Ayurveda refers to tulsi or Holy Basil as “the incomparable one,” “mother medicine of nature” and “the queen of herbs”. It is revered as an elixir of life for both its medicinal and spiritual properties. It belongs to the mint family and has two main varieties. The greener variety is called Rama Tulsi and the greenish black variety is called Krishna Tulsi. Holy Basil, Ocimum sanctum, should not be confused with Sweet Basil, Ocimum basilicum, which is commonly used for culinary purposes.
In Hinduism, tulsi is worshipped as a goddess and every part of the tulsi plant is revered and considered sacred, including the leaves, stem, flower, root, seeds and oil. Every Hindu household has a Tulsi plant which is used as raw leaves or as a leaf tea for spiritual and religious practices. Its strong eugenol laden smell is believed to repel mosquitoes, flies and insects. Tulsi leaves are believed to help lower materialistic desires and lust. It was taken daily by students in ancient Indian boarding schools known as ‘Gurukulas’ and also by followers of the spiritual path.
Tulsi has also been used in cities to combat air pollution. Hundreds of thousands of tulsi plants have been planted around the Taj Mahal in Agra, India to help protect the iconic marble building from environmental pollution damage.
Tulsi (Holy Basil) Properties
Holy basil has a pungent, bitter taste, as well as light, dry and sharp properties and a hot potency. It pacifies Vata and Kapha dosha and aggravates Pitta. Both green and dark green (greenish black ) varieties have similar properties.
Tulsi Benefits, Tulsi Uses In Ayurveda
- Tulsi balances Kapha dosha and as such is useful to relieve excess sputum production.
- It is anti microbial. The tulsi plant is one of the most potent anti viral herbs of Ayurveda.
- It improves taste and relieves anorexia by stimulating the digestive fire due to its hot and sharp properties.
- It is a cardiac tonic and helps to relieve cholesterol deposits in the arteries due to its anti Kapha and sharp properties.
- Due to its Kapha and Vata balancing effect, it is useful in treatment of asthma and chronic respiratory disorders, cold and cough and also repeated hiccups.
- It relieves vomiting.
- Due to its Vata pacifying effect, it relieves gas accumulation and thus relieves resultant pain in the flanks.
- It is useful in skin diseases marked by itchiness due to its Kapha pacifying effect. Kapha dosha is responsible for itching in many skin diseases.
- It is a natural detoxifying herb.
- It is useful in kidney and bladder stones.
- It is useful in infectious eye disorders.
- It is an adaptogenic herb and is useful in stress related disorders.
Tulsi (Holy Basil) For Skincare
Tulsi pacifies Kapha and Vata, is useful in skin diseases, is antimicrobial and anti viral. It helps reduce itching. Tulsi extract is used in cosmetics for its anti bacterial activity. Classed as a fragrant and skin conditioning agent it is used in anti acne preparations.1
Tulsi (Holy Basil) For Hair
Due to its Kapha and Vata pacifying properties, it is useful in combating dandruff, itching of scalp and the resultant hair loss.
How To Take Holy Basil
Part used: Leaf, Root, Seed
Dosage: Fresh Juice 5-10 ml, Root decoction 50-100 ml, Seed powder 3 g. Extract 300mg-2000 mg. Please note, the extract, roots and seeds should only be used under supervision of a qualified practitioner.
For wheals, itching: For itching or wheals, tulsi leaves are made into a paste and applied over the skin.
For sinusitis and headache: Holy basil’s fresh leaves are crushed to extract juice. Two drops of this juice are put into both nostrils on an empty stomach. This helps to relieve sinusitis related headache.
For bad breath (halitosis): Chewing one or two holy basil leaves daily helps to relieve bad breath by improving digestion.
For cold, cough and fever: Tulsi tea can be made to combat these conditions.
An easy way to use Tulsi daily is as follows. Take 10-12 Tulsi leaves, wash them and shred them. If fresh leaves are not available, take ½ tsp of dry Tulsi leaves. Boil them in about 1 cup of water on a medium flame and reduce to half. Strain and enjoy. You may add a little ginger and clove while making this tea for extra benefit. Avoid adding milk as milk is incompatible with Tulsi according to the Ayurvedic texts.
Modern Research On Tulsi (Holy Basil)
Holy Basil has numerous mechanisms of action. Its beneficial effects are found across quite a few categories of medicinal activities, including anti bacterial, anti acne, anti stress, antilipidemic, antidiabetic and blood glucose lowering properties.
1. Anti Bacterial Activity
Research has shown strong antibacterial activity of extract of Holy Basil. In the study leaf extracts of holy basil and other plants inhibited the growth of the test organisms and exhibited antibacterial activity. However, the majority of the bacterial species were susceptible to all the extracts of O. sanctum, when compared to A. vera and S. grandiflora. This work supports the traditional use of these plants and the therapeutic value against bacterial pathogens, so that they can be alternate antibacterial agents in the future.
