Plant Uses: Stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, viral infections, fungal infections, depression, colds and flus, herpes virus, radiation exposure, high blood sugar, allergic rhinitis, ulcers, pain
Plant Preparations: Tea, decoction, tincture, fresh juice, poultice, powder, infused into ghee or honey
Holy basil is classified as a rasayana, an herb that nourishes a person’s growth to perfect health and promotes long life.
David Winston and Steve Maimes
from the book Adaptogens
Holy basil, sometimes referred to as tulsi, is a sacred plant in the Hindu religion and grows abundantly in India, western Asia, Malaysia, Central and South America, and even Puerto Rico. Its species 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.
My friend from New Delhi tells me that he was taught to give reverence to this plant every morning before his feet even touch the earth. Many Hindu families grow their own tulsi plant in their home, for spiritual as well as medicinal purposes.
An altar with tulsi for daily worship in a courtyard in India
This plant is sacred to the Hindu god Vishnu. Vishnu’s wife, Tulasi, took the form of this herb when she came to earth. Besides being used in morning prayers, the wood of tulsi is used as beads in meditation, similar to how the Catholics use rosaries.
I know some of you are wondering if our common culinary plant, basil, is the same as tulsi or holy basil and the answer is no. Our culinary plant, Ocimum basilicum, is a different species although they do have some overlapping properties and uses. There are over 60 different species in the Ocimum genus.
There are at least three different types of holy basil, and while they can be used somewhat interchangeably, they also have their slight differences.
Rama Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) has green leaves and is the most commonly cultivated holy basil and the easiest to find in commerce.
Krishna Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) has leaves that are more purple in color.
Vana Tulsi (Ocimum gratissimum) is a perennial basil that is hard to find in commerce. In India it grows in the wild.
I cultivate both Ocimum sanctum (annual) and Ocimum gratissimum (perennial). To me, O. gratissimum is more bitter, colder. O. sanctum is more warming, more adaptogenic. I am thinking of using O. gratissimum for a messed up enteric influencing central nervous system, due to its more bitter nature. But that is just a gut feeling.
For over three thousand years Holy Basil has been revered as one of India’s most sacred and powerful plants.
Really think about that.
Ayurveda, one of the oldest and most sophisticated systems of medicine in the world reveres this plant. That is saying a lot! As you might imagine, a plant that holds such high esteem throughout an entire culture must be an amazing plant. And it is! This is yet another herb with powerful properties that will leave you asking, “What can’t it do?”
Adaptogen Tulsi’s main claim to fame in the western world is its use as an adaptogen. (See this herbal glossary episode to learn more about adaptogens.) In Ayurveda they refer to it as a rasayana. This term is similar to the Chinese term tonics. It basically means that this is a transformative herb and, when taken daily, it moves a person towards health. These are generally building and nourishing herbs.
I often hear people say that they don’t want to be taking herbs for the rest of their life, the idea being that if they were healthy, they wouldn’t need to take herbs. In this sense, people are equating herbs with pharmaceutical drugs. However, in other systems of healing like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, specific herbs are taken for a lifetime to ensure vibrant health and longevity. Holy basil is one of these herbs.
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).
Holy basil not only helps the body adapt to stress, it can also promote energy and endurance. One way it does this is by increasing the body’s ability to efficiently use oxygen.
Holy basil is a relaxing nervine that can help calm the mind and recover from our hustle and bustle culture. It has also been shown to positively effect people who are diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.
David Winston refers to holy basil as a cerebral stimulant and uses it for people with mental fog.
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.
David Winston and Steven Maimes
from the book Adaptogens
Aromatic digestive Like our common culinary basil, holy basil has many positive effects on the digestive system. As a slightly warming and aromatic herb it is used to promote stagnant digestion and it is often paired with dried ginger for this purpose. Stagnant digestion is when you eat a meal and feel like it is stuck. One might also experience bloating, gas, decreased appetite and nausea. Tulsi is also helpful for heartburn and can help to heal ulcers.
The fresh juice sweetened with honey is used for intestinal parasites. And it is considered to be an hepatoprotective herb, or an herb that protects the liver from harm.
Blood glucose regulating Holy basil has been shown to help regulate blood sugar in diabetics and specifically can lower fasting blood glucose significantly. One reasoning for this ability may be its high antioxidant levels. Someone who is taking insulin to control their diabetes might need to approach this herb with caution and adjust their insulin levels accordingly.
Cardiovascular tonic Tulsi has many beneficial actions on the heart. It is slightly blood thinning and promotes good circulation. It can lower stress-related high blood pressure and taken daily it can help optimize cholesterol levels. Stress can play an ugly role in overall cardiovascular health and the adaptogenic properties of tulsi can help mediate stress-related damage.
In Ayurveda, a formula that is balancing to all who take it (tridoshic) is made up of tulsi, arjuna and hawthorne.
For musculoskeletal pain In scientific studies, holy basil has been shown to be a COX 2 inhibitor (many modern pain medications are COX 2 inhibitors), making it useful against arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. Tulsi is high in eugenol, a constituent also found in cloves, which is helpful to decrease pain.
Immunomodulator Holy basil helps to strengthen and modulate the immune system. It can be taken to both prevent and address current upper respiratory viruses like the cold or flu. This expectorant herb also has an affinity for the lungs and can be used for bronchitis as well as pulmonary weakness. Taken over time it can have a beneficial effect on asthma and has also been shown helpful in alleviating allergic rhinitis symptoms like seasonal hay fever.
Add some ginger and honey to tulsi tea to help soothe an irritated sore throat.
As an anti-microbial herb it can be used topically or internally to treat bacterial, viral and fungal infections. It is frequently used for herpes sore outbreaks (viral infection) and can also be applied externally to ringworm infections and eczema. (Taken internally its effects on the liver and digestion also help with eczema.)
Tulsi has the ability to reduce cancerous tumors and can also protect healthy cells from radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
Botanically speaking For this botanical section let’s concentrate on Ocimum sanctum, Rama Tulsi. This is the easiest herb to find in commerce and if you can grow basil, then you can grow this one.
As a member of the mint family it has the characteristic square stem and opposite leaves.
Photo by Forest and Kim Starr
The flowers have the familiar lipped shape of the mint family.
It likes to grow in full sun with moderate water and fertile well-draining soils.
As the plant forms flowers, gently pluck these off to avoid the plant going to seed too early in the season. Also, by occasionally plucking off these flowers you will encourage the plant to branch and continue growing. If you are wanting 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.
Normally, it’s an annual plant that needs about 80 days until maturity. In some tropical climates it may grow for five years.
Preparing holy basil as medicine The most common way to prepare holy basil is as a tea. Because of its high volatile oil content it is steeped for 5-10 minutes covered. You can start with 1 tsp of the leaf and increase as desired. I’ve seen recommendations of up to 4 ounces per day so this will be difficult to take too much of.
In Ayurveda the fresh juice is often used for remedies and my friend and herbalist Christophe (who adores holy basil) says that he strongly prefers fresh leaves for tea or as a fresh tincture.
As a fresh herb tincture one could start with 40 – 60 drops of a 1:2 tincture, 2 – 3 times a day.
Special Considerations Tulsi might 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. It is slightly blood thinning and should not be taken by those who are currently taking warfarin. Those who are taking insulin to control their diabetes may need to adjust their insulin levels while taking tulsi.
Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by David Winston and Steven Maimes
Holy Basil Monograph by Steven Maims
Personal correspondence with herbalist and holy basil aficionado Christophe Bernard
Tulasi Devi: Goddess of Devotion by Sarvaga and Gunavati