basil, which are often referred to as Krishna tulsi, Rama tulsi, and Vana tulsi. Krishna tulsi is sometimes called “purple leaf tulsi,” and it has a clove-like aroma and a bright peppery flavor. Rama tulsi is a green holy basil with light purple flowers. It has the same clove-like aroma but has a milder flavor than Krishna tulsi. Vana tulsi is also called “wild leaf tulsi,” and it is usually light to bright green. It is found in Asia, as well as North and East Africa, and has a lemony scent and flavor. (1) Holy basil has a long history of both ceremonial and practical use in the Ayurvedic tradition, and has been used in Ancient India, Greece, and Rome to support health. (2)
History of Holy Basil
Holy basil has a long and fascinating history that ranges from use in India and Ancient Greece to Europe and America. Ayurvedic practitioners have been using holy basil to support health for many years, and the plant is considered sacred to the Hindu religion. In recent years, holy basil has become popular for stress support, a healthy internal response, and more in western culture.The tradition with the longest use of holy basil is unquestionably India. Holy basil has been used in India for nearly three thousand years and is considered a sacred plant in the Hindu tradition as it is representative of the goddess Tulsi/Lakshmi. According to Hindu texts, Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, and is the consort of Vishnu. Lakshmi was turned into a tulsi plant as the result of a curse. When Vishnu was unable to undo the curse, he granted Lakshmi life on earth as a mortal. As a mortal, she married a demon who was later killed by the god Shiva and Lakshmi was able to return to Vishnu. When Lakshmi left her earthly body to return to the celestial realm, her mortal remains and hair transformed into the Gandaki river and holy basil plants respectively. As a result, the plant is sometimes regarded as representative of the threshold point between heaven and earth. (3)
In the Hindu tradition, holy basil is sometimes called “The Incomparable One,” “Mother Medicine of Nature,” and “The Queen of Herbs.” Each part of the plant is considered sacred, and sometimes even the surrounding soil in which the holy basil is planted. Some Hindi households consider the home incomplete without a holy basil plant, and it is often kept in a decorative earthenware pot. It is thought to sanctify and purify the home, and is used for both ceremonial and practical purposes. For example, the leaves are ingested or brewed into a tea to support purification, and it is sometimes used to repel insects like mosquitos and flies. (4)
It is also sometimes used to make holy water that is used in Hinduism and sometimes in Greek Orthodox services, as well as “tulsi malas,” which are strings of beads using in chanting, meditation, and other devotional practices. At one time, British colonists in India would use holy basil instead of the Bible for native Indians to swear upon in court. (5) Later, holy basil began to be used to support health in western cultures as well.
Basil in Western Culture
It is thought that holy basil was brought to Ancient Greece by Alexander the Great. However, unlike in India, basil was associated with misfortune, poverty, and dislike. In fact, it is thought that the Greeks and Romans would attempt to entice the basil to grow by shouting obscenities at it, since it was believed to flourish only where there was discord (In fact, the French phrase semer le basilic, meaning “sow the basil” is a term that refers to raving or slandering). Later in Europe, basil was sometimes used as a good luck charm and was believed to encourage affection, with some caveats.
The word “basil” itself comes from somewhat uncertain origins. Some think it may be connected to the Latin word basilisk, which may explain the herb’s connection to scorpions. According to one superstition, leaving a sprig of basil under a pot would cause it to turn into a scorpion (which was likely derived from the fact that scorpions were often found under basil plants. According to a seventeenth century text written (perhaps aptly) by a Flemish doctor named Hilarius, smelling basil could cause the brain to turn to scorpions. The other potential root of the word is derived from the Greek basileus, meaning “king,” which has led to basil’s nickname as the “king of herbs.” Basil became popular in America in the 18th century, and soon after began being used to support health. (6)
Holy Basil and Ayurveda
Holy basil has been an integral part of the Ayurvedic tradition for thousands of years. Ayurveda is an ancient practice that focuses on the connection between the mind and body, and it is thought that optimal health occurs when the body and mind are in balance with the natural world. In Ayurveda, there are three primary energies that govern the body. These energies, called doshas, are vata, kapha, and pitta. Each dosha is associated with an element or groups of elements in the body, and Ayurveda advises various herbal extracts to keep the doshas in balance. When out of balance, the body is believed to experience negative health issues in areas like the digestive system, respiratory system, and more, and is also thought to experience negative emotional effects.
In the Ayurvedic tradition, holy basil is used to maintain a balance of the kapha and vata doshas, since its primary characteristics are thought to be hot and bitter. It is also thought to support healthy looking skin and emotional calm. It is also used to support digestive issues, eye health, respiratory system health, cardiovascular health, and was also used to protect from insect, snake, and scorpion bites.
