Sonoran Plant Profile: Tulsi-Holy Basil

Family: Lamiaceae

Other names:  Tulasi, Fever Plant, Harombabe, Bai Gapraow, Tulasi, Surasa, Miri Taratoni, wu mao ding, ding xiang luo le

Origin Ocimum sanctum is found in India across to southern China, and throughout southeast Asia where it is widely cultivated.  O. gratissimum can be found throughout Africa, Madagascar, and into India where it can still be found growing wild as a perennial subshrub.  It is considered an invasive weed throughout the Pacific Islands.

Energetics:  Warm & Dry (leaf), Cool & Moist (seed); Pungent, Sweet.  Vital Stimulant, Relaxant, Tonic.

Properties:  Anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, anodyne, immune modulating, adaptogenic, sedative, circulatory stimulant, digestive, carminative, antioxidant, hypoglycemic, hypotensive, antimicrobial, expectorant, bronchodilator, diuretic, galactagogue, antidepressant, antiviral

Uses:  Stress relief, anxiety, depression, memory enhancement, poor digestion, gas and bloating, food allergy relief, morning sickness, gastric ulcers, headache, flu, insulin resistance, diabetes type II, radiation exposure, hypertension, high blood fats, arthritis, PMS, autoimmune disease, cataracts, fever, sinusitis, colds, asthma, dysentery, viral infections, chronic fatigue, protect again free radical damage, viral hepatitis, pulmonary inflammation, promoting gum health, etc.

Is it just Basil with a fancy name?

In India, Tulsi, or Holy Basil, is referred to as the Mother Medicine of Nature.  Holy Basil is different from our regular garden Basil (O. basilicum) and all its hybrid varieties.  In fact, there are 35 different Ocimum spp. the world over.  Although most have forgotten that our Basil is also a potent medicinal, you will find this to be true mostly with the varieties that are tinged purple.  Basil has a long tradition of use as a medicine for its anti-inflammatory effects and was widely used by women internally for menstrual cramps as a fresh herb.  Such as it is, Holy Basil and its numerous varieties (Rama, Vada, Krishna) can exhibit a range of green to purple in their leaves with Krishna Tulsi most commonly exhibiting purple in its leaves.  This group of Basils referred to as Tulsi in India, where they are most commonly used as medicine, is what this article will be primarily exploring.  Tulsi, or Holy Basil, has been researched thoroughly in recent time and has shown a greater potential range of therapeutics than our garden Basil.  This serves to substantiate centuries, if not millennia, of traditional usage, once again, and sheds some light onto a variety of our modern health issues.  I would like to point out some of these highlights of Holy Basil while listing a few of the traditional uses as well.

Appearance

Holy Basil looks quite similar to the various garden Basils.  One particularly unique trait of the various Tulsi is a hairy stem.  Botanically speaking, “pilose” may best describe the hairy appearance of Tulsi.  The flowers of Tulsi are white to pink to lavender with the standard bilabiate, or two-lipped, mint family presentation.  The name Ocimum means “fragrant lipped.”  And like its European cousin, Tulsi calyces have two elongated teeth below, and one at each side for a total of four.  On many accounts, these Basil relatives do appear similar.  Where the differences may begin to clearly emerge is upon smelling or tasting, and the effects felt.

Plant Parts

There are numerous secondary plant compounds with known medicinal effect in the Tulsi plant.  Two prominent constituents include eugenol and methyl-eugenol.  These clove-related aromatics are also found in garden Basil, but compared to the Tulsis it is at best 10% the amount (Dr. Duke’s database).  The variety of Holy Basil known as Vana Tulsi (O. gratissimum “very grateful Basil”) is considered to be the most potent medicinally by some.  It is the species still found growing wild throughout West Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands.  As it is currently considered a problem as an invasive weed in much of these areas, it makes for the perfect opportunity for small-scale cottage industry herb sales and a means to bring its medicine to more people over several continents.  O. gratissimum and O. sanctum are two of the best known sources of methyleugenol.  Some of the known effects of this constituent include anesthetic, antibacterial, anticonvulsant, antioxidant, antiseptic, cancer preventive and carcinogenic, fungicide, narcotic, and sedative.  It’s interesting to note that it is believed to prevent and cause cancer.  I would not consider a plant that has been used daily by perhaps millions of people over millennia to have any real potential to cause cancer.  However, an isolated constituent separated from the wholeness of its plant of origin can potentially become dangerous behaving out of step from the traditional nature of the whole plant itself.  Yet again, this constituent may point towards the very key uses of Holy Basil as an anxiety reducer, a stress moderator, and suitable agent in fighting a variety of infections through enhanced host resistance.

