Holy basil, aka tulsi, is one of the oldest medicinal herbs, frequently used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat various disorders, according to February 2019 research published in the Journal of Plant Medicines. While holy basil side effects are not well-documented, the benefits can be numerous.
Video of the Day
Whether you wish to take holy basil for cortisol management or for specific ailments, be aware there may be instances in which holy basil is contraindicated — if you're taking other medications or have a holy basil allergy, for example. Your health provider advise you on the correct holy basil dosage and any other health conditions to consider.
Holy Basil and Ayurveda
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH) describes Ayurveda as an ancient medicine system that originated in India and takes a natural, holistic approach to physical and mental health. One of the world's oldest medical methodologies, Ayurveda remains as one of India's traditional health care systems.
Ayurveda primarily uses plant-derived treatments, but it may also incorporate animal, metal and mineral treatments as well as diet, exercise and lifestyle recommendations, says the NIH.
Holy basil is revered among Ayurvedic practitioners, dubbed the "elixir of life" in ancient Ayurvedic texts, says the Journal of Plant Medicines. It grows in warm, tropical regions and in mountain regions up to 6,000 feet in elevation.
Although holy basil shares some commonalities with culinary basil, their genetic sequences differ, adds the Journal of Plant Medicines. Certain compounds in holy basil, including eugenol and sesquiterpenoids like beta-caryophyllene, contribute to a pungent quality of holy basil.
Holy basil contains several other medically active compounds, including oleanolic acid, ursolic acid, carvacrol, linalool, rosmarinic acid, myretenal, luteolin and germacrene D, says the Journal of Plant Medicines. Holy basil is also packed with calcium, phosphorus, iron and vitamin C.
Read more: Health Benefits of Tulsi Tea
Benefits of Holy Basil
Ancient Ayurvedic texts advise using holy basil to treat many different ailments, according to the Journal of Plant Medicines. Some of those include:
- Stomach ulcers
- Bacterial infections
- Oxidative stress
- Blood sugar regulation
- Candida prevention
- Reduction of stress and anxiety
- Cardiovascular disease
- Liver damage
- Dental caries, gingivitis and periodontal disease
- Cancer prevention and treatment
In an October–December 2014 article, the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine (J-AIM) notes that many of holy basil's benefits are attributable to its ability to assist in detoxifying the body and protecting it from toxin-induced damage. These functions may be due to holy basil's high content of phenolic compounds.
Holy basil may also help to increase the body's levels of important antioxidants, such as glutathione, and enhance the activity of antioxidant enzymes, says J-AIM. It works to prevent cancers caused by toxic compounds by reducing damage to DNA.
Meanwhile, holy basil helps the body to more effectively rid itself of toxic compounds via liver detoxification enzymes — whether the toxins are produced within the body or absorbed via environmental pollutants, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, radiation and other external sources.
Unlike caffeine-containing substances like coffee and tea, which may cause physical or mental agitation or physical dependency, holy basil is non-addictive and will not produce withdrawal effects, adds J-AIM.
The tulsi plant is a staple in Hindu households, with every part of the tulsi plant considered sacred, including its leaves, stem, flower, root, seeds, oil and even the soil in which it grows, says J-AIM. Its clove-like aroma, resulting from its eugenol content, is said to link a householder to the divine while also repelling mosquitoes, flies and other pests.
Holy Basil and Cortisol
Called "liquid yoga" by J-AIM, holy basil is comparable to a regular yoga practice, providing adaptogenic benefits that have a calming effect on the mind and body. Consuming holy basil may lead to clearer thoughts, a more relaxed disposition, enhanced cognitive function and improved memory.
Finding ways to combat stress is more important than you might think. When you're under stress, your body releases a surge of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, from the adrenal glands, which sit on top of your kidneys. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy supplies, while cortisol increases sugars in the bloodstream and boosts the availability of substances that repair tissues, says the Mayo Clinic.
Over time, however, a repeated activation of this stress-response system and overexposure to stress hormones can be problematic. With increased cortisol, you're at an increased risk for anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, weight gain, sleep disturbances and other health problems, explains the Mayo Clinic.
By incorporating holy basil into your diet, you may be able to combat some of the effects of stress. Indeed, holy basil may help lower levels of stress and regulate blood sugar, says the Parkinson's Resource Organization (PRO).
Read more: Vitamins That Help Balance Cortisol
Holy Basil Side Effects
Although there can be many benefits of using this ancient herb, it's also possible to experience holy basil side effects. March 2017 research published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine points to a lack of systematic reviews of human research on the clinical efficacy and safety of tulsi.
Upon a review of the existing research on tulsi, the authors found two dozen different studies that reported on the therapeutic effects of tulsi on metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, immunity, stress and neurocognition. All of these studies reported favorable outcomes and little to no adverse events.
Based on the research, tulsi is generally considered safe, says Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. However, further studies are needed to clarify tulsi's long-term effects, mechanisms of action, recommended holy basil dosage and dose form, as well identify the populations most likely to benefit from holy basil.
J-AIM also notes the importance of growing tulsi with organic methods in pollution-free areas and under stringent manufacturing processes to ensure the product's quality and effectiveness.
Note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. As such, supplement quality varies widely.
Be sure to talk with your doctor before using holy basil or any other supplement, especially if you're pregnant, breastfeeding, being treated for any conditions or taking any other medication with which holy basil may interfere. For example, holy basil may slow blood clotting and thereby increase the effect of blood-thinning medications, says Lee Health, a system of hospitals and other medical facilities located in Florida.
The PRO warns against using holy basil if you're allergic to mint, a close relative of tulsi, or suspect a holy basil allergy. In addition, be aware that an excess of eugenol can cause an overdose, expressed as shallow breathing, blood in the urine or mucus, nausea, a racing heartbeat, seizures, dizziness, coma or other health problems.
Holy basil allergy and other complications aside, tulsi may be a welcome addition to your daily habits when used as part of a healthy diet, exercise and stress management routine.
Holy basil dosage ranges from 100 to 500 milligrams, two to three times a day, in most capsules, according to the Association for the Advancement of Restorative Medicine. Work with your health provider to determine the ideal dosage and usage for your specific needs.
- Journal of Plant Medicines: "20 Medicinal Benefits of Ayurvedic Holy Basil (Tulsi) Herb"
- Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine: "Tulsi - Ocimum sanctum: A Herb for All Reasons"
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: "Ayurvedic Medicine: In Depth"
- Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "The Clinical Efficacy and Safety of Tulsi in Humans: A Systematic Review of the Literature"
- Parkinson's Resource Organization: "Holy Basil to Beat Stress and Sleep Better"
- Mayo Clinic: "Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk"
- Food and Drug Administration: "Information for Consumers on Using Dietary Supplements"
- Lee Health: "Hypoglycemia"
- Association for the Advancement of Restorative Medicine: "Holy Basil, Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum)"