2. Anti Acne Effect
In another study Holy basil oil was tested in trials as an antibacterial treatment for acne. It produced good results. An excellent study of oils from four types of Ocimum species found that although there was variation in contents all oils were found to have antimicrobial activity at fairly low dilutions.2 In another study it was shown that the linolenic acid present in basil is responsible for its anti inflammatory effect in acne. This also has been observed when 2% Ocimum oil is used with Aloe vera gel. The anti acne activity increases due to the synergistic effect of these agents.3
3. Anti Stress Properties
Male mice were used as the subjects of a study demonstrating the lowering of serum concentrations of cortisol and glucose through the use of plant extracts of Ocimum sanctum. Lipid peroxidation was not enhanced which is good for the health of the arteries. The study also showed an anti-peroxidative effect from the extract, suggesting a potential regulation of corticosteroid-induced diabetes.4
Other studies examined the use of Ocimum sanctum to help the subjects better withstand the stress of chronic exposure to noise. The study used albino rats. The administration of the extract of Holy Basil prevented noise-induced increases in the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin turnover in specific brain regions. The noise-induced increases were prevented and normal levels of the neurotransmitters were not affected.5, 6
In still another study using animal models treatment with Ocimum sanctum was shown to be effective in treating noise-induced stress changes, including changes in cortisol levels.7
4. Anti Lipidemic Properties
Ocimum sanctum and eugenol lowered restraint stress-induced cholesterol levels. They also effectively lowered the restraint stress-induced elevations in liver enzymes namely lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) and alkaline phosphatase.8
In another study a reduction in total cholesterol, triglyceride, phospholipids and total lipids in the liver, kidney, or heart was demonstrated by the addition of Ocimum sanctum leaf powder to the diet of diabetic and non-diabetic rats.9
5. Glucose Lowering Effect
Reduction of fasting blood sugar was observed with the addition of Ocimum sanctum leaf powder to the diet of diabetic rats; uronic acid and total amino acids were also reduced.9
6. Hepatoprotective Properties
A study showed significant hepatoprotection from the use of a Holy Basil alcoholic leaf extract when used alone, and synergistic hepatoprotection in conjunction with silymarin.10
7. Anti Viral Activity
A research by defense research institute, Gwalior, India, showed significant effect on the swine flu virus.11
Tulsi Contraindications And Toxicity
Having been granted “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) status in the United States of America by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Holy Basil is well tolerated by most people. Animal studies have shown that it may cause hypoglycemia and prolonged bleeding time. Patients with known allergy/hypersensitivity to Ocimum sanctum, its constituents, or to members of the Lamiaceae family, should avoid using this herb.
Holy Basil (Tulsi) should be used cautiously in/by:
- Patients with hypoglycemia or on anti diabetic drugs
- Patients with bleeding disorders or those taking anti-coagulant or anti-platelet drugs
- Patients who want to conceive a child due to possible anti-spermatogenic or anti-fertility effects.
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women, as Holy Basil may stimulate uterine contractions.
There are no reports to date of toxicity with the use of Holy Basil.
1 Antibacterial Activity of Leaf Extracts of Aloe Vera, Ocimum Sanctum and Sesbania Grandiflora against the Gram Positive Bacteria Jothi Karumari R, Vijayalakshmi K, Tamilarasi L and Ezhilarasi Balasubramanian Post Graduate and Research Department of Zoology, Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai-8, Tamil Nadu, India.
2 Shweta Kapoor and Swarnlata Saraf, 2011. Topical Herbal Therapies an Alternative and Complementary Choice to Combat Acne. Research Journal of Medicinal Plants, 5: 650-669.
3 Singh, S. and D.K. Majumdar, 1997. Evaluation of anti inflammatory activity of fatty acids of Ocimum sanctum fixed oil. Indian J. Exp. Biol., 35: 380-383.
4 Gholap, S. and Kar, A. Hypoglycaemic effects of some plant extracts are possibly mediated through inhibition in corticosteroid concentration. Pharmazie 2004;59(11):876-878.
5 Ravindran, R., Rathinasamy, S. D., Samson, J., and Senthilvelan, M. Noise-stress-induced brain neurotransmitter changes and the effect of Ocimum sanctum (Linn) treatment in albino rats. J Pharmacol.Sci 2005;98(4):354-360.
6 Samson, J., Sheela, Devi R., Ravindran, R., and Senthilvelan, M. Biogenic amine changes in brain regions and attenuating action of Ocimum sanctumin noise exposure. Pharmacol.Biochem.Behav. 2006;83(1):67- 75
7 Effect of Ocimum sanctum Linn on noise induced changes in plasma corticosterone level. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 1997;41(2):139-143.
8 Sen, P., Maiti, P. C., Puri, S., Ray, A., Audulov, N. A., and Valdman, A. V. Mechanism of anti-stress activity of Ocimum sanctum Linn, eugenol and Tinospora malabarica in experimental animals. Indian J Exp.Biol. 1992;30(7):592-596.
9 Rai, V., Iyer, U., and Mani, U. V. Effect of Tulasi (Ocimum sanctum) leaf powder supplementation on blood sugar levels, serum lipids and tissue lipids in diabetic rats. Plant Foods Hum. Nutr. 1997;50(1):9-16.
10 Lahon K, Das S. Hepatoprotective activity of Ocimum sanctum alcoholic leaf extract against paracetamol-induced liver damage in Albino rats. Pharmacognosy Res. 2011 Jan;3(1):13-8.
11 Assessment of in vitro anti viral activity of Ocimum sanctum (Tulsi) against pandemic Swine flu, H1N1 Virus-Joshi G and others, Dept of Virology, DRDE, Gwalior, India