The Holy Basil herb (Ocimum sanctum), also called Tulsi, is one of the oldest and most used medicinal herbs. It has provided the backbone of many treatments among Ayurvedic physicians from thousands of years ago, as it was used to treat numerous disorders. It has also been revered for its spiritual potency, and has been dubbed among ancient Ayurvedic texts as “elixir of life.” The word Tulsi is translated to “incomparable.”
The plant grows in warm and tropical regions, but also up to 6,000 feet among mountainous regions. There are actually two general cultivars of the herb: One has green leaves and the other has purple leaves.
One might be tempted to compare Tulsi to Culinary Basil – Ocimum basilicum. Holy Basil, however, is quite different. A 2014 DNA sequencing study was conducted at the CSIR-Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants genetically compared the two species. The research found significant genetic differences between the two species. While they may share a few of their constituents, their genetic sequences have significant differences.
In terms of active constituents, Holy Basil’s stronger pungency is due to its content of eugenol along with sesquiterpenoids such as beta-caryophyllene. Other medically active constituents of Tulsi include oleanolic acid, ursolic acid, carvacrol, linalool, rosmarinic acid, myretenal, luteolin, germacrene D, beta-sitosterolorintin, beta-elemene, vicenin, carnosic acid, several apigenins, luteolin-glucuronic acids, luteolin-glucopyranosides, glucopyronosyl-hydroxybenzenes, dimethoxy-flavans, methoxyphenoxy-dimethoxyflavans, methoxyphenoxymethyls, methoxyphenyl-dihydrobenzofurans, methoxyphenoxy-methoxyphenyl-methoxypropanes and many others.
Tulsi is also rich in calcium (25 mg per 100 grams), phosphorus, iron and vitamin C.
Ancient Ayurvedic texts have advised Tulsi be used to combat a myriad of conditions. These include:
• Stress and anxiety
• Coughing and asthma
• Intestinal issues and diarrhea
• Eye conditions
• Heart and artery conditions
• Back pain
• Skin conditions
• Various bites from insects, snakes, scorpions and others
Okay this list is huge. And yet there are even more conditions that Tulsi is recommended for by Ayurvedic physicians. The question now is whether scientific research supports these various uses for Holy Basil. Does the ancient medicinal remedy stand up in the face of modern science? Let’s review some of the research and see. Some of these studies are animal or laboratory studies, but many are also human studies. Together these validate Tulsi’s history of human clinical use in Ayurveda.
1. Tulsi reduces stress and anxiety
Tulsi is well-known for reducing stress and anxiety. A 2008 study from India’s Roy Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research tested 35 people with generalized anxiety disorders within a hospital clinic. The researchers treated the subjects with 1,000 milligrams of Tulsi extract for 60 days. The subjects were tested in the beginning, at 30 days and after 60 days, utilizing the Hamilton brief psychiatric rating scale (BPRS) along with examinations. The study found that Holy Basil significantly reduced levels of anxiety, stress and depression among the patients.
A study from India’s Central Drug Research Institute found that mice that were given Holy Basil with their feedings showed significantly less anxiety in maze and motor testing.
Reducing anxiety and physical stress are related. A study from India’s Central Drug Research Institute found that extracted constituents of Holy Basil reduced stress levels. The mechanisms of this included normalizing blood sugar, modulating corticosterone, attenuating the adrenal glands and balancing creatine kinase.
2. Tulsi fights bacterial infections
A number of studies have investigated Holy Basil’s ability to reduce infections due to bacteria. Much of this antibacterial character of Holy Basil is due to eugenol. Eugenol has undergone study in other venues as a proven antimicrobial substance. For example, a 2015 study from Brazil’s University Federal de Alfenas found that eugenol was antimicrobial against Salmonella typhimurium and Micrococcus luteus – both infective bacteria.
A study from India’s Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine tested extracts of Holy Basil against antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella Typhi and found the Tulsi significantly inhibited these strong contagious bacteria. They stated in their conclusion:
“O. sanctum is potential in combating S. typhi drug resistance, as well promising in the development of non-antibiotic drug for S. typhi infection.”
This antibacterial quality of Holy Basil supports the clinical experience of Ayurvedic doctors of ancient times that used Tulsi for conditions related to numerous bacteria infections, including intestinal issues, lung conditions, skin infections and eye infections.
3. Tulsi reduces oxidative stress
Oxidative stress is related to a number of disorders including cardiovascular conditions, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, aches and pains, liver issues and others. Oxidative stress occurs as the body responds to the oxidation of fats and glucose within the body. This oxidation forms free radicals that in turn produce tissue damage. When lipoprotein fats such as LDL are oxidized, they begin to damage the blood vessels, creating atherosclerosis, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues. Free radicals can also damage brain cells, increasing the risk of dementia.