One also finds a host of micronutrients present in Holy Basil including important antioxidants such as Vitamin C, A, and selenium.  It is also a good source of calcium.  A normal maintenance or therapeutic dose of 1gm per day would supply 8.5mg of Vitamin C.  Although many of us need significantly more vitamin C per day that’s a significant amount in such a small amount of herb.  Note that making a standard hot infusion of the herb will likely not supply this Vitamin C as it degrades easily when exposed to heat.  Other well known plant constituents include carnosic and rosmarinic acids, both very common among mint family plants they contribute much to the anti-inflammatory effects of this plant.  Other important constituents include alkaloids, beta-sitosterol, camphor, cineole, limonene, luteolin, phenols, phenylpropanoids, phytosterols, saponins, various terpenes, and ursolic acid amongst dozens more.  If nothing else, this speaks to the complexity of its actions on the human body, and being close to a food plant its toxic potential is very low.

Glorious Origins

Known as “The Queen of Herbs” in India, it is believed that Tulsi is the embodiment of a goddess devotee of Lord Vishnu.  Every aspect of a Tulsi plant is considered sacred including the earth it grows in.  There is perhaps nothing more sacred in the plant world within Ayurveda.

Now known by nearly every continent on this planet, Holy Basil has become famous.  Native to at least two continents (Africa and Asia) it has spread across the globe by word of mouth, by wind blown seed.  Highly revered in India as an herb with spiritual power to protect one’s home and those who dwell there it bestows great blessings on those who choose to cultivate it near their home.  A litany of traditional uses speak to generations of plant-people relationship which has made Tulsi a natural member of the family.  A tea to clear the chest and relieve inflammation of the bronchi.  Enhance immunity when a change of seasons brought about an epidemic of cough and cold amongst the villagers.  A depressed young man who lost his wife in a mudslide is guided by a village healer to caretake the plant at his home and ritually bathe himself as he recites mantra and drinks the tea bringing peace of mind and a period of relief to his anxiety over his great loss.  A urinary tract infection is soothed by a tea made from the seeds.  Ceremonies throughout the year are conducted with Tulsi playing a central role.

In India, Africa, and southeast Asia generations have coveted this plant.  However, we are just becoming aware of it as a distinct and valuable new member of our herbal apothecary, and yet it’s so familiar to our garden Basil.  The pleasure of growing Tulsi and having it available to touch and receive its aroma is perhaps the greatest of all.  I know several people who have been pleasantly surprised how valuable it can be so close at hand.  During anxious times a fresh leaf is chewed to bring a sense a calm to the nervous system, improve respiration, and sedate the stress response.  Tulsi will not lose any of its glory if added to salads, made into pesto, dried and sprinkled on scrambled eggs, stir fry, or in a smoothie.  The glory of Holy Basil to us now is that it can grow remarkably well in the low elevation Sonoran desert climate throughout the summer season (March-October).

Clinical Studies

It is exciting to discover the wide range of applications of this non-toxic herb.  The studies continue to come available confirming and expanding upon its range of known uses.  Much of this research is coming out of India, naturally.  I have chosen to focus strictly on human clinical trials avoiding the prolific animal studies.  In a double-blind placebo-controlled study done on mild-to-moderate stress-induced arterial hypertension 500mg of powdered leaves were given three times daily.  After one week, significant declines were found in the blood pressure readings of the Tulsi group (average 26 mm Hg systolic, and 16 mm Hg diastolic).  The average reading of the group at the six week conclusion was 124/84 with no negative side effects.  Another study on chronic fatigue in 56 aging patients noted improvement after one week in 90% with 300mg of crushed leaf given once daily.  Within one month, all subjects noted improvement in fatigue.  This improvement continued for one month even after discontinuing therapy (which lasted for three months to one year in total).  Further studies have shown antidiabetic, antiulcer, antiviral, antioxidant, cardiovascular protective, antiarthritic, and periodontal health promoting effects.  (Singh & Hoette)

