A member of the mint family, holy basil—scientifically known as Ocimum sanctum—is one of the most important herbs in Ayurvedic medicine, an alternative form of healthcare with roots in India.
It has also been used in Chinese medicine, with similar reverence.
Native to India and cultivated throughout southeast Asia, holy basil, also known as tulsi, is traditionally used for a wide variety of functions, including to make Hindu prayer beads. Those who wear them are believed to be surrounded by protection.
Holy basil is considered in Ayurvedic medicine as an adaptogen, which is a plant used to alleviate the physical effects of stress, which occurs when cortisol levels are high, a condition that can lead to chronic high blood sugar. 1
Holy basil essential oil is steam distilled from the leaves of the plant, just before the plant blossoms, resulting in an oil with a fresh, spicy-sweet scent with notes of both lemon and licorice.
It pairs well with florals such as lavender and geranium; citrus scents including bergamot, orange, grapefruit, and tangerine; spicy blends including clary sage, and thyme; and woodsy scents such as cedarwood and rosemary. 2
History of Holy Basil
Holy basil has grown in India for 5,000 years.
Mentioned in the Rigveda, the oldest of four sacred Hindu texts, holy basil is considered one of the most important herbs in Ayurvedic medicine because it addresses the three elements of holistic health: mind, body, and soul.
Because holy basil offers whole-body benefits, it is considered an herbal equivalent to the Fountain of Youth and has been used to promote longevity. 3
Hindu men called holy basil the “elixir of life” because its benefits help lengthen lifespan and promote good health, and it was used holy men in India for meditative purposes.
Associated with the Hindu god Vishnu, holy basil has been used to improve the clarity of mind for meditation while offering both physical and mental benefits.
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It is also known as the “Queen of Herbs” and the “Mother Medicine of Nature.”
Holy basil is a bush-like annual that grows up to one and a half feet tall, making it an ideal indoor plant. It has small leaves and produces purple flowers.
Holy basil is a rock star among herbs because it is packed with phytochemicals, nutrients, terpenes, and flavonoids that provide countless health benefits, making it one of the most powerful herbs grown worldwide.
Some of the most important active elements include:
Holy basil helps protect against signs of aging because it has antioxidants that fight free radicals that not only damage skin cells but also attack the cells of the brain, heart, and liver. A 2008 study in India found that the compounds in holy basil protected signs of both physical and mental aging. “The study validates the traditional use of the herb as a youth-promoting substance in the Ayurvedic system of medicine. It also helps describe how the herb acts at a cellular level,” said Dr. Vaibhav Shinde, who headed the study. 4
A compound found in cannabis as well as other herbs with medicinal benefits, beta-caryophyllene helps fight bacteria as well as inflammation, specifically inflammation that causes the pain of rheumatoid arthritis because it interacts with the cannabinoid system. The brain’s cannabinoid system plays a role in controlling pain by inhibiting inflammation. A 2008 study from the National Academy of Sciences found that beta-caryophyllene activates the endocannabinoid receptor system, which regulates many of the body’s functions, including pain.
Vitamin C is a skin-friendly antioxidant that can help fight free radical activity, preventing certain signs of aging. Vitamin C is also an effective treatment for existing age-related skin problems, especially dark spots.
Cineole is a terpene that has the potential to protect memory, which could make it a potential treatment option for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. 5 Cineole is able to cross the blood-brain barrier, reaching cells of the brain including those associated with memory function.
Eugenol has been shown in studies to treat certain fungi with the same effectiveness as a pharmaceutical treatment. It is often used to treat dental pain, as well as certain fungal infections. Eugenol also offers antioxidant properties that penetrate the cell lining, creating a shield from free radical damage, which is a more effective action than that of traditional antioxidants.
Linalool is a terpene that not only offers anti-stress benefits but also aids in the production of vitamin E, a skin-friendly nutrient that protects collagen and elastin, which make up the structural layer of skin, helping the skin resist signs of aging, including fine lines and wrinkles.
When isolated as an essential oil, the sesquiterpene b-bisabolene has been shown to kill breast cancer cells in test tube studies. 6
Holy basil also contains vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, zinc, iron, and chlorophyll.
Uses for Holy Basil Essential Oil
Not only does holy basil help strengthen the immune system, helping prevent health problems by giving the body the strength to fight them, it also addresses a range of health issues.
Because holy basil acts as an adaptogen, controlling the release of cortisol, it can ease the effects of stress and anxiety. According to the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, the anti-anxiety benefits of holy basil compare to those of drugs in the benzodiazepine family. Holy basil also controls the release of the stress hormone corticosterone, which is produced by the adrenal gland and offers triterpenoids that are believed to help control stress and anxiety.
