by Ruthie Hayes

Latin: Ocimum sanctum, O. tenuiflorum, O. gratissimum

Family: Lamicaceae

Folk names: Holy basil, sacred basil, Elixir of Life, Queen of Herbs, The Incomparable One, Mother Medicine of Nature

Energetics: warm, neutral

Properties: adaptogen, antibacterial, antidepressant, antioxidant, mild antispasmodic, antiviral, aromatic, carminative, diuretic, expectorant, galactagogue, immunomodulator, neuroprotective, relaxing nervine

Taste: pungent, sweet

Degree: 2nd, 3rd

Tissue state: Heat/Excitation, Cold/Depression

Key uses: a gentle adaptogen for stress, mental fog (caused by excessive cannabis use especially), mental exhaustion from chronic stress, supports homeostasis in the body.

Herblore + Tradition: Tulsi is native to India and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for well over 5,000 years.  It is the most sacred of plants in Hinduism, essential in the ritual worship of Vishnu and Krishna.  Tulsi is believed to be the earthly incarnation of the Divine Mother, Tulasi, and the doorway between heaven and earth.  A tea of the leaves is often given to the dying to guide their soul from this world to the next.  The wood of the tulsi plant is used in the making of mala beads which are used in meditation and prayer.  Traditionally, the mala consists of 108 beads, one for each time the mantra or name of the deity is prayed or chanted.  In sacred places, tulsi can be seen growing in its own altar where offerings and prayers can be made to the plant.

There are strict rules for harvesting tulsi leaves, and forgiveness from the plant must be asked first.  The powder of the root in milk, ghee, or as a decoction was a treatment for malarial fever, bug bites, and to increase sexual stamina.  It has also been used traditionally to remedy the cognitive effects of excessive cannabis use.  The seeds mixed with water, juice, or milk was a traditional remedy for low energy and stomach/digestive problems.  Tulsi is also a popular herb in Thai cooking.  It’s used as a potherb, in making cheeses, liqueurs, in salads, rice, jellies, and a sherbert is often prepared from an infusion of the leaves.

Botany + Ecology:  A member of the mint family, it has the characteristic square stem and opposite leaves. The inflorescence bears many tiny lipped flowers, and like sweet basil, it will continue to produce leaves if the plant is pinched back to keep it from going to seed.  Leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season. It prefers the same growing conditions as sweet basil; full sun and moist, well-drained soils.  Seeds are tiny, but easy to collect from a mature plant.  To dry just a few plants, loosely fill a brown paper bag with the cuttings from the whole plant.  Fold over the top and put it in your car with the windows up.  After a few days, it will be dry, then garble in a large bowl.  The seeds will fall to the bottom of the bowl and can be saved  for next year. Store the herb in an airtight jar out of direct sunlight.  

Clinical Use: There are several different types of tulsi, Rama being the most commonly used, and easily found in commerce.  Holy basil is used as an adaptogen, building overall health and increasing the body’s adaptability to the negative effects of long-term and every-day stressors.  As an immunomodulator with an affinity for the lungs, it can be used to treat and prevent upper respiratory infections, especially in those prone to respiratory illnesses.  This is due in part to the plant’s high content of volatile oils, which are generally warming, drying, and stimulating.

Tulsi’s balancing properties can also improve energy levels (especially after a long illness) and promote endurance, making it useful in treating chronic fatigue syndrome.  

Large fluctuations in the release of cortisol can lead to insulin resistance over time, and tulsi has been used to normalize cortisol levels.  Diabetics have also used it to lower their fasting blood glucose.  

Tulsi is considered to be a cardiovascular tonic for its ability to slightly thin the blood, increase circulation, and lower stress-related hypertension.  It is often recommended as a tea to improve digestion, heartburn, heal ulcers, and increase nutrient absorption.  

Holy basil can be used internally as well as externally to treat viral, fungal, and bacterial infections.  A succus is taken to treat intestinal parasites, ringworm (externally also), vomiting, shock, and earaches.  Tulsi is used internally as well as externally to treat herpes and shingles.

Tulsi has also been shown to reduce certain types of cancerous tumors and have radioprotective qualities in patients receiving cancer treatments.

Its ability to clear mental fog makes it a useful herb to treat traumatic head injuries and ADD/ADHD.  Tulsi’s flower essence is used to bring more clarity and focus to one’s true path, making clear the soul’s purpose.

