Whether you use it to reduce stress, improve sleep, or boost your immune system, holy basil is an amazing herb with many therapeutic properties. Also called Tulsi, legend has it that the plant is an earthly manifestation of the Hindu goddess who was devoted to Vishnu — the god who preserves creation and life. Tulsi is often grown around Hindu shrines and offered in worship as a sacred plant, and because of its role in the Hindu religion, some consider chewing the leaves a disrespectful act. Because of its many therapeutic properties, Ayurvedic practitioners have used holy basil for centuries.
What Is Holy Basil?
Holy basil Ocimum sanctum (sometimes called Ocimum tenuiflorum) is a green, leafy plant with purple flowers. Part of the mint family, holy basil is an aromatic shrub native to India. Don’t confuse holy basil with sweet basil (also called Thai basil) commonly used in cooking; though related, they’re two different plants. The leaves, seeds, and flowers of holy basil contain many nutrients, including vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, zinc, and iron.
The Benefits of Taking Holy Basil
Both ancient tradition and modern science attribute an array of health benefits to holy basil, including antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral, antiprotozoal, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and adaptogenic properties. Natural healthcare providers use this herb to normalize lung, liver, eye, kidney, bone, thyroid, metabolic, and respiratory conditions. Historically, healthcare providers also used holy basil for skin conditions including ringworm, insect bites, and acne, and to calm digestive issues. Below are the most common benefits that holy basil offers.
1. Reduces Anxiety & Stress
Holy basil is a natural adaptogen, which is a substance that reduces anxiety and stress. Adaptogens help your body adapt to stress by boosting your immune system, increasing endurance, and balancing moods. A small-scale trial found that when 35 human subjects took 500 mg of holy basil twice daily, they reported improvements in their overall mood. Two antioxidants that this herb contains, rosmarinic acid and carnosic acid, help protect cells. These powerful antioxidants counteract free radicals and radiation, battling environmental stresses on a cellular level.
2. Balances Blood Sugar
Holy basil’s positive impact on blood sugar levels provides one of its most powerful and important benefits. A study showed that patients with non-insulin-dependent diabetes had better blood sugar levels after taking 2.5 g (2,500 mg) of holy basil leaves every day for four weeks. Participants in both studies experienced substantial reductions in their fasting blood glucose levels and blood glucose levels. If this is something you’re trying to get in check, check out our article on natural ways to lower blood sugar.
3. Helps Heart Health
It turns out holy basil may benefit your heart health, as well. A team of researchers looked at how eugenol essential oil — one of the components of holy basil — affected diabetes in laboratory rats, and while doing so, they discovered it improved and lowered cholesterol levels. This led the scientists to conclude that holy basil may strengthen the cardiovascular system. Other studies have shown that the herb can help promote normal blood pressure in people.
4. Freshens Your Breath
If you grow the plant yourself, you can chew holy basil leaves as a mouth freshener — that is, if it does not go against your religious beliefs. Holy basil is an herb that can eliminate the germs in your mouth, giving you fresher breath and better oral health care. You can also buy holy basil powder, which is ground-up leaves, and use that in place of toothpaste. Just sprinkle some on your toothbrush, and brush as normal. To find other ways to freshen your breath, check out our 7 herbs for bad breath article.
5. Improves Sleep
You may want to start adding holy basil to your nighttime routine for better sleep. After a group of researchers from India gave adults ages 18 to 65 1200 mg of holy basil before bed, they experienced more restful sleep and felt less tired during the day.
6. Soothes Headaches
One of holy basil’s most popular uses is relieving headaches. Ayurvedic practitioners believe the herb balances the three doshas, which are energies in the body. Holy basil is also used in Ayurveda to relieve the tension that creates headaches. Studies have found that patients who regularly take holy basil supplements experience fewer headaches.
7. Relieves Earaches
If you have an earache, holy basil may help. Researchers discovered that a drop of juice from the leaves could soothe and improve earache symptoms in kids and adults. This might be related to its ability to reduce pain sensitivity as well as swelling and irritation in the body.
8. Protects the Stomach
Ancient practitioners of Ayurveda used holy basil for stomach conditions, and science has since confirmed its benefits to the digestive system. Researchers found that holy basil oil helped decrease ulcers in laboratory animals. In another study, not only did holy basil reduce existing gastric and duodenal ulcers, it even prevented animals from developing them in the first place.
