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What is Holy Basil?

By S. N. Smith
Updated May 16, 2024
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Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), called Tulasi or Tulsi (“incomparable one”) in Sanskrit, is a culinary herb with an ancient tradition rooted in ayurvedic medicine. A native of India, it is now cultivated all over the world. It produces a pleasant fragrance that is said to discourage mosquitoes and for this reason, this variety of basil is used by many gardeners as a patio plant.

In warm, tropical climates, it grows as a perennial, but in Europe and North America, the plant is considered a half-hardy annual. The plant appreciates full sun but will tolerate filtered light and partial shade. Like other basils, it requires well-drained soil and should be planted in the late spring to early summer when day- and night-time temperatures are not likely to dip below 50°F (10°C). Holy basil does well as a container plant and makes a lovely and unusual addition to the home herb or ornamental garden.

There are two varieties of holy basil: the milder white, or pale green, and the more assertively flavored red. The leaves and stems of the red plant have a reddish-purple cast. The leaves of both varieties are smaller than those of Mediterranean sweet basil and have serrated rather than smooth edges. The stems and leaves are lightly covered with little hairs.

Holy basil is sometimes referred to as “hot basil” or “pepper basil” because, unlike sweet or Thai basil, which have a flavor more reminiscent of licorice, this variety is spicy and more like cloves. Its flavor intensifies as it cooks, so most people prefer to eat it cooked rather than raw. In Thai cuisine, the herb is often matched with garlic, hot chilies, and fish sauce to flavor stir fries. It is not interchangeable with Western, or sweet, basil in most recipes that call for the latter.

Above and beyond its culinary uses, holy basil is considered one of the most sacred and important herbs in the Hindu and ayurvedic traditions. Also known as Tulasi, it is referred to in the Charaka Samhita, a fundamental text of ayurvedic medicine. It is valued for antibacterial, antifungal, and inti-inflammatory properties.

Holy basil is considered to be an adaptogenic herb, which means it is thought to help the body adapt to various forms of both physical and mental stress. There is some evidence that the plant is effective in lowering blood sugar, so scientific studies are examining its potential as an aid in treating diabetes.

This form of basil is traditionally made into remedies for headaches, heart disease, colds, asthma and bronchitis, gastrointestinal disorders, and inflammatory illnesses. It is also used to combat certain forms of poisoning as well as malaria and dengue fever. Medicinal compounds use the leaves and essential oil in several forms, including tea, powder, and fresh leaves.

Holy basil is regarded as purifying to both the mind and body, and it is considered an essential part of religious households in the Hindu tradition. Because this herb is considered to be not merely a medicinal or culinary herb but also a sacred herb, its care and maintenance is carefully attended to.

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Discussion Comments
By anon978552 — On Nov 18, 2014

I've taken this in tea and extract form. It has a distinct flavor, the sort of warm spice that would taste good added to pumpkin pie or mulled cider. I prefer this to pill form, not only because the taste is pleasant, but I think there's a certain psychosomatic effect to being able to taste your medicine. The physiological effects are real too, as I got some measurable ones I wasn't expecting, but associating the effects with the taste can be very reassuring when you taste it again. I also feel more confident I'm getting enough of a dose to do something, whereas with a pill I might worry there's hardly any in there. I drink a cup of the tea a day, which is a low but steady dose.

The undeniable physiological effect is that I used to spot before every period, usually for about three days, which is associated with hormonal imbalances, and now my period begins properly right away. I have full bleeding within a few hours of the first spot. The user above who noticed heavier menstruation might also have had my spotting problem and not realized it wasn't ideal. It's normal to spot after menstruation proper, but not before, however many people make the mistake of assuming any blood counts as full menstruation and being happy that it's "light." I don't think my period overall is any heavier than it was; it just gets going right away instead of torturing me with PMS-laden spotting.

Psychologically, it's had the desired effect of making me calmer. In fact, it does it a little too well, and makes me so mellow I get lazy. I've taken to drinking it with yerba mate just to get me off my butt a little. The two balance each other out really well, I used to drink yerba mate alone (it made my menstrual problems worse when I had it alone, for the record, so I know it was the basil that fixed it) and alone, the yerba mate turns me into a big ball of anxiety, but with the holy basil it just perks me up a bit.

I don't take the holy basil just for anxiety; I take it for mood swings including anger, frustration, depression and self-harm urges. The holy basil definitely helps with all that. I don't feel like a drugged zombie or anything/ I hardly notice that I feel any different. I just don't get those feelings nearly as often or as strongly. I have a general sense of calmness, which I guess makes me less motivated to do stuff, that's what I mean about it being too effective sometimes.

I still occasionally get bumps of anxiety here and there. When that happens I take kava kava. Kava is good for anxiety attacks, holy basil is good for evening out your mood overall on a daily basis. I wouldn't take kava every day; that's an as-needed herb.

