Many people love basil for its pungent flavor, but did you know it also has many medicinal uses? There are many health benefits of basil, and it's much loved by herbalists as well as cooks.
The common sweet basil you might use for pizza and sauce can help with many everyday ailments. Another type of basil, known as holy basil or tulsi, also has proven benefits for health.
Here's more about both of these types of basil and how you can use them for wellness.
All About Basil
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a common culinary herb that you're probably familiar with. It's one of the oldest known herbs and has been cultivated for at least 5000 years. It even has an impressive name, since "basilicum" comes from the Greek for "king" or "royal."
Sweet basil is used in many traditional medicine practices, including traditional Chinese medicine. It's used to purify and protect, helping digestion and lifting the spirit.
There are many other types of basil (over 150) and all belong to the mint family. They share a distinct scent and flavor, although this varies according to type.
Holy basil (O. sanctum) is the main other variety used medicinally. It also goes by the name of tulsi and grows wild in India and other Asian countries. Holy basil is highly regarded in Ayurvedic medicine and other traditional healing systems. It's known as a rasayana, which means an herb that promotes perfect health and longevity. (Gladstar. Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide, pg. 58)
While there are some health benefits that sweet basil and holy basil share, they are distinctly different from each other.
Sweet basil is more often used for acute situations. It provides relief for certain imbalances and has a noticeable action. Holy basil is more often used as a tonic herb. This means it works best when taken over time to help restore the body to health.
Top Health Benefits of Sweet Basil
Protects Digestive Health
Basil promotes digestive health in several ways. It can bring relief to an upset stomach and calm nausea as well alleviate gas and bloating. It's also been used in traditional medicine to expel worms and parasites.
Sweet basil possesses anti-inflammatory properties that are calming to your digestive tract. They can ease inflammation throughout your whole body as well. (1)
Research also shows that basil can help protect against stomach ulcers, specifically those caused by aspirin. The essential oil has even been found effective against bacteria like E. coli that can cause severe digestive problems. (2)(3)
Supports Your Nervous System
Sweet basil has many benefits for stress, nervousness, and anxiety. It has a calming and rejuvenating effect on your nervous system and has shown an ability to help chronic stress and some symptoms of depression. (4)
When taken in the evening, basil can also have a mild sedative-like effect that may help you sleep better. It's especially helpful for relieving irritability, tension, and nervousness.
Good for Brain Function
Along with lifting your mood, basil can also help boost your brain power. When used in aromatherapy, it has the potential to increase mental alertness. You can probably get similar effects by enjoying a cup of basil tea. (5)
Other studies indicate that it can also help reduce memory loss, especially when it's associated with age or chronic stress. There's even potential for an extract of the herb to help with recovery after a stroke. (6)(7)
Due to its anti-inflammatory and stress-reducing effects, basil is a good herb to help relieve a headache. It works best for headaches associated with stress and will help you to release tension as well. You can drink a cup of basil tea for relief, or combine basil with other herbs like lemon balm, chamomile, or peppermint.
Protects and Soothes Skin
Using fresh basil leaves as a skin poultice is an old remedy. The essential oil of basil has strong antibacterial and antifungal properties that protect skin. Juice from the fresh leaves can also ease the pain or itch of insect bites and stings. (8)(9)
To make a quick poultice, you can either chew or mash up the leaves until they are juicy.
May Lower Blood Pressure and Blood Sugar Levels
A few studies have shown that lowering blood pressure and blood sugar may be additional health benefits of basil.
Though not yet confirmed in human studies, a basil supplement was successfully able to lower high blood pressure in one study. Another study that was a human trial found that basil was able to lower fasting blood sugar levels as well as blood glucose after a meal. Cholesterol levels also improved mildly. (10)(11)
Health Benefits of Holy Basil (Tulsi)
Adaptogenic Tonic for Stress
Holy basil is an adaptogenic herb, which means it helps your body and mind cope with stress. While you might use sweet basil for acutely stressful feelings (like at the end of a long day), tulsi does more of its work over time. You can take it regularly as a tonic herb to help yourself recover after long-term stress.
This is confirmed in studies where holy basil is shown to significantly reduce stress over a six week period. (12)
Renews Energy and Vitality
As an herb of longevity, one of the best health benefits of holy basil is its restorative quality. It can gradually renew energy levels and overall vitality when taken as a daily tonic. In fact, the same study that showed its effects on stress also reported that it significantly lowered feelings of exhaustion. (12)
Although it's certainly an herb to take when you feel run-down, holy basil is an amazing herb to take even when nothing is "wrong." Many traditional medicinal systems know the value of protecting and increasing health, not just fixing problems when they happen.
This is a good lesson for us to remember, and tulsi is one of the best tonic herbs for longevity you can take!
May Help Acne
Like sweet basil, holy basil has several benefits for skin health. These mainly come from its antibacterial properties. Perhaps most significantly, the essential oil has been found in studies to combat the bacteria that can cause acne. This is likely from its high content of eugenol, a powerful compound also found in cloves. (13)
Though not widely used for this purpose, it could be a good home remedy for acne.
Other Health Benefits of Holy Basil
Holy basil shares some similar benefits with sweet basil. For example, it has demonstrated an ability to lower blood sugar and is protective of heart health. It can also help with pain and inflammation in the body and has an antispasmodic effect. Traditional uses include fever reduction and treatment for bronchitis and asthma. (14)
Using Basil for Health
To get the most out of either type of basil, you'll need to use larger amounts than you would for cooking. Eating it fresh is a great way to get nutrients, fiber, and beneficial plant compounds.
Dried basil is more concentrated, but it doesn't have a long shelf life.
You can use either fresh or dried sweet basil to make a soothing tea. You can also use the essential oil in a diffuser or apply it (diluted) to your skin.
Basil is a very safe herb that can be taken in large amounts with no known side effects. If you're using the essential oil, be sure to dilute it before applying to your skin.
Some practitioners recommend avoiding basil in large amount while pregnant or breastfeeding. Culinary amounts are safe.
There is speculation that basil supplements may interact with cholesterol-lowering or diabetic medications. Talk to a qualified health practitioner if you are taking any of these medications.
The Amazing Health Benefits of Basil
Hopefully, after reading this article you won't look at basil the same way again! Far from just a common culinary herb, basil has many benefits for your health. From supporting digestion to calming stress to protecting your skin, there are many uses for this lovely herb.
Add more of both sweet and holy basil to your life to really experience their effects!