Tulsi is praised as the “queen of herbs” and is widely used in the Ayurvedic tradition as an adaptogen. But what is tulsi tea and what are the benefits?June 20, 2022 6:13 pm June 14, 2022 6:58 pm
The Ayurveda science of life
Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest medical systems. Its approach to health and illness is holistic and focused on prevention of disease and promotion of good health. In fact, Ayurveda encourages healthy lifestyle choices to attain health and balance in life. Healthy ayurvedic practices include eating fresh wholefoods and avoiding processed foods.
In addition, old tradition states that rasayanas keep ageing and disease at bay. Followers of ayurvedic medicine also follow detoxification rituals and regularly consume adaptogens which they believe increase the body’s resilience towards stress and imbalance. Perhaps one of the reasons why Ayurveda relies so heavily upon medicinal herbs is thanks to India’s unique and rich biodiversity.
In fact, Ayurvedic practices utilise countless herbs, including one which tends to stand out more than others: tulsi, also known as holy basil (Ocimum sanctum). What is tulsi and what are the benefits of tulsi tea? Let’s find out!
“According to tradition, tulsi acts as a tonic for the body, mind and spirit that may assist with modern day ailments”.
Tulsi: the queen of adaptogens
Tulsi, also known as Holy Basil, as its name suggests comes from the basil family Lamiaceae (tribe ocimeae).
This family also includes mint, sage, oregano, rosemary, and lavender. It is believed that tulsi was born in North Central India and now grows freely in the East, in areas surrounding the Equator.
Ayurvedic medicine refers to tulsi as “The Queen of Herbs”, “The Incomparable One” and “Mother Medicine of Nature”. In fact, traditional medicine praises it as an “elixir of life” for its apparent benefits from both a medicinal and spiritual perspective. In India, its birthplace, the local inhabitants have used tulsi for millennia, including this herb in spiritual practices and lifestyle customs.
Modern science is just starting to elucidate the health benefits of tulsi tea. In fact, there is some emerging literature on tulsi which may begin to confirm ancient ayurvedic beliefs. In fact, according to tradition, tulsi acts as a tonic for the body, mind and spirit that may assist with modern day ailments.(1)
The benefits of tulsi
As far as Ayurveda’s holistic approach to health and wellbeing goes, tulsi is probably the most representative example of this eastern medical system.
Tulsi is naturally bitter and hot, believed to reach deep tissues and balance ayurvedic doshas (the energy patterns that ayurvedic medicine believes flow through the body). It appears that according to Ayurveda, tulsi can alleviate a host of ailments from anxiety, asthma, diarrhoea, arthritis, indigestion, and even fever. Reputable scientific studies are yet to confirm this.(2)
Moreover, the ancient tradition postulates that Tulsi promotes a lustrous complexion and fosters beauty, intelligence and stamina. No wonder ayurvedic believers refer to this herb as “the elixir of life”!
The origins of tulsi
When people describe an herb as “holy”, “queen” and “diety”, it’s no wonder that tulsi has such a unique history. Indian culture has used tulsi for over 5000 years as a religious and healing herb.(1)
In western culture, holy basil has only appeared more recently and we often find it in herbal medicines and essential oils. You can also use dried tulsi leaves to make a delicious herbal infusion.
So how did we end up drinking tulsi tea ?
Tulsi originated in India and thrives in humid and tropical regions. Nowadays it is commonly cultivated all throughout Southeast Asia. It is a shrub that grows up to 60cm tall with furry branches, aromatic leaves that are either purple or green, and small white and purple flowers that grow out of the branches. Tulsi leaves are grown, harvested and dried for use in herbal preparations.(2)
The tulsi plant comes in three main varieties, and each one has its own unique characteristics.
The first variety is the Krishna, also known as purple leaf tulsi thanks to its purple leaves and flowers. This variety has a distinct aroma of cloves and its leaves have a sharp peppery flavour. Krishna grows widely across India and people often plant it in their homes and gardens as decoration.
Another variety of tulsi is Rama. This unique plant has green leaves with white or light purple coloured flowers. It also has a clove-like scent. Compared to purple leaf tulsi, it is more cooling and subtle. It is popular in India but also grows in China, Nepal and Brazil.
Finally, a third variety of tulsi is known as Vana. This type of tree is native to Asia and certain regions of Africa. It grows in the wild and is also cultivated in the Himalayas. Its light green leaves make it a bright shrub, its aroma is more refreshing and reminiscent of citrus.
The legends of tulsi
The rich history of tulsi which is tied to a strong religious and spiritual meaning explains why it is such a worshipped herb today.(2)
One of the legends claims that tulsi was an earthly manifestation of Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth and companion of Vishnu, the Hindu god. The legend narrates that Lakshmi was Vishnu’s favourite wife, allegedly he had two others.
As a result of the other wives’ jealousy, it is thought that they cursed Lakshmi, thus leading her to earth in the form of a plant. Vishnu then reassures Lakshmi that she will be the Tulsi plant, however only a part of her will be rooted on earth. In fact, her spirit allegedly returned to be connected with him.