When I first started taking holy basil, I had an increase in appetite, possibly due to the lowered blood sugar. Be aware of this and don't binge on sweets! But over time, this evened out. Beforehand, I had problems with binge eating and would sometimes stuff myself and feel like I hadn't had enough even when my belly was stuffed to bursting. That hasn't happened in a while now, and my overall appetite seems a bit lower than it was before. I've heard of this happening with holy basil because it's lowering cortisol, and therefore getting rid of that irrational cortisol hunger and letting you stop eating when you're full.

By anon261073 — On Apr 13, 2012

I am a full time mother of four children and I also work full time, My anxiety level was so that I did not think that I could take much more, when a friend at work recommended holy basil.

After work, I went straight to the store to purchase it and immediately took it. I must say that it started working sooner than I expected. That night was the one of the most pleasant mean times I could remember.

By anon156105 — On Feb 25, 2011

I have three "special needs" children and my stress levels have gotten so bad that I am constantly shaking and I can barely hold down two or three bites of food at a time without getting sick. I can't get into the counseling center for another three weeks, but I feel like I physically can't hold out that long.

When I went to World of Nutrition, they recommended the Holy Basil Trinity blend. I just took 2 tablets about 45 minutes ago and wow. For the first time in 3 weeks, I have stopped shaking! I don't feel drugged or loopy, but definitely calmer. I had to chase it down with a few Tums, but my stomach is a mess anyway so I don't think I can blame that on the pills.

The ladies at the store recommended two in the morning with a few bites of breakfast and two at bed with dinner. But, if I start shaking again during the day, they said it was safe to add in a few here and there with a few bites of food.

Granted, this is not licensed medical advice, and I am dealing with a pretty severe case of anxiety and am using Holy Basil only until I can get help from a licensed physician. But I can tell you that it works!

By anon143987 — On Jan 18, 2011

Does Holy Basil impact a woman's menstruation? I started taking it several days before my period and noticed my bleeding is heavier than usual. I couldn't find much information on holy basil and menstruation, other than the herb has a blood-thinning effect, which may explain this.

Other than that, it is day 5 of taking Holy Basil and I do feel calmer than my anxiety and panic attack ridden self. I still feel stress and anxiety but it feels like the herb is working on my side to combat the mental forces that trigger me into fight or flight mode.

I've never taken prescription medication for my anxiety disorder, so I am unable to compare. I have taken Kava Kava and Ashwagandha and found they have less noticeable effects than Holy Basil.

By anon131564 — On Dec 02, 2010

Holy Basil doesn't give a buzz but seems to help with stress. I would imagine it would help with some anxiety but wouldn't do the same thing as Zoloft, however, as I believe Zoloft is an SSRI.

By anon55514 — On Dec 08, 2009

I just tried this stuff today, and it works wonders. I work out and eat well but am still stressed from owning two companies. This leaves me feeling refreshed and takes off the edge.

It was remarkable to me how quick it works. I agree with other comments made about taking the edge off and things not bothering you after you take it. Yeah!

By anon41063 — On Aug 12, 2009

To answer everyone's question so far:

Holy Basil does help you relieve stress and a bunch of other medical conditions (preferably have fresh Holy Basil leaves, rather than capsules that do contain certain other types of substances.)

Holy Basil does not give any kind of buzz. Unless you have a huge quantity of its concentrate, it is just like a spice.

Holy Basil is not intended to supplement any prescription drug, it would just help you overcome stress in a gradual process. Please take a few leaves of Holy Basil everyday along with your prescription drug, and then slowly reduce on the dosage of your prescription (if you were taking 2 capsules everyday, have 1 and then 1 every other day, and slowly stop it, just making sure you are having a nice transition.) Holy Basil helps you get rid of the condition, and so after a few years of Holy Basil, quit it in a slow fashion.

By anon38111 — On Jul 23, 2009

Can Holy Basil be taken if you take a perscription medication for depression such as Lexipro or Zoloft?

By anon35714 — On Jul 07, 2009

i heard holy basil gives you a buzz! is this true? what does give you a nice buzz that is legal?

By anon34607 — On Jun 25, 2009

I have recently started using Holy Basil extract gel caps and have found them to be very helpful in making my stressful day more tolerable. Things that used to get on my nerves no longer are annoying. There is no noticeable extreme change with this supplement; it just takes the edge off in a very quiet way. Not like a prescription drug at all and no side effects other than feeling more peaceful.

By Lucy1 — On May 03, 2009

I was also told by a GNC employee about the product. I bought it during a particularly stressful period at school and work. It definitely helped calm me down. It is not as potent as valerian, which also works well, so it doesn't interfere with your day. It just made a noticeable difference in the edginess I was feeling.

By anon27761 — On Mar 05, 2009

I was told by a clerk at GNC that holy basil has worked for a lot of his clients with relieving mild anxiety and stress. Has this been anyone else's experience?

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