Edited from Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief (David Winston and Steven Maimes; Inner Traditions; 2007):
Botanical Name: Ocimum sanctum, O. tenuiflorum
Common Names: Tulsi (Hindi), tulasi (Hindi), surasa (Sanskrit), sacred basil
Part Used: Herb
Location/Cultivation: Holy basil is found throughout the lowlands of India as well as in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, southern China, Thailand, and Malaysia. In India, small patches of it are widely cultivated for daily use. There are at least three types of holy basil. The greenleafed variety sri or rama tulsi is the most common. The second type (Krishna tulsi) bears dark-green to purple leaves; this variety has a stronger taste and smell. The third type (vana tulsi, O. tenuiflorum) is a green-leafed forest variety that often grows wild.
Properties: Adaptogen, antibacterial, antidepressant, antioxidant, antiviral, carminative, diuretic, expectorant, galactagogue (promotes the flow of mother’s milk), and immunomodulator
Constituents: Essential oils such as eugenol, carvacol, linalool, caryophylline, and methyleugenol as well as triterpenes such as ursolic acid and flavonoids.
Holy basil is sacred to the Hindu god Vishnu and is used in morning prayers to insure personal health, spiritual purity, and family well-being. Strings of beads made from the plant’s stems are used in meditation to give clarity and protection. The ancient ayurvedic texts, the Charaka Samhita (appx. 200 BCE) and Sushruta Samhita (400–100 BCE) both mention the use of this herb to treat people with snakebites and scorpion stings.
Holy basil is classified as a rasayana, an herb that nourishes a person’s growth to perfect health and promotes long life. For perhaps three thousand years, holy basil has been considered one of India’s most powerful herbs. The daily use of this herb is believed to help maintain the balance of the chakras, (energy centers) of the body. It is acclaimed as possessing sattva (energy of purity) and as being capable of bringing on goodness, virtue, and joy in humans. In the Puranas (a sacred Hindu text), everything associated with the plant is holy, including water given to it and the soil in which it grows as well as all its parts, among them leaves, flowers, seed, and roots.
In Indian folk medicine, the leaves of the holy basil plant are brewed in a tea that is used as an expectorant to treat people with excessive bronchial mucus and bronchitis. The tea also is used for people with upset stomach, biliouness, and vomiting. The powdered/dried leaves have been used as a snuff for nasal congestion, and the juice of the fresh leaf is put in the ear for earaches. A decoction made from the root is used to lower malarial fevers, and a poultice made from the fresh roots and leaves is applied to bites and stings from wasps, bees, mosquitoes, ants, and other insects as well as leeches. The seeds are mucilaginous (slimy) and have been used to soothe the urinary tract when urination is difficult or painful.
In Thailand, holy basil is called bai gkaprow or kaphrao daeng. It is used as a spice in cooking and as a medicine for people with gas, intestinal cramps, ulcers, colds, influenza, headaches, coughs, and sinusitis.
This plant has become naturalized in Suriname in northern South America, where it is used for many of the same conditions that it was used for in India—snakebites, abdominal pain, and to lower fevers.
There has been a significant amount of both animal studies and human clinical research on the benefits of holy basil. Today, we know this versatile plant is an adaptogen with antioxidant, neuroprotective, stress reducing, and radioprotective (protects against the damaging effects of ionizing radiation) effects.
In animal studies, pretreatment with methanol extracts of holy basil reduced brain damage caused by reduced cerebral circulation. Alcohol extracts of this herb showed significant antistress activities in mice exposed to acute and chronic noise stress. Use of holy basil prevented increased corticosterone levels that indicate elevated stress levels. A water extract of holy basil protected mice against radiation damage to the liver and chromosome damage to the cells. It prevented this damage by reducing hepatic lipid perioxidation and increasing the presence of two powerful cellular antioxidants: superoxide dimutase and superoxide catalase.
Other animal studies provided preliminary evidence that holy basil lowers blood sugar levels, helps prevent gastric ulcers, and enhances antibody production while inhibiting the symptoms of allergies.
There have been a few human studies. In one, holy basil was found to help reduce asthma symptoms, and in another, patients with type 2 diabetes had significant reductions in blood sugar levels (17.6 percent) while fasting and smaller decreases in blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels after eating.
David Winston, herbalist
In my clinical practice I use holy basil to enhance cerebral circulation and memory. It is used in ayurvedic medicine to relieve “mental fog” caused by chronic cannabis smoking. 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.
I also use holy basil as an antidepressant for “stagnant depression.” The term stagnant depression is one that I coined, and it describes a specific type of situational depression. In this case, some type of traumatic event occurred in a person’s life, and because he is unable to move on, his life comes to revolve around the trauma. In addition to therapy, herbs such as holy basil, damiana, rosemary, and lavender are especially useful for treating this condition.
Lastly, 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 allergic asthma.
Dosage and Safety
Tincture (1:5 or 1:2): 40–60 drops, three times per day.
Tea: Add 1 tsp. dried leaf to 8 oz. hot water, steep, covered, 5–10 minutes. Take 4 oz. up to three times per day.
Capsules: Various forms of capsulated products are available. These include extracts in gelcaps, dried or powdered herb in capsules, and standardized extracts (2 percent ursolic acid) in capsules.
Safety Issues: There have been contradictory animal studies showing that holy basil might be toxic to embryos. Until conclusive information exists, avoid using it during pregnancy. Holy basil also is reported to have an antifertility effect and should be avoided if a woman is trying to get pregnant.
Herb/Drug Interactions: Preliminary studies indicate that holy basil might enhance CYP-450 activity, thus speeding up the elimination of some medications.