Another legend associates tulsi with the Samudra Manthana, known as the churning of the cosmic ocean by gods and demons. It is believed that Dhanvantari, the physician to the gods, offers the gods an elixir of immortality. Vishnu, the Hindu god, allegedly sheds happy tears in response to this gift, and as the tears fall into the elixir they lead to the birth of the tulsi plant.
Finally, a further legend depicts tulsi as a connection between earth and heaven. In fact, a traditional Hindu prayer states that the creator-god, Brahma, resides in Tulsi’s branches, whilst Hindu pilgrimage centres reside in the plants roots. Furthermore, according to the legend the Ganges River flows through tulsi’s roots, the deities reside in its stem leaves and the Hindu scriptures are found in the upper part of the plant’s branches.
How to use tulsi according to ancient tradition
In the Hindu tradition, worshippers regard tulsi as a sacred plant. As per the legend, this plant is the earthly manifestation of Lakshmi. In fact, worshippers of Vishnu wear beaded necklaces made of tulsi stems which they use in their prayers. They also mix tulsi petals with water as a way to send off the souls of the dead to heaven.
There is also a special ceremony dedicated to tulsi called Tulsi Vivah, this is when the tulsi plant marries Vishnu. The ceremony takes place on different days depending on the region of India and symbolises the end of the monsoon season and the start of the Hindu wedding season.
The tulsi plant is not only worshipped in sacred places such as temples and at ceremonies, it is also praised within the home. In fact, in many Hindu homes it is typically planted in the central courtyard in clay pots decorated with religious images of deities. The most religious households may have up to a dozen tulsi plants to create a “forest of holy basil”.(2)
In ayurvedic tradition, the tulsi plant is used as an adaptogen to help the body confront external stressors. In fact, it is used as a remedy for common illnesses in various forms, from fresh leaves to powder and essential oil.
Holy basil is commonly used in Thailand as part of the local cuisine. In fact, it is locally known as “kaphrao” and is used in a variety of dishes including a well-known stir-fry dish made with holy basil, pork or seafood, and rice.
Tulsi leaves are commonly used as a tea or infusion. Much like many other herbal infusions, you can use fresh or dried leaves and steep them in hot water. Tulsi leaves steeped on their own make a caffeine-free infusion, perfect for those who are sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
Tulsi typically has a strong scent along with an astringent, somewhat bitter flavour. However, given that it is part of the basil family, it also has notes of flowers and pepper. As previously described, some varieties of tulsi plants have a clove-like scent and spicy aroma, whereas others are more fresh and citrusy.
How does tulsi impact health?
Given ayurvedic medicine used tulsi for several millennia, researchers have extensively studied it in human populations, namely in India.(3)
A group of researchers conducted a systematic review of the literature to analyse the clinical efficacy and safety of tulsi in humans.(4)
The review looked at tulsi in the treatment of metabolic disorders, the modulation of the immune system and neurocognition. So what are the health benefits of tulsi?
Tulsi and metabolic disorders
The review included seventeen trials on tulsi, conducted between 1964 and 2016. The study populations varied between 3 and 100, as did the form of tulsi leaves administered, from the whole plant, to powdered leaves, juice and water extracts. The dosage and frequency of consumption also varied significantly between studies.
In summary, these studies found significant reductions in fasting and post-meal blood glucose levels, as well as improved lipid profiles and lower blood pressure in individuals with diabetes and obesity. It was observed that the longer trials (12-13 weeks) showed more beneficial changes.(4)
Tulsi and immunity
With regards to tulsi’s effects on immunity, the researchers looked at the results of five clinical trials. Doses varied from 300mg/day to 10g/day of extracts of tulsi leaves.
They observed beneficial immune responses including increases in natural killer and T-helper cells in healthy adults, and improved immune responses to viral infections. Furthermore, patients suffering from asthma reported an improvement in respiratory symptoms.(4)
Tulsi and neurocognition
The researchers also observed the effects of tulsi on neurocognition. The doses varied between 300mg/day and 6g/day across studies. Overall, results showed that there were varying degrees of positive outcomes across studies.
In fact, benefits included decreased stress levels, reduced anxiety, sexual issues and depression, along with improved working memory and cognitive attention. In addition, there were no reported adverse effects.(4)
In conclusion, it appears that the consumption of tulsi for medical purposes has not shown any adverse effects thus far. However, any negative side-effects from long-term intakes of tulsi should be documented.
The researchers have highlighted that only a small proportion of published literature is of high-calibre. In addition, there are methodological concerns within the studies and a lack of detail regarding the dosages and chemical composition of the formulations.
This suggests that there is still insufficient data to support specific medical recommendations. There is a clear need for further studies conducted on larger populations within longer time frames. Moreover, studies should clearly communicate the chemical composition of samples and any data on interaction with other drugs.
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