Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum or Ocimum sanctum), also known as Holy Basil and tulasi, is arguably one of the most powerful herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. It is used due to its psycho-spiritual and medicinal impact on users’ health. It is cultivated mostly in the Southeast Asian region for religious and medicinal importance, as well as to extract its essential oil.
In this article, we will review the origin of tulsi, its traditional and modern uses, the scientifically-proven benefits, nutritional facts, and information on how to consume tulsi to best take advantage of its beneficial effects.
A Brief History of Tulsi
Tulsi has its origins in India and its production slowly spread to the Middle East, West Africa, and Australia [1, 2]. In India, tulsi was grown in courtyards of Hindu forts and temples and was used to cleanse the body .
For over 5000 years, tulsi has been viewed as one of the most sacred and significant herbs in India. Tulsi is seen as the manifestation of Lashmi, the Hindu Goddess, and thus the plant has her natural, restorative powers .
Tulsi’s Latin name tips its hat to its religious significance (Ocimum sanctum), it became known in the west as Holy Basil. In Europe, Christian significance was now attached to Holy Basil and seen as a gift of Christ .
Tulsi was identified in the Americas at the end of the 19th century. In the region, it is being monitored as an invasive species . In India on the other hand, tulsi is often grown in homes in clay pots to make tea, and in some regions, homes are considered “less homey” if they don’t have a tulsi plant .
Its widespread use in India is due to its importance in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years.
Ayurvedic medicine (Ayurveda) is one of the oldest medical systems in the world, with over 3000 years of history. It is still the foundation of much of India’s healthcare system . Unlike many traditional healthcare systems, promoters of Ayurveda encourage and support clinical and laboratory research on the herbs, spices, and practices used in Ayurvedic medicine .
Within Ayurvedic medicine, tulsi is often referred to as “The Incomparable One,” “Mother Medicine of Nature,” “The Queen of Herbs,” and “The Elixir of Life” [10, 11].
Tulsi is used as a food and as a medicine.
Tulsi has a spicy, astringent taste. For this reason, in cooking, tulsi is often used in stir-fry dishes and spicy soups .
According to The Ayurveda Experience website, tulsi is used in Ayurvedic medicine as follows :
- Tulsi balances Kapha dosha and as such is useful to relieve excess sputum production.
- It is anti microbial. The tulsi plant is one of the most potent anti viral herbs of Ayurveda.
- It improves taste and relieves anorexia by stimulating the digestive fire due to its hot and sharp properties.
- It is a cardiac tonic and helps to relieve cholesterol deposits in the arteries due to its anti-Kapha and sharp properties.
- Due to its Kapha and Vata balancing effect, it is useful in treatment of asthma and chronic respiratory disorders, cold and cough and also repeated hiccups.
- It relieves vomiting.
- Due to its Vata pacifying effect, it relieves gas accumulation and thus relieves resultant pain in the flanks.
- It is useful in skin diseases marked by itchiness due to its Kapha pacifying effect. Kapha dosha is responsible for itching in many skin diseases.
- It is a natural detoxifying herb.
- It is useful in kidney and bladder stones.
- It is useful in infectious eye disorders.
- It is an adaptogenic herb and is useful in stress-related disorders.
What is interesting about this description is that it combines spiritual language with biomedical language to describe the positive effects and mechanisms of action, demonstrating that both the cultural base and laboratory studies are views as complementary, rather than contradictory.
In the next section, we will examine the results of laboratory studies with regards to studied benefits of tulsi. It is important to note that benefits are not limited to the list below, as it is limited to the biomedical view of the positive effects of the herb
Tulsi: An Adaptogenic Herb
One of the most important characteristics of tulsi is its categorization as an adaptogen. An adaptogenic herb has a component (or components) that regulate the metabolism and increases the ability of the organism to swiftly adapt to environmental changes and discomforts that would otherwise cause damage .
In other words, adaptogens help the human body to adapt to stressors like general load tolerance, radiation or sound-induced stress, bacterial infections, or emotional stress .
A study published in 2014 in the Journal of Ayurveda Integrative Medicine stated that “There is mounting evidence that tulsi can address physical, chemical, metabolic and psychological stress through a unique combination of pharmacological actions” .
Stress on the organism can be caused by a range of factors and doesn’t only refer to mental stress as it is commonly used colloquially. Stress can be mental, physical, emotional, and biological, and adaptogens may help to modulate the negative effects of those different stressors .
