I took a walk this morning in my neighborhood, as I often do. Today, when I looked down at the storm drain, I was pleasantly surprised and somewhat amused to find a happy and healthy holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) plant growing among the weeds. This vision inspired me to write about the medicinal properties of holy basil, quite the versatile herb.
You see, I was amused because holy basil doesn’t just grow in the wild. It’s an herb in the mint family, called ‘Tulsi’ in India where it is prized for it’s healing properties that I will discuss shortly. While holy basil is related to ‘common’ basil (Ocimum basilicum), it has a distinct flavor that I would not consider interchangeable. So how did it get in the storm drain?
The answer is simple: it came from my yard, which is a couple hundred yards away.
I mentioned that holy basil is in the mint family. Every gardener knows that mints can be, well, aggressive. Some propagate by sending root shoots underground, and others – like holy basil – propagate via seed. (As a bonus, some mints do both!) Anyway, I planted some holy basil seeds that an herbalist friend gave me years ago, and now it’s growing everywhere! Apparently even now down the road. Oops.
Every year, in about mid-May, tiny holy basil seedlings sprout all over my garden. I keep a lot of it because the bees love it and it smells great, but honestly I have to pull out a fair amount because it’s EVERYWHERE. Clearly it’s not fussy and quite easy to grow!
But enough of my gardening escapades, what makes holy basil so special?
Medicinal properties of holy basil
As I mentioned, holy basil is prized in India, deemed ‘holy’ because it is considered sacred. In fact, ‘Tulsi’ means ‘matchless one’ in Sanskrit. Traditionally, it’s used as a general tonic for overall health – it is not uncommon to take a few fresh leaves each morning and consume with breakfast. It was also used as an expectorant, diuretic, and decongestant.
In modern times, holy basil is considered an “adaptogen”, which is a fancy word that roughly means “stress modulator” (which ties into the “general tonic” I mentioned above). Over time, with regular ingestion, holy basil can even out bumps in the road by making it easier for a person to respond to stress. After a few weeks taking an adaptogenic formula containing holy basil, my clients have often reported that they are “less reactive” than they usually are when faced with a stressful situation. I also discuss holy basil in my post dedicated to herbs for anxiety.
On a related note, Braun and Cohen (2015) discuss several studies regarding anti-depressant/anxiolytic properties of holy basil, including a study of 35 humans that showed a reduction in anxiety, stress, and depression symptoms. Renowned herbalist, David Winston, says that holy basil is useful for what he terms ‘stagnant depression’ – a lingering depression from perhaps a traumatic event, or a rut that a person just can’t seem to get out of.
Though there aren’t many scientific studies in humans, other medicinal properties of holy basil are explored in animal studies. Several results show promising protective benefits: cardioprotective, neuroprotective, hepatoprotective (liver), anti-inflammatory, immuno-supportive. Perhaps the traditional herbalists were on to something in using holy basil as an overall health tonic!
Preparing Holy Basil
Here are some tips for how to enjoy the medicinal properties of holy basil.
First, I would not swap culinary basil for holy basil. The taste is pungent and slightly sweet, with a bit of a warming property to it. Herbalist, former president of the American Herbalists’ Guild, and my friend, Bevin Clare, in her book Spice Apothecary says: “if you find that holy basil tastes too medicinal or intense, you can always use half sweet and half holy in a dish…while [all] basils share a semi-sweet aromatic taste, some are more pungent than others, and some even have a licorice-like taste.” (p. 63) Indeed, Braun & Cohen indicate that holy basil’s pungent taste comes from its high eugenol content, eugenol being the essential oil that gives cloves its strong flavor.
Alternately, rather than cooking with holy basil, I enjoy it as a tea. It is lovely hot in an herbal blend – it pairs well with mint, lemon balm, or skullcap for a calming cup. I also enjoy going out in my garden and harvesting a generous handful of holy basil leaves and adding it to my iced tea maker with the “regular” black tea. It adds a refreshing, tingly top note to the iced tea, similar to mint but “not quite”.
Where to get Holy Basil
If you’d like the dried herb, here again Mountain Rose Herbs is a good choice for cut-n-sift (tea) or powder. Some health-food stores may also sell it in bulk, or you may find it in off-the-shelf tea blends, typically under the ‘stress’ or ‘calming’ categories.
For a convenient, concentrated method, try a holy basil tincture or extract. David Winston’s Herbalist & Alchemist carries holy basil as a single herb, and it’s also contained in several of his thoughtful formulas (search ‘holy basil’ at herbalist-alchemist.com for a full list). Herb Pharm, another reputable extract company, also carries holy basil in several products.
Reference for Medicinal Properties of Holy Basil
Braun, L. and Cohen, M. (2015). Herbs and Natural Supplements: An evidence-based guide. (4th Ed.). Elsevier