What is Holy Basil (Tulsi)?

Perhaps you’ve seen holy basil in supplement form or as an ingredient in herbal teas. So what exactly is holy basil, and what does it do?

Holy basil is an ancient Ayurvedic herb

Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), or Tulsi, is an ancient herb commonly used in Ayurveda, a natural medicine system with historical roots in India. The herb has a place within the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism, in which devotees perform worship involving holy basil plants or leaves. 

In Ayurveda, holy basil is commonly referred to as an “Elixir of Life” due to its healing powers. The herb is an important adaptogen that has long been recognized to treat many different common health conditions. 

First, what is an adaptogen?

Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help increase your ability to handle stress and fatigue. Adaptogens essentially “adapt” to your body’s specific needs. This is why they can be used for such a wide range of conditions.

These important herbs date back to Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurvedic practices. Studies show that adaptogens have neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties.

So how do they work? Long term stress results in overactivity of the brain’s HPA axis (hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal glands). 

When the HPA becomes overactive, it leads to the release of too much epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol (chemicals involved in the fight-or-flight response). This can result in a variety of health problems, including mental health disorders, insomnia, diabetes and heart disease.

Adaptogens can impact how much cortisol and adrenaline is released, which can help combat adrenal fatigue.

What is the traditional use of holy basil?

Traditionally, holy basil leaf extracts have been used for the treatment of bronchitis, rheumatism, and pyrexia. 

Other reported uses include treatment of epilepsy, asthma or difficult breathing, hiccups, cough, skin diseases, parasitic infections, wounds, neuralgia, headache, inflammation and oral conditions.

The juice of the leaves has been used as a drop for earaches, while the tea infusion has been used for gastric and liver disorders. The roots and stems of the plant were also traditionally used to heal mosquito bites, snake bites and malaria.

How is Holy basil used today?

Today, the herb is widely consumed as an herbal tea and can also be found in supplement form. Many people consume holy basil as a potent stress reliever.

Holy basil is used for a wide variety of health ailments, which could be due to its anti-inflammatory properties.

Studies show that holy basil can improve mood, reduce fatigue and improve sleep. Preclinical animal studies have shown that holy basil increases swimming survival times in mice and prevents stress-induced ulcers in rats. These anti-stress effects were found to be comparable to antidepressant drugs.

Research suggests that holy basil can also be used for lifestyle-related chronic diseases including diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and psychological stress. 

In addition, scientific studies in vitro, animal and human experiments have shown that holy basil exerts a unique combination of actions that include antimicrobial, anti-diarrheal, antioxidant, anticataract, anti-inflammatory, neuro-protective, cardio-protective, anti-diabetic, memory enhancement, anti-asthmatic, anti-arthritic, adaptogenic and anti-stress activities.

In the conclusion of a large review on holy basil (tulsi), published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the researchers write “Despite the lack of large-scale or long term clinical trials on the effect of tulsi in humans, the findings from 24 human studies published to date suggest that the tulsi is a safe herbal intervention that may assist in normalising glucose, blood pressure and lipid profiles, and dealing with psychological and immunological stress.”

“Furthermore, these studies indicate the daily addition of tulsi to the diet and/or as adjunct to drug therapy can potentially assist in prevention or reduction of various health conditions and warrants further clinical evaluation.”

If you’re interested in holy basil, you might also be interested in ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is another adaptogen used in ancient Ayurveda. The herb has been used for more than 3,000 years to help reduce stress, improve stamina and increase concentration levels. 

In Sanskrit, ashwagandha means “smell of the horse,” which helps describe its unique smell, as well as its ability to increase strength.

Research has shown that ashwagandha can help improve sleep and reduce stress. Many of ashwagandha’s health benefits are attributed to its high levels of withanolides, hormone precursors that can convert into human physiological hormones to help bring balance to the body. 

In an overview of ashwagandha in the African Journal of Traditional. Complementary and Alternative Medicines, the authors write, “Being a powerful adaptogen, it enhances the body’s resilience to stress.”

“Ashwagandha improves the body’s defense against disease by improving the cell-mediated immunity. It also possesses potent antioxidant properties that help protect against cellular damage caused by free radicals.”

In a review looking at the effects of ashwagandha on rat anxiety, the authors write, “Ashwagandha induced a calming anxiolytic effect that was comparable to the drug Lorazepam in all three standard Anxiety tests: the elevated plus-maze, social interaction and the feeding latency in an unfamiliar environment.”

“Further, both Ashwagandha and Lorazepam, reduced rat brain levels of tribulin, an endocoid marker of clinical anxiety, when the levels were increased following administration of the anxiogenic agent, pentylenetetrazole.”

“Ashwagandha also exhibited an antidepressant effect, comparable with that induced by imipramine, in two standard tests, the forced swim-induced ‘behavioral despair’ and ‘learned helplessness’ tests. The investigations support the use of Ashwagandha as a mood stabilizer in clinical conditions of anxiety and depression.”

You might also be interested in rhodiola rosea. 

Rhodiola rosea, also called Arctic root or golden root, is another adaptogen with anti-stress, anti-aging, anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties.

Similar to holy basil and ashwagandha, rhodiola has been shown to reduce mental fatigue and improve sleep patterns.

One study evaluated the effects of a 20-day regimen of Rhodiola rosea supplements on stressed-out students. The results show that participants experienced significantly reduced mental fatigue, better sleep patterns and an increased motivation to study. In fact, their exam scores were 8% higher than students in the placebo group.

Several clinical trials have shown that a Rhodiola extract improves mental performance and attention after single and repeated doses, and also prevents physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion in people with fatigue syndrome. The extract was also found to be effective in treating mild to moderate depression and generalized anxiety.


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