Closely related to the culinary herb sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is a plant with a rich history of use as a healing herb. Because this venerable herb has so many applications, it has become one of my favorites. I often include holy basil in adaptogenic tonics, and also find it useful for specific conditions, ranging from support for cancer and cardiovascular disease to improving skin health.
Native to India, holy basil is also known as tulsi, which means “the incomparable one.” Considered as sacred in the Hindu faith, most traditional homes and temples in India have at least one tulsi plant, which is used in prayers to insure personal health, spiritual purity, and family well-being. In Ayurvedic medicine, tulsi is classified as a rasayana, an herb that nourishes a person’s growth to perfect health and enlightenment and promotes long life.
A large body of scientific research supports the traditional uses of this valuable plant. Studies show that holy basil has antimicrobial, adaptogenic, antidiabetic, hepatoprotective, anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogenic, radioprotective, immunomodulatory, neuroprotective, and cardioprotective actions, among many other benefits.
I don’t prescribe holy basil as an individual herb, but instead combine it with other adaptogens, nervines, and spirit-nourishing plants. It is one of the primary ingredients in one of my favorite foundational formulas, which combines concentrated extracts of several adaptogen companions, including turmeric, grape seed, amla, green tea, and ginger.
Key Constituents Of Holy Basil
Holy basil leaf contains a variety of beneficial constituents, including eugenol (a volatile oil), ursolic acid (a triterpenoid), and rosemarinic acid (a phenylpropanoid). Other active compounds include caryophyllene and oleanolic acid, carotenoids, vitamin C, calcium, iron, zinc, and chlorophyll.
One of tulsi’s many important compounds is triterpenoid ursolic acid, which is also found in rosemary. Ursolic acid is one of the cosmetic industry’s latest favorites because not only does it promote skin healing and enhance elasticity, research indicates that it shows potential for preventing and curing skin cancer.1 Ursolic acid is a well-known antitumor agent (it suppresses protein kinase C activity, down-regulates MMP-9, and induces apoptosis).2 Other actions of ursolic acid include hepatoprotective, anti-inflammatory (COX-2 inhibition),3 antiulcer, antimicrobial, antihyperlipidemic, and antiviral.
Traditional Uses Of Holy Basil
In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, the uses of holy basil are many and varied. For example, the herb is used to strengthen the respiratory system, and is prescribed for coughs and colds, especially when associated with asthma and bronchitis.4 Holy basil also promotes circulation, normalizes blood pressure, and is often combined with other cardiotonic herbs like arjuna to address heart issues.5
A primary action of holy basil is its ability to bring down fevers. During a deadly outbreak of viral encephalitis in Northern India in 1978, holy basil was compared with standard conventional treatments.6 At a dose of only 2.5 grams of holy basil powder taken four times daily, there was complete recovery in 60 percent of the patients using the herb, contrasted with a survival rate of zero of those treated with conventional medicine.
Holy basil also supports the digestive system.7 Taking tulsi as a tea with dried ginger is a common treatment for indigestion.8 And used topically as a paste combined with black pepper, holy basil treats ringworm, eczema, and urticaria/hives.9 The antiseptic properties of holy basil make it useful for other topical applications, including for wounds,10 ulcers,11 challenging skin diseases like leprosy,12 and staph infections of the skin.13
The Many Therapeutic Benefits Of Holy Basil
Modern research has confirmed dozens of holy basil’s traditionally known actions and therapeutic uses, including its remarkable adaptogenic and antistress activities as well as its powerful ability to support the immune system. I classify it as a secondary adaptogen (albeit my number-one secondary adaptogen). Holy basil modulates the stress response, increases adaptive energy, and specifically elevates and nourishes the “Vital Spirit.” Like ashwagandha, (another traditional Ayurvedic adaptogen) and eleuthro, holy basil is well suited for all energetic types. My philosophy is to combine many adaptogens and other complementary plant medicines to create a “gourmet meal” of herbs to improve and optimize health.
