Most of us tend to hear the word basil and think of Italian food, but this herb wouldn’t be called the king of herbs if it wasn’t extraordinary, and used for more than just pesto.The word basil does in fact derive from the Greek word Basileus, which translates into king.
Even in the Orthodox Churches, basil is a holy herb and used in the preparation of holy water- for things such as dipping the basil in holy water to sprinkle and bless individuals.
There are many varieties to basil that some people might not have ever tried, such as Thai basil that has an anise/licorice flavor or holy basil/tulsi that is praised in India. Holy Basil is honored in Hinduism and connected to the god Vishnu (they may even place it in the mouths of the dying so it can reach God).
A handful of cultures see Basil as being special and even connected to the heavens, such as the Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Greeks. Tombs of the royalty or special individuals were said to have Basil buried inside them. The variety of cultural views on basil make it so interesting-from the Italians viewing it as a symbol of love, to African legends believing it protects against scorpions.
In terms of cultivation, Basil is known to have likely originated in warmer climates like India, Africa and Asian countries for over 5,000 years (since it doesn’t do well in the cold). The multitude of cultivars in Basil make this herb important for different uses, both culinary and medicinally.
The different chemical components or essential oils in the different basil cultivars range from lemonal, from a lemon basil variety to eugenol that comes from Asian sweet basils that give a clove scent/taste.
There are even licorice basils (like Thai) that have an anise flavor since it contains anethole, the chemical compound also in anise. I have had this kind in some Thai dishes at restaurants and the flavor is strong and unique compared to the Genovese Mediterranean basil. Even the scent of camphor is around in African blue basil. Depending on the breed, there can also be similar chemical components in basil from cinnamon oil, pine, citronella, etc.
Now that there is some background on the variety of Basil and how different cultures viewed it, let’s take a dive into some of the medicinal uses of basil-particularly holy basil, that stood out to me.
Medicinal Uses of Basil
Uses of Tulsi (Holy Basil): Tulsi seems to be researched a lot now and is used in Ayurveda alternative medicine for a variety of reasons. It is very special in India and used ceremonially in Hinduism for meditation and going into a calm state. Many use it as a daily ritual and incorporate it into their lifestyles.
Tulsi can also be known as ‘liquid yoga’ as drinking it can help the mind and cognitive function, as I will discuss below.
It has a clove like scent and taste from the compound eugenol as mentioned before. Eugenol has anti-inflammatory properties similar to over the counter pain killers like aspirin, since they both inhibit the enzyme cyclooxygenase from having activity. It can therefore be useful (though maybe not as powerful) with aiding in reducing symptomatic effects of inflammatory problems like arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease.
- Oral Health Care: Don’t like using listerine mouthwash? Well, apparently Tulsi has anti-bacterial properties that work similarly to Listerine mouthwash in reducing bacteria like Streptococcus mutans in the mouth (45% in listerine, 43% in tulsi). This bacteria lends its help in growing tooth decay, so the herbal mouthwash can help to combat gum disease, as well as mouth ulcers; since tulsi is also shown to accelerate wound healing. There are a variety of natural mouthwashes out there that use herbs with similar compounds to tusli like cloves, and they can be favored more for taste.
- DNA protection: With its antioxidant properties from a variety of flavonoids, tulsi and other basil in general can reduce oxidative stress in the body and protects our bodies from compounds that can be toxic. This in turn helps to reduce DNA damage in the body and prevent conditions like cancers from developing, that can be caused from certain toxic compounds (since environmental reasons can add to DNA damage).
- One way Tulsi can do this is by enhancing detoxification in the liver of enzymes like cytochrome P450. This particular enzyme actually can deactivate toxic chemicals, allowing them to be excreted safely.
- Psycho-therapeutic properties: With stress and anxiety being around us at every corner, the thought of trying tulsi tea for stress management, depression and improving cognitive function sounds appealing. The use of tulsi has been positive in both animal and human studies.
- In a few animal studies, consumption of tulsi was even comparable to anti-depressant drugs or anti-anxiety drugs like diazepam. It also improved the animals’ cognitive function and memory. The human studies in a 6 week double blind placebo controlled environment also showed enhancement in memory, helped with sleep problems and improved scores on stress. If tulsi is able to help as a supplemental benefit to prevent stress inducing conditions, then it sounds worth it to try.
Some Other Uses Of Basil:
- Basil can surprisingly be used as a mosquito repellent, which I didn’t know about. They even seem to sell a mixture of it as a vaporizer mixed with other essential oils like neem and eucalyptus. Since Basil is anti-bacterial (more on that in a second), it can repel while keeping harmful bacteria out of the home.
- With mentioning the anti-bacterial properties before with oral health care and reducing certain bacteria, basil has also been found to be helpful for rinsing produce out to reduce food borne illnesses or bacteria like Shigella. With just a small 1% concentrated extract of basil essential oil in a washing solution for produce, it can help reduce the number of bacteria in your ingredients.
- Basil has a high source of Vitamin K along with magnesium. Magnesium in particular is good for relaxing the muscles and blood vessels, which promotes a better cardiovascular system.
I have learned a lot of new things about the culture of basil, the varieties and the medicinal uses of it. It is something that sounds great to utilize in ones daily lifestyle and I encourage you to read even more about basil, especially holy basil since I only cracked into a brief amount of the research on it. So check out the links included, and don’t be afraid to chew on some basil leaves!