Helps with ADD/ADHD
Both attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are traditionally treated with stimulants to control the short attention span, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior often associated with these conditions. An imbalance in the adrenal gland, which produces the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol, is believed to play a role in both disorders. 7
Holy basil interacts with the adrenal gland, controlling the release of cortisol, which would otherwise elevate blood sugar levels and lead to bursts of hyperactivity. Controlling this release helps improve mental clarity and focus. 8
Decreases Risk for Diabetes
Because holy basil has properties that control the release of cortisol, it also has an impact on the release of glucose into the blood. Cortisol is the fight-or-flight hormone, and when cortisol levels are high, signals tell the liver to release stored glucose for energy to escape from stressors that are much different than the ones facing our caveman cousins. That glucose rarely gets used and can potentially lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Holy basil’s compounds including eugenol are thought to decrease pain and inflammation. Holy basil contains the compound beta-caryophyllene, which eases inflammation because it interacts with the body’s cannabinoid receptors, which control pain. It also contains cineole, which, when applied topically—mix holy basil essential oil with a carrier oil first—can penetrate the skin’s surface to ease the inflammation of joint pain, especially that associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
Improves Appearance of Skin
The antioxidants in holy basil help fight free radicals, protecting the skin proteins collagen and elastin and preventing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles as well as other signs of aging. Holy basil also offers vitamin C, which helps remove age spots, and linalool, which helps the body increase production of vitamin E, a skin-friendly antioxidant that also protects damage to collagen and elastin, which make up the skin’s structural layer.
Prevents Alzheimer’s and Other Forms of Dementia
The cineole in holy basil could protect against Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia due to the terpene’s ability to protect memory. According to research from the Natural Health Research Institute, the more cineole is found in the blood, the better cognitive learning and memory are.
Holy basil’s ability to reduce the release of corticosterone is also associated with improved mental clarity and memory and can reduce the risk of age-related dementia.
Reduces Symptoms of Asthma and COPD
A 2014 German study that appeared in the journal Drug Research found that cineole also controlled inflammation, making it an effective treatment for asthma. A 2009 study appearing in the journal Respiratory Research determined that the cineole in holy basil also eased the symptoms of a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), suggesting that the terpene can open airways and improve breathing.
Because holy basil oil is able to fight bacteria, it makes it a great treatment option for acne as well as other skin problems. The eugenol in holy basil, when combined with other active ingredients in the oil, is able to kill the bacteria associated with acne, consequently healing the skin. To use for skincare, holy basil essential oil should be combined with coconut oil for better absorption. 9
Boosts Immune System Function
A study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that the luteolin in holy basil may help control inflammation by inhibiting the brain cells that are responsible for the body’s immune response. Microglial cells exposed to luteolin had a reduced inflammatory response, researchers at the university found. 10
Reduces Cholesterol and Improves Heart Health
The compounds in holy basil including vitamin K help reduce cholesterol levels, protecting heart health by ensuring that blood vessels remain flexible and able to deliver blood from the heart throughout the entire body. 11
Prevents Kidney Stones
Holy basil not only detoxes the body, lowering the body’s levels of uric acid—the compound that contributes most to the formation of kidney stones—but also acts as a mild diuretic, which keeps the kidneys flushed.
Disinfects Wounds and Fights Infection
The antibacterial compounds in holy basil not only help prevent infection, they also help wounds heal faster. Holy basil increases the production of collagen at the wound site, speeding up healing, and provides antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory benefits. It also acts as an analgesic, relieving pain at the site of the wound.
Holy basil has also been used to relieve fevers, treat eye infections, or protect the eyes from free radical damage that can lead to cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and other problems, to boost bone health, and to relieve headache pain.
Safety and Precautions
Women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, individuals who have low blood sugar, or individuals taking blood thinners should avoid using holy basil essential oil.
The herb may also impact the efficacy of drugs in the benzodiazepine family, the sedative pentobarbital, and the motion sickness drug scopolamine. 12
How To Use Holy Basil
There are many ways to take advantage of holy basil’s healing benefits.
- Dilute holy basil with a carrier oil before applying it to the face to treat acne, or to other parts of the body to relieve muscle pain.
- A few drops of holy basil oil can be added to bath water to help speed up recovery from a cold or to provide stress relief through aromatherapy.
- Holy basil can be used directly on the hair to boost shine. Just rub a few drops of oil between the palms of your hand and massage into your hair.
- If you are headed on a camping trip or going hiking, pack holy basil essential oil along for the journey. A few drops of holy basil can purify water by killing existing bacteria.
Fun Facts About Holy Basil
- Holy basil releases oxygen that leads to cleaner air. Because of this particular benefit, the plant is being used to prevent the Taj Mahal’s white marble from becoming more yellow, due to toxins in the air. The Indian landmark is now surrounded by thousands of tulsi plants to protect the regal candidate for Eighth Wonder of the World.
- In India, some families have a pot of holy basil growing in their homes to help prevent infections, colds, and coughs and other viral infections.
- Holy basil oil is used in cooking and can be mixed with ghee, or clarified butter.
- In India, holy basil oil has been used as an antidote for snake or scorpion bites.
- In addition to tulsi, holy basil is known as sacred basil, surassa, Tulasi, and Kemang.