The therapeutic activities and effects of holy basil include:
- Decreases incidence of gastric ulcer14
- Increases endurance15
- Lowers the stress-induced release of adrenal hormones16 and assists in the normalization of cortisol
- Enhances endocrine function, increases physical performance17
- Reduces oxidative stress, modulates inflammation (COX-2 inhibition)18
- Protects the liver19
- Promotes eye health, anticatarrh20
- Normalizes blood pressure21
- Nourishes the cardiovascular system, inhibits platelet aggregation/ profound antiatherogenic effect,22 normalizes lipids
- Balances blood sugar and insulin metabolism23
- Anticancer and antioxidative: protects against radiation and chemotherapy-induced damage24
- Anti-inflammatory: reduces COX-2 expression
- Supports drug and nicotine withdrawal; normalizes the HPAA
- Elevates mood and spirit: relieves mild forms of depression, especially when induced from stress, nourishes the vital spirit (heart), promotes cheerfulness, helps with processing grief and fear.
Therapeutic dosing range:
- Standardized extract: ursolic acid (>2.50 percent), 200 to 500 mg daily
- Fluid extract 1:1: 3 to 5 mL daily
- Tea: 2 to 4 cups daily
Holy basil can be safely consumed in moderation within the above dosage range. It has been a popular beverage for thousands of years in India.
Research Supporting Holy Basil
Stress Support: Many studies show that holy basil possesses antistress effects and reduces the damaging effects of stress.25,26 At the same time, it enhances physical performance, and is thus adaptogenic.27
In a study comparing the anti-stress effects of Eleutherococcus senticosus, Panax ginseng, and Ocimum sanctum, researchers found that each exhibited a stress-protective effect when given to animals placed under stress triggered by muscle work and immobilization.28 Ocimumoside A and B appear to be the constituents responsible for the profound anti-stress activity of holy basil, through exerting beneficial effects on the endocrine, nervous, and antioxidant systems.29
Antioxidant Properties: Holy basil contains a number of compounds, including carnosol, ursolic acid, rosmarinic acid, apigenin, eugenol, cirsilineol, and cirsimaritin that have demonstrated potent redox/antioxidant enhancement as well as COX-2 inhibitory effects.30
As an example of the herb’s antioxidant properties, an aqueous extract of holy basil was found to protect mice against radiation-induced lipid peroxidation in the liver and chromosome damage. Glutathione and antioxidant enzymes appear to play an important role in this activity.31.32
Holy basil’s scavenging of superoxide anion radicals, DPPH (2,2-diphenyl-1-picrylhydrazyl) radicals, hydroxyl radicals, hydrogen peroxide, chelating ferrous iron, and ferric ions suggests that the high amount of rosmarinic present in tulsi is responsible in part for this antioxidant activity.33
In another experiment, an ethanolic extract of holy basil leaf was found to be protective against DMBA (7,12-dimethylbenz[a]anthracene)–induced genotoxicity and oxidative stress and demonstrated regulating effects (increasing the xenobiotic-metabolizing enzymes) needed to rid the body of toxins.34
Cancer Protection: Pre-clinical studies show that phytochemicals in holy basil—including eugenol, rosmarinic acid, apigenin, myretenal, luteolin, β-sitosterol, and carnosic acid—may prevent chemical-induced skin, liver, oral, and lung cancers. The protective effects include increasing antioxidant activity, altering gene expression, inducing apoptosis, and inhibiting angiogenesis and metastasis.