Dr. Narendra Singh:
Dosage and Usage
Holy Basil is generally effective in a single dose of 300mg to 600mg of dried leaves daily for preventive therapy, and in 600mg to 1800mg in divided doses daily for curative therapy. Holy basil scientist Dr. Narendra Singh of Lucknow recommends a dose of 2 grams of the freshly dried herb twice daily for several months. Herbal extracts and supercritical extracts should be used as directed.
Holy basil can also be taken as tea (2 grams a cup). A cup of Tulsi tea simply from an infused tea bag is an excellent prophylactic and a good direct medicine for many mild therapies.
Dr. Narendra Singh in his book on Tulsi reports that after three decades of clinical research that the adaptogenic/antistress activity of Holy Basil (including an increase in stamina and immunological resistance) is likely to take one week to one month to develop and gives appreciable improvements in health lasting for a month of more after discontinuation.
Information from: The Chopra Center, Deepak Chopra, M.D., Director of Educational Programs and Founder. http://www.chopra.com/
Familiar name: Holy Basil, Sacred Basil
Latin name: Ocimum sanctum
Sanskrit name: Tulsi, Tulasi
Holy basil has both medicinal and spiritual significance in Ayurveda. It is sacred to Lord Vishnu, the Hindu god of preservation and is considered purifying to body, mind and spirit. A living Tulsi plant is kept in many Indian homes where it is endowed with a sacred aura and believed to provide divine protection for the household. Rosaries made from its cut stems are commonly used as meditation beads. Closely related to the sweet basil plant widely available in the West, holy basil has been used as a valued culinary and medicinal herb. Its traditional use has been in the treatment of colds and flues where its purifying actions are believed to cleanse the respiratory tract of toxins. It is also helpful in the relief of digestive gas and bloating. Recent scientific reports have confirmed the healing properties of holy basil in medical conditions ranging from diabetes to cancer.
The Science of Tulsi
Holy basil oil has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Several studies have demonstrated that constituents of holy basil can neutralize free radicals and inhibit the production of inflammatory prostaglandins. An animal study found an extract of holy basil to be essentially equivalent to a standard dose of aspirin. These effects may explain one of Tulsi's traditional roles in the treatment of pain and arthritis.
The antioxidant properties of holy basil may also underlie its effectiveness in dampening the effects of stress on the physiology. In addition to its ability to dampen the chemical changes of stress, holy basil also appears to influence the neurochemistry of the brain in a manner similar to antidepressant medications. These interesting pharmacological properties have recently been applied to different clinical situations with potentially important results. A number of studies have looked at the ability of holy basil to protect healthy cells from the toxicity associated with radiation and chemotherapy for cancer. Components of holy basil consistently limit the damage that radiation causes to the bone marrow and digestive tract in animals. When the cells were looked at microscopically, those animals that received holy basil had less chromosomal damage than those that received a placebo.
Holy basil has also been shown to protect the heart from damage caused by a widely used chemotherapy drug, adriamycin. It seems to work by protecting components of heart and liver cells from oxidative damage caused by free radicals generated by the chemotherapy. Other studies have shown holy basil to have a protective effect against chemical carcinogens. Adding to its potential value in the prevention and treatment of cancer, holy basil has also been shown to enhance different aspects of the immune response in animals.
Another medical condition that holy basil may benefit is diabetes. Studies have shown holy basil to have substantial blood sugar lowering effects, similar to standard oral diabetes medications. It also appears capable of lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Diabetes is one of the few areas where holy basil has been formally tested in people. In a recent study of forty patients with non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) people taking two and one-half grams of dried Tulsi leaf powder every morning showed significant reductions in their blood glucose levels first thing in the morning as well as after their meals. In addition to lower glucose levels, they also had a mild reduction in their cholesterol levels. This simple intervention could have a substantial impact on this common health problem, particularly in regions where expensive diabetes medications are out of reach for many people.
One of Tulsi's traditional uses has been in the treatment of digestive disorders ranging from heartburn to bloating. Studies in animals have suggested that there is a scientific basis to these longstanding claims. Holy basil has been shown to have significant anti-ulcer activity. It reduces the effect of peptic acid or irritating drugs on the stomach lining and increases the production of protective stomach mucous.
This popular plant has many potential therapeutic applications. In addition to the uses reviewed above, Tulsi may possess useful antibiotic activity, have a blood pressure lowering effect and be effective as a birth control agent. This sacred healing plant deserves further scientific attention.
Tulsi and Ayurveda
According to Ayurveda, Tulsi creates purity and lightness in the body. It carries the bitter, pungent and astringent tastes and generates a warming influence on the physiology. It has a sweet post-digestive effect. It has a predominantly Kapha reducing effect on the doshas, but can be used to pacify Vata and Pitta as well. In severely overheated individuals, Tulsi can have a mildly Pitta aggravating effect.
Holy basil is generally a very safe healing herb. Studies from the 1970's suggested that holy basil might have a mild anti-fertility effect in animals. Although this has not been shown to occur in people, if you are pregnant or trying to be, do not take medicinal doses of holy basil.
Tulsi is mentioned in the ancient scriptures of India. In the Padmapurana (24.2) Lord Shiva tells the sage Narada about this power:
“Oh Narada, wherever Tulsi grows there is no misery. She is the holiest of the holy. Wherever the breeze blows her fragrance there is purity. Vishnu showers blessing on those who worship and grow Tulsi. Tulsi is sacred because Brahma resides in the roots, Vishnu resides in the stems and leaves and Rudra resides in the flowering tops.”