Rasayanas and Health Enhancement

Rasayana is a term from Ayurveda used to describe an herb or substance which has the capacity to enhance well-being, build tissue, relieve stress, prevent decay, and build the body-mind.  Tulsi fits this category in a variety of ways.  Its anti-stress, antifatigue, antioxidant, mood-lifting, and stamina improving effects all point to this.  Many would say that this categorizes Tulsi as an adaptogen.  This term has become quite popular over the past 15 years and understandably so.  This category of herbs remarkably supports the modern lifestyle and all its drawbacks and pitfalls.  Tranquilizing the central nervous system and mediating free radical damage while enhancing memory and relieving fatigue cuts straight into the physiological and psychological challenges so many face in our modern society.  India knows civilization and its effects on humanity just as well as anyone, and they have been utilizing this herb for general well-being and the prevention of disease for centuries.  When compared with other classic adaptogens (Chinese Ginseng, Siberian Ginseng or Eleuthero) it is quite possible that Tulsi is more effective while exhibiting the least potential for side effects.  Although animal studies indicate an anti-fertile effect from ingesting Holy Basil, centuries of observation and clinical case studies have observed contrary results.  Author Singh notes a male client increasing his sperm count and motility from treatment with Tulsi.

My Experience

In my personal practice, I have found Holy Basil to exhibit the following qualities: mildly sedative to musculature, enhanced cerebral circulation, opening to sinuses, warming to digestion, mood elevating, relief of fatigue, stimulates salivary secretions, mild circulatory stimulant, enhances circulation to the stomach, relieves digestive discomfort, and promoting gum health.  I generally employ Tulsi as a standard infusion or as a fresh plant tincture.

Preparations

The standard infusion of the dry herb can be made with one teaspoon per cup of boiling water.  This is taken in 1-5 cups daily.  If you have the fresh plant available you can make tea with the fresh leaves as it is done in India both in the home and clinically.  Fresh or dry, steep the herb with boiled water, covered, for at least 5 minutes.  The longer you steep it the stronger it will be.  The fresh plant tincture will contain aspects of the plant which the tea cannot dissolve.  For general health, a standard dosage is 30 drops twice a day in warm water.  For indicated health conditions the dosage can be increased up to 60 drops 5 times a day.  Holy Basil is often taken for a minimum of six weeks, however periods of a year or more of daily use is not uncommon for conditions such as chronic anxiety, essential hypertension, hepatitis, asthma, etc.

Our fresh holy basil steeped in honey makes a wonderful aid to gum health when chewed while swallowing the juice.  It is also taken as a daily mood lifter, energy enhancer, and stress reducer.  Tulsi has a calming and antidepressant effect on the psyche.

Our Brain Power Formula also includes another Ayurvedic herb known as Brahmi, or Bacopa, and a mint family relative, Rosemary.

 

Other Notes

The seeds are demulcent and provide relief to irritated and inflamed tissue when taken as tea.  The root is traditionally decocted in milk and taken daily to relieve impotence.

Cautions: Holy Basil may slow blood-clotting so it is best to avoid when taking blood-thinning medications.

Desert Tortoise Botanical Products: Tulsi/Holy Basil tincture, Tulsi/Holy Basil Honey Infusion, Brain Power Formula, and more to come . . .

 

References

Dorr, Laurence Joseph - 3779 - Madagascar.  Herbarium specimen; Missouri Botanical Garden.

Duke, Dr James A.  Dr. Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases.

http://sun.ars-grin.gov:8080/npgspub/xsql/duke/chemdisp.xsql

Eland, Sue.  2008.  Plant Biographies; www.plantlives.com

Mondal S, et. al.  J Ethnopharmacol. 2011 Jul 14;136(3):452-6.Double-blinded randomized controlled trial for immunomodulatory effects of Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum Linn.) leaf extract on healthy volunteers.  

Singh, Dr. Narendra & Dr. Yamuna Hoette.  2002.  Tulsi, The Mother Medicine of Nature. 

Winston, David and Steven Maimes.  2007.  Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.


1 comment

  • Love this herb…one of the original ones that started me on my path to herbalism. We have used this mainly for my wife’s asthma which has greatly reduced her dependence on pharmaceuticals . This herb also is great for reducing the stress hormone cortisol. Great article thanks

    Scott Butler

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