An aqueous extract of tulsi and its flavonoids, orientin and vicenin, appear to protect mice against radiation-induced sickness and mortality and to selectively protect normal tissues against the tumoricidal effects of radiation. Other phytochemicals like eugenol, rosmarinic acid, apigenin, and carnosic acid found in holy basil have also been shown to prevent radiation-induced DNA damage.35,36
Lung cancer: Research indicates that an ethanol extract of holy basil can be a potent antimetastatic candidate through its ability to inactivate MMP-9 and enhance antioxidant enzymes.37 Holy basil ethanol extract was shown to induce apoptosis in A549 cells via a mitochondria caspase–dependent pathway and to inhibit the in vivo growth of LLC. Researchers concluded that ethanol extract of O. sanctum can be applied to lung carcinoma as a chemopreventive candidate.38
Pancreatic cancer: Holy basil has been shown to inhibit the proliferation, migration, invasion, and to induce apoptosis of pancreatic cancer cells in vitro. The expression of genes that promote the proliferation, migration and invasion of PC cells including activated ERK-1/2, FAK, and p65 (subunit of NF-κB), was downregulated in PC cells after O. sanctum treatment. Overall, this study suggests that leaves of O. sanctum could be a potential source of novel anticancer compounds in the future.39
Prostate cancer: Studies show that O. sanctum as a single agent and in synergistic combination with docetaxel is beneficial in the treatment of prostate cancer. Docetaxel (DTL), the approved drug for the treatment of metastatic androgen independent prostate cancer, has been shown to improve survival and quality of life in patients. However, the dose limiting adverse effect of DTL is febrile neutropenia and anemia. Research indicates that vicenin-2 and DTL co-administration results in greater decrease in the levels of proliferation marker, Ki67 and angiogenic marker-CD31, while increasing the tumor suppressor E-cadherin expression to a greater extent than either of the agents alone.40 Critical signaling proteins like pIGF-1R, which is important for androgen-independent prostate cancer survival and progression, and pAkt, proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA), cyclin D1, fibronectinwere have also been shown to be significantly inhibited by co-administration of vicenin-2 and DTL. 41
Cardioprotective Properties: Holy basil has been shown to produce a hypotensive effect, which appears to be the result of peripheral vasodilatory action. In one investigation, the oil extracted from the herb increased blood clotting time, and the percentage increase, comparable to aspirin, could be due to holy basil’s inhibition of platelet aggregation.42
Stroke is an enormous public health problem with an imperative need for more effective therapy. Free radicals are proposed to play a role in the expansion of ischemic brain lesions, and the effect of free-radical scavengers is still under debate. One study investigated the neuroprotective effect of O. sanctum in reducing brain injury after middle cerebral artery occlusion. Researchers found that O. sanctum pretreatment may reduce the deterioration caused by free radicals and thus may be used to prevent subsequent behavioral, biochemical, and histopathological changes that transpire during cerebral ischemia. This finding suggests that supplementation with holy basil effectively ameliorates cerebral ischemia–induced oxidative damage.43
Holy basil has also been shown to improve cardiovascular risk factors, including reducing fasting blood glucose by 60 percent in one group compared to 10 percent in a control group after thirteen weeks of extract administration. Body weight, serum total cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) decreased, while serum high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL, i.e., “good”) increased in the extract-treated group.44
In a study investigating the lipid-lowering and antioxidative activities of O. sanctum, rats were fed a high-cholesterol diet for seven weeks and administered the extract. The results showed that holy basil extract suppressed the high levels of serum lipid profile and hepatic lipid content without significant effects on fecal lipid excretion. The conclusion was that O. sanctum leaf extract decreases hepatic and serum lipid profile and provides the liver and cardiac tissues with protection from hypercholesterolemia. Researchers found that the lipid-lowering effects of holy basil are probably due to the rise of bile acid synthesis using cholesterol as a precursor, and the herb’s antioxidative activity protects the liver from hypercholesterolemia.45
Arthritis: Extracts of O. tenuiflorum (identical to O. sanctum) were shown to reduce swelling by up to 73 percent twenty-four hours after treatment; similar results were seen with O. americanum. Results for both plants were similar to those seen with diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug that is widely used in the treatment of arthritis. These results support the traditional use of holy basil for treating inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.