Active Compounds in Holy Basil
Holy basil contains a number of active compounds, including eugenol, which is also an ingredient that gives cloves their aromas and flavors. Eugenol, along with the compounds camphor and eucalyptol may support a healthy internal response. (7) It also includes flavonoids like orientin and vicenin. It also includes a number of necessary trace minerals like zinc, calcium, and iron, as well as fatty acids like stearic, palmitic, oleic, linoleic, and linolenic acids. (8)
Potential Health Benefits of Holy Basil
Holy basil is considered an adaptogen — a group of herbs that have been shown to support a healthy response to stress. Adaptogens are not mood altering; instead, they work to support the body’s optimal function during times of stress. According to recent article on the effects of adaptogenic herbs, “an adaptogen increases body resistance to physically, chemically or biologically noxious factors, thereby having a normalizing effect on body functions and inflicting no harm... From the research it is possible to learn about the efficacy of the adaptogen use as a single dose and on long term use and the differences between the various adaptogens.” (9) Other well-known adaptogens include panax ginseng, rhodiola, and schisandra. Many people choose to take a holy basil supplement for stress support, or to support feelings of calm and relaxation.
Beyond supporting natural stress relief, holy basil is also a source of antioxidants and has a high phenolic compound content, although the Krishna holy basil typically has a higher amount of antioxidant compounds than Vana (wild) holy basil. Antioxidants work to support the body’s overall health by protecting cells from free radical damage. According to one article, “Laboratory studies have shown that tulsi protects against toxic chemical-induced injury by increasing the body's levels of antioxidant molecules such as glutathione and enhancing the activity of antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase and catalase, which protect cellular organelles and membranes by mopping up damaging free radicals caused by lack of oxygen and other toxic agents.” Holy basil may also support detoxification by protecting against oxidative stress and supporting a healthy liver, kidney, and brain. (10)
According to one study, holy basil may also have positive effects on cognitive health and function. Participants were given 300 mg of holy basil or placebo per day over 30 days. At the end of the study, researchers observed that “ocimum sanctum leaf extract seems to have potential cognition-enhancing properties in humans.” (11) Researchers are also looking into the effects of holy basil on cancer cells. In one review, researchers suggest that holy basil may have a number of potential benefits on cancerous cells. They state, “Preclinical studies have also shown that Tulsi and some of its phytochemicals eugenol, rosmarinic acid, apigenin, myretenal, luteolin, β-sitosterol, and carnosic acid prevented chemical-induced skin, liver, oral, and lung cancers… The aqueous extract of Tulsi and its flavonoids, orientin, and vicenin are shown to protect mice against γ-radiation-induced sickness and mortality and to selectively protect the normal tissues against the tumoricidal effects of radiation.” (12) While these results necessitate further study, initial results seem promising.
One of the more surprising potential benefits of holy basil is its effect on dental health. Many people choose to use holy basil in mouthwashes or to clean their teeth, and it may support antiplaque activity and support gum health. In one study that looked at the effects of various mouthwashes, researchers discovered “the holy basil mouthwash has an antiplaque effect and is efficacious against P. intermedia and F. nucleatum strains in vitro. Hence holy basil mouthwash may have potential as an antiplaque mouthwash with prophylactic benefits.” (13) Another study confirmed these findings, but recommended further research into the effects of holy basil on oral health. (14)
Other Potential Benefits of Holy Basil
- Supports a healthy response to stress
- Promotes healthy cholesterol levels already in the normal range
- Supports healthy blood sugar levels already in the normal range
- May support liver health
- Seeks to support kidney health
- May support healthy sleep
- Supports a healthy internal response
- May support healthy looking skin
- And more…
Should You Take a Holy Basil Supplement?
Taking a holy basil supplement has become increasingly popular. Most often, people choose to take holy basil in a vegetarian capsule as part of their overall health routine. Some people also choose a liquid supplement, which can be taken alone or mixed with water or juice. Often these supplements are mixed with other herbal extracts to support adrenal health.
You can also choose a holy basil essential oil to support your health. This sweet and spicy oil has an uplifting aroma that works to clarify your senses and support a relaxed mood. It can be combined with clove or frankincense oil to create a cozy and warm scent.
One of the most popular ways to add holy basil into your health routine is by brewing a cup of fragrant holy basil tea. Since tulsi does have a slightly bitter flavor, it is sometimes combined with herbs like moringa or turmeric to support optimal health and promote a healthy response to stress. Many people choose this tea as an alternative to caffeinated beverages like coffee.
At Natural Healthy Concepts, we offer a number of holy basil supplements and combination formulas to support your health, including veggie capsules, liquid extracts, essential oils, and teas. Shop our selection today and see if holy basil makes a difference in your life.