Studies:  Given the plant’s history and popularity in India, many of the studies that have been done concerning Ocimum sanctum are performed there.

This 2001 study out of India shows the radioprotective, anticarcinogenic, and antioxidant effects of holy basil in rats.  This has great clinical significance, because it shows that tulsi could have practical applications for those working in the nuclear industry, medical radiology, exposure to nuclear accidents or weapons, and protection of healthy cells in cancer patients receiving radiation, thereby reducing its side effects (even in pregnant mothers).  

Ocimum sanctum seed oil was shown to have an immunomodulating effect on 3 species of rodents in this study, also from India in 2001.  The seed oil also had an anti-inflammatory action.

A 2013 in vitro study from Nebraska concludes that both the essential oil and an ethanol extract of holy basil significantly inhibited the growth of  human pancreatic cancer cells, possibly making them more responsive to chemotherapy and radiation.  Hopefully, these results will inspire future in vivo study to combat one of the most lethal and quickly fatal cancers.

Tulsi is also being studied for its antioxidant effect on neuropathy and sciatic nerve degeneration in rats.

An alcohol extract of tulsi has proven to increase insulin secretion and decrease blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetic rats according to this 2006 study from Bangladesh.

A 2009 study from India showed mice fed a diet supplemented with tulsi oil for 30 days had a higher resistance to bacterial infections of the lungs.

This randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human study showed sustained cognitive improvement when the study volunteers were given 300mg/day of holy basil extract.  Short-term memory and cognitive flexibility were also improved.

Tulsi has also proven to reduce and heal stomach ulcers in rats.

The essential oil of holy basil also has anthelmintic properties.  In this study, it inhibited intestinal parasites of goats by preventing the eggs from hatching.

Rats pre-treated with an alcohol extract of Ocimum sanctum and exposed to noise stress were shown to handle the stress better than rats in the control group who received no pre-treatment.

Constituents: volatile oils, saponins, polysaccharides, glycosides, tannins, alkaloids, ascorbic acid, carotene, eugenol, methyl eugenol, linalool, apigenin, orientin, vicenin.

Dosages:  Tulsi is delicious in tea blends or simply by itself.  In winter, I like to drink tulsi chai to support immunity and circulation, and also to keep my mind from slumping into the winter blues.  I’ll make a big batch to have on hand throughout the winter months.  I use the following recipe:  

  • 4 parts cardamom
  • 1 part black peppercorn
  • 6 parts fennel seed
  • 1 part coriander
  • 2 parts whole cloves
  • 12 parts cinnamon chips
  • 9 parts dried ginger root

Roast whole herbs in a 350 degree oven for 5-7 minutes, cool and run through a coffee grinder to a coarse powder.  To this, add about the same amount of dried, crushed tulsi.  Keep in an airtight jar, or fill tea bags with the mixture (about 1 TBSP per bag).  Add 1 TBSP to 8 oz. warmed coconut milk and sweeten with honey or maple syrup to taste.

(Optional: add powdered turmeric to the blend to make a golden tulsi chai!)

Another favorite tea blend I use to support mental focus, especially while studying, is equal parts tulsi, lemon balm, and rosemary.  When I was taking my herb school final (which was 4 days long), I shared with my classmates a tincture of tulsi, rosemary, lemon balm, blue vervain, and rosemary to help us stay sharp, relaxed, and feel uplifted during long testing days when our brains and bodies were especially taxed.

In tincture form, a recommended dosage is  40-60 drops 2-4 times a day.

Traditionally, tulsi is also infused in ghee and taken as a medicinal and nourishing food.

Warnings and contraindications:  Pregnant and nursing mothers, as well as couples trying to conceive should probably avoid holy basil because it has been shown to have an anti-fertility effect in animal studies. Patients taking warfarin may also want to avoid tulsi due to its slightly blood-thinning effects.  Diabetics may find that they have to monitor their insulin more closely if they are taking holy basil.  

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Ruthie Hayes studies and practices the art of herbalism from her home in the wooded hills of southeastern Pennsylvania.  It’s there that she tends her earthspace with her husband and two sons.  Her passion is to reconnect with and integrate traditional methods of healing into our modern lives. She is the sole proprietress of Mother Hylde’s Herbal and has been studying folk and clinical herbalism since 2012.  You can connect with her through motherhylde.com where you can read her writings, find her handmade remedies, and request herbal consultations.