Dental Health: Holy basil used in mouth rinse is beneficial for dental health, for treating bad breath and for gum health. It is useful in pyorrhea and other gum disorders. Holy basil’s anti-inflammatory and anti-infectious properties make it a powerful treatment for all gum disease.46
Pain Relief: An alcoholic leaf extract of O. sanctum was tested for analgesic activity in mice. The results suggest that holy basil’s pain-relieving action is exerted both centrally as well as peripherally and involves an interplay between various neurotransmitter systems.47
Parkinson’s Disease: Holy basil has been shown to reduce Parkinson’s disease symptoms in the transgenic Drosophila model.
Researchers evaluated the effect of O. sanctum leaf extract on the transgenic Drosophila model of flies expressing normal human alpha synuclein (h-αs) in the neurons. Supplementation of O. sanctum extract showed a dose-dependent significant delay in the loss of climbing ability and reduction in oxidative stress in the brain of PD model flies.48
Skin Health: Ursolic acid, a major compound found in holy basil, is a carboxylic acid present in a wide variety of plants in the form of a free acid or an aglycone of triterpene saponines. It has been used to treat photoaged skin because it inhibits the appearance of wrinkles and age spots by restoring the skin’s collagen bundle structures and elasticity. Ursolic acid also blocks the inflammatory enzymes cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase, as well as inhibits tumors (through the inhibition of MMP-2 and 9).49
Ulcers: O. sanctum has been shown to possess antiulcerogenic activity: it decreases the incidence of ulcers and also enhances the healing of ulcers and could act as a potent therapeutic agent against peptic ulcer disease.50
Wound Healing: Because of its wound-healing and antioxidant activities, holy basil may be useful in the management of abnormal healing conditions such as keloids and hypertrophic scars.51
With such a remarkable body of research proving the wide-ranging beneficial properties of holy basil, I consider it wise to include holy basil as an herb for daily use. Making a tea from the herb is a good way to enjoy the benefits—I suggest drinking two to three cups daily for general health support. Herbs that I often combine with holy basil include hawthorn, linden, hibiscus, dandelion leaf, and nettles.
- D.B. Yarosh, D. Both, D. Brown, Liposomal ursolic acid (merotaine) increases ceramides and collagen in human skin, Horm Res. 2000;54(5-6):318-21.
- F. Lauthier, L. Taillet, P. Trouillas, et al., “Ursolic acid triggers calcium-dependent apoptosis in human Daudi cells,” Anticancer Drugs 11(9) (2000): 737–45. [FC]
- M. A. Kelm, M. G. Nair, G. M. Strasburg, et al., “Antioxidant and COX-2 inhibitory phenolic compounds from Ocimum santum Linn.,” Phytomedicine 7(1) (2000): 7–13.
- Ayurveda Saukhyam of Todarananda NIIR Board, National Institute of Industrial Research (India) (2004). Compendium of Medicinal Plants. 2004.
- Bhavaprakash Pushpa Varga 63.
- S.K. Das, A. Chandra, S.S. Agarwal, N. Singh, N. (1983). Ocimum sanctum (Tulsi) in the treatment of viral encephalitis. The Antiseptic, pp.1-5.
- Bhavaprakash PuspaVarga 62–63.
- Vaidyamanorama 6.30.
- Yogaratnakara, 348.
- Vrndhamadhava 44.44.
- Ayurveda Saukhyam of Todarananda 30.22.
- Bhavaprakash of Bhavamisra 6.62–63.
- Kashyap Samhita Khila Sthana 14.72.
- R. K. Kath and R. K. Gupta, “Antioxidant activity of hydroalcoholic leaf extract of Ocimum sanctum in animal models of peptic ulcer,” Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology 50(4) (2006): 391–96 [FC].
- 15.T. K. Maity, S. C. Mandal, B. P. Saha, and M. Pal, “Effect of Ocimum sanctum roots extract on swimming performance in mice,” Phytotherapy Research 14(2) (2000): 120–21. [FC]
- J. Samson, R. Sheeladevi, and R. Ravindran, “Oxidative stress in brain and antioxidant activity of Ocimum sanctum in noise exposure,” Neurotoxicology 28(3) (2007): 679–85 [FC].