Some of the chemical actions that make tulsi adaptogenic include :
- antimicrobial (including antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, antiprotozoal, antimalarial, anthelmintic)
- mosquito repellent
- hepato, neuro, and cardio -protective
- memory enhancement
- many more
Now that we have established that tulsi is an adaptogenic herb to which many of its health benefits are attributed, we will briefly describe some of the health benefits rooted in its adaptogenic nature.
- Protects the body from toxins
Tulsi, especially the purple variety, is high in phenolic compound and antioxidant properties . Tulsi may help to protect the body against injury induced by toxic chemicals. It can achieve this by increasing the levels of gluthianone, dismutase, and catalase in the body – all of which, are molecules that help to protect cells from free radicals [12, 13].
When cells are overexposed to toxic compounds, DNA damage can occur. DNA damage can lead to cell death or damage, which in turn can lead to cancerous tumor growth [14, 15, 16].
Tulsi can help to prevent cell damage leading cancer caused by toxic compounds by protecting cells from DNA damage .
- Protects the body from physical stress
Physical stress can be caused by prolonged exertion, physical restraint, and exposure to excessive cold and noise. When exposure to these elements occurs over long periods, it alters biochemical pathways, and this can affect normal organ function and overall health.
Studies in humans and animals have demonstrated that tulsi can reduce oxidative tissue damage and normalize biochemical pathways [17, 18].
In other words, tulsi can help protect our body from damage that may occur due to physical stress caused by elements in our actions or in our environment [19, 20].
- Reduces risk factors of metabolic syndrome and prediabetes
The four risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome and the precursor to diabetes include abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and poor glucose regulation .
While these factors are complicated, and significant improvements can only be seen with lifestyle changes, like lifestyle and exercise, tulsi may be able to assist people in regulating these risk factors.
Studies show that tulsi can help to normalize blood glucose levels, protect organs for damaged caused by high blood glucose, and help to reduce blood cholesterol and triglycerides [21, 22]. Others shows that tulsi can help to prevent weight gain, prevent insulin resistance, improve blood pressure, and may even reduce symptoms of people with diabetes [23, 24, 21].
- Protects from Infection
Tulsi has powerful antibacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties, as confirmed by laboratory research, that makes way for the validation of many of the traditional uses of the herb in Ayurvedic medicine [10, 25].
While researchers have yet to implement well-designed human trials, several experimental studies suggest that tulsi may be effective in helping to treat bacterial infections that affect humans, like :
- urinary tract infections
- skin and wound infections
- typhoid fever
- herpes simplex
- various pneumonias
- fungal infections
Tulsi has broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity, so it may even be used to support dental health – potentially even as effective as popular mouthwash brands Chlorhexidine and Listerine in reducing Streptococcus mutans that affects the mouth .
- Reduces mental stress
Reductions in mental stress is perhaps the most well-known positive effects of adaptogenic herbs. Mental stress can be caused by fear, depression anxiety, and general stress. These feelings produce chemical pollutants, and they can be pervasive if the stress is chronic.
Tulsi has been studied for its anti-anxiety and anti-depressive properties in experimental models [27, 28, 29]. Tulsi may even fight cognitive aging while enhancing memory and cognitive function [30, 31, 32].
There is limited information available on the nutritional value of tulsi. However, since it is usually consumed in small quantities or in tea form, what is most important for most people is its phytochemical composition.
Here are some of the important compounds found in tulsi :
- Antioxidants: cirsilineol, circimaritin, isothymusin, apigenin, rosameric acid, and eugeno
- Flavonoids: andvicenin and orientin
- Volatile oils: 71% eugenol, 20% methyl eugenol
- Other components: carvacrol and sesquiterpine hydrocarbon caryophyllene
Many of these components work together to achieve the adaptogenic properties of tulsi.
How to Prepare Tulsi
Tulsi is usually consumed as a tea or liquid infusion to take advantage of its medicinal properties.
To prepare, boil tulsi leaves in water for about 10 minutes, or until the water begins to reduce . You may add jaggery and lemon to taste if you’d like.
Tulsi, also known as Holy Basil, is known in many parts of India, where it originated, as “The Incomparable One,” “Mother Medicine of Nature,” “The Queen of Herbs,” and “The Elixir of Life” [10, 11]. These names are an indication of the importance of tulsi in Ayurveda and the parallels that are drawn between its spiritual significance as well as its use as medicine.
While there is still a need for more well-designed trials to show the safety and efficacy of tulsi for use as natural treatment for a range of illnesses, thousands of years of knowledge and initial experimental trials demonstrate the power and potential of tulsi as an adaptogen.