9. Reduces Body Fever
People have used holy basil — specifically the juice from fresh leaves — for centuries to reduce fevers and boost the immune system. One study mentions that in past times, people used holy basil to treat malarial fever. The eugenol in holy basil also has insecticidal and larvicidal effects against mosquito larvae, which cause malaria.
10. Improves Skin Health
Studies show that the eugenol found in holy basil — a compound also found in clove oil — deters harmful organisms. Bacteria, such as Cutibacterium acnes (formerly called Propionibacterium acnes) can cause chronic acne and inflame minor skin blemishes. One team of researchers created various herbal anti-acne gel combinations with various combinations of holy basil, crepe jasmine, tea tree oil. They found that various anti-acne gel formulations that included holy basil had nearly the same antibacterial activity as a prescription antibiotic gel.
11. Boosts Brain Function
Like the Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha, holy basil supports cognitive function — in other words, memory, and learning. It boosts anti-stress agents in the brain, improving brain activity by increasing glutathione peroxidase activity — an enzyme that protects your cells from oxidative damage. Another study revealed that holy basil protects neurons in the brain from damage.
12. Promotes Eye Health
Traditionally, practitioners used holy basil eye drops for a variety of conditions, including cataracts, glaucoma, or conjunctivitis. A study published in 2000 showed that eye drops containing the leaf extract had antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-fungal activity, and also reduced redness and irritation, improving these ocular conditions.
Holy Basil Nutrition Facts
One gram of fresh holy basil has 0 calories and 3 mg of potassium, but no fat, cholesterol, sodium, or sugar. Holy basil also contains trace amounts of vitamin A and C, calcium, and iron. Concentrated extracts and essential oils may provide more of these nutrients.
How to Take Holy Basil
Holy basil is available in many forms, such as powders, essential oils, extracts, and teas. You can grow holy basil or buy it fresh. The seeds, leaves, and flowers can all be used.
You can make holy basil tea from fresh or dry leaves. Simply brew them in a pot of hot water or let them steep for 10 minutes. Then, remove the leaves and drink the liquid, adding natural sweeteners if you desire. Instant tea powders that dissolve in water are also available.
Holy basil has a warm, spicy, sweet aroma. When using holy basil essential oil, keep in mind that it’s extremely concentrated, so you have to dilute it in a carrier oil like almond oil or coconut oil before applying to your skin. By putting holy basil oil in a diffuser, you can enhance your home’s aroma. You do not need to dilute essential oils when used in a diffuser. Never take an essential oil orally unless it is certified food-grade.
There are many holy basil supplements available. These usually come in 500 mg per tablet and you can take more than one at a time to get the serving amount you desire.
Always look for the purest, highest-quality, organic extracts available. I recommend avoiding ethanol-alcohol based extractions.
Dosage for Holy Basil
The University of Michigan recommends taking 1,000 to 2,500 mg of holy basil per day, in the dried, powdered leaf form. Scientists recommend these specific amounts used in clinical trials which helped various conditions. You can take the entire serving at once or spread it throughout the day.
Holy Basil Side Effects
In human clinical trials, researchers found holy basil had no side effects, but some studies have found that it reduced fertility in animals. Holy basil may affect spermatogenesis due to the ursolic acid it contains, so avoid it if you are trying to conceive a child. It’s not known how this herb might affect pregnant and lactating women, so avoid it unless a healthcare provider says otherwise. In general, however, holy basil is safe to use and has many healing properties.
Growing Holy Basil
If you want to grow your own holy basil, it will thrive indoors, but can also be grown outside, depending on your climate. In the United States, the plant grows best in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plant hardiness zones 10 and 11 — or the equivalent worldwide. It can’t handle frost, so it’s best to keep the plant above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
A holy basil seed needs warm temperatures to germinate, so it’s best to plant this herb in springtime. Holy basil needs full sunlight and moist soil to thrive. In general, this herb reaches a height of 20 inches, so you can harvest the leaves multiple times during the growing season.
Points to Remember
Holy basil — also called Tulsi — is a popular herb that offers many health benefits. As an adaptogen, holy basil reduces anxiety and lowers stress. The herb also helps balance blood sugar, relieves headaches and earaches, protects the stomach, reduces fevers, and boosts skin, brain, and eye health.
Holy basil is available in teas, extracts, oils, and supplements. You can also use holy basil essential oil. Make sure to avoid ethanol-based extracts. If you prefer growing your own, do it indoors, unless you live in a warm climate that doesn’t get frost.