- K. P. Bhargava and N. Singh, “Anti-Stress activity of Ocimun sanctum Linn.,” Indian Journal of Medical Research 73 (1981): 443–51. [FC]
- B. Vrinda and P. Uma Devi, “Radiation protection of human lymphocyte chromosomes in vitro by orientin and vicenin,” Mutation Research 498(1–2) (2001): 39–46 [FC]; R. S. Ubaid, K. M. Anantrao, J. B. Jaju, and M. Mateenuddin, “Effect of Ocimum sanctum (OS) leaf extract on hepatotoxicity induced by antitubercular drugs in rats,” Indian Journal of Physiology nd Pharmacology 47(4) (2003): 465–70.
- Ubaid, et al., “Effect of Ocimum sanctum (OS) leaf extract.”
- Vats, et al., “Anti-cataract activity of Pterocarpus marsupium bark.”
- S. Singh, H. M. Rehan, and D. K. Majumdar, “Effect of Ocimum sanctum fixed oil on blood pressure, blood clotting time and pentobarbitone-induced sleeping time,” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 78(2–3) (2001): 139–43 [FC]
- E. Singh, S. Sharma, J. Dwivedi, S. Sharma, Diversified potentials of Ocimum sanctum Linn (Tulsi): An exhaustive survey, J. Nat. Prod. Plant Resour., 2012, 2 (1):39-48.
- Nyarko, et al., “Aqueous extract of Ocimum canum”; Vats, et al., “Ethanolic extract of Ocimum sanctum”; and J. Liu, M. Zhang, W. Wang, and S. Grimsgaard, “Chinese herbal medicines for type 2 diabetes mellitus,” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 3 (2004): CD003642 [FC].
- N. Singh, P. Verma, B. R. Pandey, M. Bhalla, Therapeutic Potential of Ocimum sanctum in Prevention and Treatment of Cancer and Exposure to Radiation: An Overview, International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Drug Research 2012; 4(2): 97-104.
- Maity, et al., “Effect of Ocimum sanctum roots extract.”
- Muruganandam, et al., “Effect of poly herbal formulation.”
- Wagner, et al., “Plant adaptogens.”
- Bhargava, et al., “Antistress activity of Eleutherococcus senticosus.”
- R. Maurya, N. Banu, M. Al0Sheehe, G. Palit, Novel Ocimumoside A and B as anti-stress agents: modulation of brain monoamines and antioxidant systems in chronic unpredictable stress model in rats. Phytomedicine. 2012 May 15;19(7):639-47.
- Kelm, et al., “Antioxidant and COX-2.”
- J. Sethi, S. Sood, S. Seth, and A. Talwar, “Protective effect of Tulsi (Ocimum Sanctum) on lipid peroxidation in stress induced by anemic hypoxia in rabbits,” Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology 47(1) (2003): 115–19. [FC]
- Vrinda, et al., “Radiation protection of human lymphocyte chromosomes.”
- F. L. Hakkim, C. G. Shankar, and S. Girija, “Chemical composition and antioxidant property of holy basil (Ocimum sanctum L.) leaves, stems, and inflorescence and their in vitro callus cultures,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 55(22) (2007): 9109–17. [FC]
- P. Manikandan, R. S. Murugan, H. Abbas, et al., “Ocimum sanctum Linn. (holy basil) ethanolic leaf extract protects against 7,12-dimethylbenz[a]anthracene-induced genotoxicity, oxidative stress, and imbalance in xenobiotic-metabolizing enzymes,” Journal of Medicinal Food 10(3) (2007): 495–502. [FC]
- Baliga MS , Jimmy R, Thilakchand KR, Sunitha V, Bhat NR, Saldanha E, Rao S, Rao P, Arora R, Palatty PL. Ocimum sanctum L (Holy Basil or Tulsi) and its phytochemicals in the prevention and treatment of cancer, Nutr Cancer. 2013;65 Suppl 1:26-35. doi: 10.1080/01635581.2013.785010.
