A Close Study of Holy Basil

Reader Contribution by Jane Cookman Metzger
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Holy Basil Monograph from The Herbarium

At the heart of herbalism is one’s understanding of and connection with the plants. There are many ways to foster this, from personal experience and traditional wisdom to book study and scientific investigation. Ideally, one gathers understanding in all of these ways: observing, feeling, tasting, and using plants for healing; studying traditions and other herbalists’ experience passed down orally and in books; and digging into the scientific literature for new information and perspectives. At the Herbal Academy of New England, we believe all of these methods have value and we strive to incorporate each of them in our own studies and in the information we offer to our herbalist community.

This philosophy was at the center of our approach to building our new plant monograph database nestled in The Herbarium, which is an ongoing labor of love.

What is a Plant Monograph?

The word monograph comes from the Greek word, “monographia.” Mono [single] + grapho [to write]. In other words, a monograph is a detailed writing of a single subject — in our case, herbs.

The Herbarium plant database includes some of the most beautiful and complete monographs to date, pulling together traditional herbal wisdom, hands-on experience, and modern scientific research to present a multifaceted description of each herb. Along with quick facts, there is detailed information on the medicinal uses of each plant. Multiple images and botanical prints, scientific research, and information on botany, energetics, safety, preparations, and dosage make these monographs wonderful tools for learning for students and curious dabblers.


A Close Study of Holy Basil

Excerpted from The Herbarium Monograph Database: Holy Basil.

Uses for Holy Basil

Holy Basil is an herbaceous plant in the mint family (Lamiaceae) that is native to South Asia. It grows throughout lowland regions of India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, southern China, Thailand, and Malaysia [1]. In its native range, holy basil is a perennial; however, it is not frost-tolerant and thus is annual in more temperate climates. Holy basil likes rich, moist soil, sun or partial shade, and will willingly spread if given the space to do so. The species name, sanctum, reflects the sacred nature of the plant in Indian culture. In India, holy basil is considered sacred to the Hindu god Vishnu, who considered basil the incarnation of the Goddess herself. In Sanksrit, tulasi means “that which is incomparable”, and in Hindi this word is tulsi, hence its common names. Tulsi is commonly grown in special pots in the courtyards of Hindu homes.

Holy basil includes a few species and varieties. O. sanctum (synonym O. tenuiflorum) includes holy basil rama, which has green leaves, and holy basil Krishna, which has dark green to purple leaves and a stronger taste and smell; while O. gratissimum includes holy basil vana, a wild variety with green leaves [1]. Of course holy basil is in the same genus as the common garden basil (O. basilicum) that Westerners are very familiar with. Herbalist Jennifer Altman points out that the lore and mystery of an exotic herb from the other side of the world is supremely attractive, but she has noticed very little difference in medicinal effect between the holy basil and common basil [3]. The word holy in the name of their basil varieties reflects this herb’s sacred place in Indian culture for millennia and its revered use as a spiritual symbol, ritual offering, and household medicine. Likewise, the holiness of cows of India is a reflection of the prevailing cultural and religious beliefs, as opposed to any particular superiority to Western cows!

This shrubby plant grows to a height of 3 feet. The green and purple leaves are arranged in opposite pairs on a slightly hairy stem. The small white/purple flowers are arranged tightly in a long raceme. The flowers bloom starting in mid-summer and are loved by bees.

The leaves and flowering tops are harvested and used fresh or dried for use in teas, tinctures, or infused oils. The active constituents in holy basil include flavonoids, triterpenes, ursolic acid, volatile oils, mucilage, and vitamins A and C [1, 2]. 

Energetically, holy basil is warming/cooling with a sweet, pungent taste. Holy basil is indicated for cold, congested, stuck conditions due to the stimulating effects of its volatile oils. As a nervine, it is initially stimulating, but then brings a calm and reassuring sense of solidity and groundedness that helps quiet the mind, collect distracted thoughts into focus, and give one a sense of resilience for the long haul. It is uplifting and joyful, guiding open the heart to feel gratitude and a yearning for emotional connection.

