20 Jul 2020

Holy basil benefits: Long live the Queen of Herbs

Written by Ashley
In Ayurveda, tulsi, or holy basil, is known as the Queen of Herbs. Find out more about holy basil benefits, and about the insights Western science brings.

Tulsi and the Taj Mahal

Rising above the streets of Agra is the Taj Mahal. This majestic building is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, its ivory walls and towering cupolas attracting millions of visitors per year. Set against the rising sun, the huge mausoleum turns an ethereal pink, to match the sky.

The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, and its beginnings were rather tragic. The enormous building was designed as the final resting place for the emperor's favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It's a monument to love and grief, ensuring that Mumtaz would be remembered forever.

If you look closely around the building, however, you will see that it is surrounded by green, leafy shrubs. Their leaves are serrated, and look like a cross between basil and mint. This plant is tulsi, or holy basil, and it has earned a place beside one of the wonders of the world.

How did tulsi come to sit beside the Taj Mahal? Surprisingly enough, it's because this powerful plant helps to reduce the effects of environmental pollution on the precious building.

This gives just a hint of the cleansing effects tulsi can also have in terms of our health.

Types of tulsi

There are several types of holy basil. The two most common kinds are Krishna tulsi (which is black or purple in colour) and white Vana, or wild, tulsi. Of the two, Krishna tulsi is higher in antioxidants.

Be careful not to mistake holy basil for other types of basil. While they are members of the same family and genus, they are not the same species and are not associated with the same healing effects.

In traditional Indian medicine, Ayurveda, every part of the tulsi plant is healing.(1) You can prepare it in various ways to benefit from its different health benefits.

Tulsi is sacred to Hindu people, who believe that the soil it grows in will become richer and more fertile. More recently, Western science has backed up this notion by identifying beneficial endophtic fungi in the soil where tulsi grows. It's good to know that this traditional belief around tulsi was correct, but it does, unfortunately, take some of the romance away!

In terms of health products, you can find tulsi as a tea, tincture, supplement or as a powder. But what exactly can it do for our health?

1. Holy basil benefits your stress levels...

These days, we use the term 'stress' so often that it's easy to forget what it really means. Officially, stress is a state of strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. Medically, the sources and effects of stress can be physical (like fatigue, or pollution) or mental (such as anxiety or overwork). 

These issues can affect the way we process food an energy, putting us into a state called 'metabolic stress'.

Fortunately, studies have suggested that tulsi might be able to help us manage all of these types of stress.

To give one example, think of a time when roadworks outside your window, or a neighbour's loud music, have riled you up. Noise is indeed a stressor for our bodies, and can cause oxidative stress in our brains. One study found that holy basil notably reduced this kind of stress.(1)

Furthermore, it encouraged bile acid synthesis, which led to lower lipid levels in the participants. This is a good sign that it helps us process foods. A different study, which found that holy basil reduced metabolic stress, provides more encouraging evidence.

We've mentioned briefly that physical stressors can include pollution. This extends to toxins in our environment as well. Luckily, another study showed that holy basil extract had a significant protective effect against heavy metals in our environment or food. In other words, arsenic that previously showed up in participants' liver, kidneys and blood was reduced after holy basil was administered.(3)

...and your mood

Mood disorders such as anxiety and depression can be caused by stress, but this isn't always the case. However, while the causes of these disorders remain unclear, a study found that tulsi could help with both,

The researchers found that holy basil extract exhibited both anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects.(4)

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2. Holy basil benefits wound healing and lessening of infection

Those of us who are lucky enough to be in general good health rarely think about what life is like for people suffering with chronic diseases. Unfortunately, alongside the major symptoms, many chronic diseases also weaken the immune system and slow down wound healing. One such chronic disease is diabetes.

As well as adding great pain and stress for individuals, diabetes is also an economic burden on hospitals and society.

One study found that holy basil hastened wound healing in diabetics because it supports the forming of new tissue. Simultaneously, the antioxidants in holy basil reduced the presence of free radicals, blood glucose, and lowered the presence of an enzyme which marks inflammation and oxidative stress.(5) 

In addition, the anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral properties of tulsi support the body in fighting off pathogens which, left unchecked, might lead to infection. Immune responses in both stressed and unstressed bodies are enhanced by tulsi.

Finally, a large review of studies into tulsi cited successful studies examining how the herb can be used to fight a broad range of infections, from malaria and dengue fever to urinary tract infections, or UTI.(1)

3. Holy basil helps protect you from toxins

As we know, toxins from the environment and from the things we consume can have a negative effect on our health. This could be anything from the chemicals in car exhaust fumes to pesticides used on non-organic crops. 

Tulsi may be able to somewhat protect us from the damage these toxins cause.

A large part of this is down to the phenolic compounds and antioxidants it naturally contains. But that's not all: holy basil also supports the ability of the liver to process and cleanse toxic compounds. How? It nurtures a special type of enzyme, cytochrome P450, which helps the liver shut down toxins. They can then be safely disposed of.(6) 

Sourcing your holy basil

If you are reading this article, you are probably conscious about seeking out food that is grown as healthfully as possible. It's a good general rule to have, but it is especially important when it comes to tulsi.

Think back to the tulsi plants grown around the Taj Mahal. They are there specifically to gather up toxins to protect the building. This is a plant which joyfully sucks up pollutants; in fact, one study found that tulsi leaves grown in polluted areas has almost double the amount of toxins of those grown in cleaner areas.(7)

You certainly do not want any pollutants tulsi has gathered up to make it into your system!

Make sure that you source your tulsi from unpolluted areas without a history of heavy metals and toxic fertilisers. You should also know that there has been some controversy over the authenticity of tulsi sourced from Europe.

It's better to source tulsi from its land of origin. Much of the farming of holy basil in India supports organic, ethical, fair trade, and ecological values. Indeed, thousands of small, rural tulsi farmers in India have banded together under an umbrella organisation to form a business model that values humans and the environment over corporations and toxins. 

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How to use tulsi

Tulsi is traditionally taken as a tea. Tulsi tea is very simple; simply steep the leaves in hot water. Leave it to chill, if you prefer iced tea. The flavour is sharp, gentle and sweet, vaguely reminiscent of its cousin, basil, but with more complexity.

However, if you would like to enhance your brew, the additions of ginger, lemon, honey, and/or ground green cardamom are complementary for both flavour and health!

If you find fresh or dried holy basil leaves, you can also use in your cooking, as with other types of basil. It is especially good in stir-fries or spicy soups, You may find tulsi called 'hot basil' in some cookbooks. 

Tulsi in traditional usages

Daily consumption of tulsi is widely practised in Ayurveda, and a tulsi plant in the home is a part of Hinduism. Tulsi is a goddess in this tradition, with evening and morning rituals as well as other customs paying respects to her.

The special scent of the plant, which is said to be similar to the clove, represents a connection to the divine. Holy water made from tulsi is also important in Hinduism as well as in some Greek Orthodox traditions.

In an Ayurvedic context, holy basil is believed to penetrate the tissues on a profound level, lessen unhealthy discharges, and balance vata and kapha, two of the three Ayurvedic doshas. Doshas are essential energies that shape us.

While the Western studies we have cited here look at how holy basil benefits ailments or disease, holy basil has more of a preventative role in the context of Ayurveda. In this culture, tulsi is used in an adaptogenic sense.