- Baliga MS, Rao S, Rai MP, D’souza P. Radio protective effects of the Ayurvedic medicinal plant Ocimum sanctum. J Cancer Res Ther. 2016 Jan-Mar;12(1):20-7. doi: 10.4103/0973-1482.151422.
- S. C. Kim, V. Magesh, S. J. Jeong, et al., “Ethanol extract of Ocimum sanctum exerts anti-metastatic activity through inactivation of matrix metalloproteinase-9 and enhancement of anti-oxidant enzymes,” Food and Chemical Toxicology 48(6) (2010): 1478–82. [FC]
- V. Magesh, J. C. Lee, K. S. Ahn, et al., “Ocimum sanctum induces apoptosis in A549 lung cancer cells and suppresses the in vivo growth of Lewis lung carcinoma cells,” Phytotherapy Research. 23(10) (2009): 1385–91. [FC]
- Shimizu T, Torres MP, Chakraborty S, et al. Holy Basil leaf extract decreases tumorigenicity and metastasis of aggressive human pancreatic cancer cells in vitro and in vivo: Potential role in therapy, Cancer Letters. Volume 336, Issue 2, 19 August 2013, Pages 270–280.
- 40.Baliga MS , Jimmy R, Thilakchand KR, Sunitha V, Bhat NR, Saldanha E, Rao S, Rao P, Arora R, Palatty PL. Ocimum sanctum L (Holy Basil or Tulsi) and its phytochemicals in the prevention and treatment of cancer, Nutr Cancer. 2013;65 Suppl 1:26-35. doi: 10.1080/01635581.2013.785010.
- Nagaprashantha LD, Vatsyayan R, Singhal J, Fast S, Roby R, Awasthi S, et al. Anti-cancer effects of novel flavonoid vicenin-2 as a single agent and in synergistic combination with docetaxel in prostate cancer. Biochem Pharmacol 2011;82:1100–9.
- Singh, et al., “Effect of Ocimum sanctum fixed oil.”
- A. Ahmad, M. M. Khan, S. S. Raza, et al., “Ocimum sanctum attenuates oxidative damage and neurological deficits following focal cerebral ischemia/reperfusion injury in rats,” Neurological Sciences 33(6) (2012): 1239–47.
- Nyarko, et al., “Aqueous extract of Ocimum canum.”
- Ahmad, et al. “Ocimum sanctum attenuates oxidative damage.”
- B. J. Kukreja, V. Dodwad. “Herbal Mouthwashes—A Gift of Nature.” International Journal of Pharma and Bio Sciences, Vol 3/Issue 2/April – June 2012
- N. Khanna and J. Bhatia, “Antinociceptive action of Ocimum sanctum (Tulsi) in mice: Possible mechanisms involved,” Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 88(2–3) (2003): 293–96. [FC]
- Siddique YH, Faisal M, Naz F, Jyoti S, Rahul. “Role of Ocimum sanctum leaf extract on dietary supplementation in the transgenic Drosophilia model of Parkinson’s disease.” Chin J Nat Med. 2014 Oct;12(10):777-81. doi: 10.1016/S1875-5364(14)60118-7. Epub 2014 Oct 31.
- C. Cardenas, A. R. Quesada, and M. A. Medina, “Effects of ursolic acid on different steps of the angiogenic process,” Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 320(2) (2004): 402–08. [FC]
- Dharmani, et al., “Evaluation of anti-ulcerogenic and ulcer-healing properties.”
- S. Shetty, S. Udupa, L. Udupa, and N. Somayaji, “Wound healing activity of Ocimum sanctum Linn with supportive role of antioxidant enzymes,” Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology. 50(2) (2006): 163–68. [FC]