Holy basil has antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, adaptogenic, immunomodulating, antioxidant, neuroprotective, radioprotective, anti-cancer, alterative, antispasmodic, expectorant, decongestant, carminative, stimulating, emmenagogue, galactagogue, nervine, heart opening, and antidepressant actions. Like many plants in the mint family, holy basil works to open and balance, particularly in the head, the heart, and the stomach. Its expectorant, decongestant, stimulant, emmenagogic, and galactagogic actions are opening, while its alterative, immunomodulating, carminative, antidepressant, and nervine actions are balancing.

In Ayurveda, holy basil is considered a rasayana herb, one that “nourishes a person’s growth to perfect health and promotes long life” [1]. In Western herbalism, holy basil is considered an adaptogen, helping the body respond in a measured way to stressors, thus reducing the negative effects of stress on physical and emotional health and providing balance. Holy basil’s antioxidant, neuroprotective, and radio-protective actions are considered protective and anti-aging [1]. The languaging may be different between the two traditions, but the tonic, health-supporting effect of holy basil is the same!

Holy basil has a long history of use for the respiratory ailments due to its antiviral, antibacterial, decongestant, and diaphoretic actions [2]. It is useful in the treatment of colds and flu, due to its ability to move congestion, stimulate circulation and perspiration to reduce fever, and kill microorganisms. In India, holy basil is also used as an expectorant tea for bronchial mucus [1] due to its ability to warm and clear stuck congestion. As a tonic, it also shows beneficial actions for asthma and allergies. Holy basil is an immunomodulator, strengthening and balancing the immune system’s ability to respond to infection. A double-blinded, randomized, controlled, cross-over clinical trial was conducted with 24 healthy volunteers to evaluate the immunomodulatory effects holy basil leaf alcohol extract. The participants received 300 milligram capsules of holy basil extract or placebo. Statistically significant increases in immunological parameters (interferon-γ, interleukin-4, T-helper cells, and NK-4 cells) indicate that holy basil leaf extract had an immunomodulatory role on healthy volunteers [4].

Holy basil is considered to be helpful in the prevention and treatment of cancer. Preclinical studies have shown that holy basil “prevented chemical-induced skin, liver, oral, and lung cancers”; and was shown to “mediate these effects by increasing the antioxidant activity, altering the gene expressions, inducing apoptosis, and inhibiting angiogenesis and metastasis.” [5] The authors also review studies which indicate that holy basil protects against radiation-induced sickness, mortality, skin tissue damage, and DNA damage due to its phytochemicals (flavanoids, orintin, vicenin, eugenol, rosmarinic acid, apigenin, and/or carnosic acid).

Holy basil’s ability to stimulate appetite and digestion, move stagnant food, and relieve flatulence [2] also helps decongest the digestive system, as well. In India, holy basil is used to alleviate indigestion, gastric distress, and vomiting [1]. Like so many of the mint family plants, holy basil’s volatile oils produce warming, antispasmodic, and carminative actions to help to soothe the digestive system. 

Holy basil is also used to regulate blood sugar in people with diabetes. Holy basil leaf was used in a randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover single blind trial to evaluate its effects on blood glucose and serum cholesterol levels in humans during fasting and after eating. Results indicated significant blood sugar decreases during fasting (17.6 percent) and smaller decreases in blood sugar levels after eating (7.3 percent), and mild reduction in total cholesterol levels [6].  

As an alterative, holy basil “removes heat and toxins from bloodstream, liver, circulation, and intestines” [2]. Holy basil can also support detoxification of toxins stored in body fat such as metals, medical drugs, and compounds from marijuana use; in India and the Middle East, holy basil has long been used for this latter purpose [2].

As a nervine, holy basil has a dual action as it is both stimulating and relaxing to the brain. While these are seemingly disparate effects, they are indeed related. As herbalist Rebecca Altman describes, holy basil regulates the nervous system by its opening action, moving blocked energy to dispel sluggishness as well as move and direct restless energy to ease hyperactivity and inability to concentrate [3]. Herbalist David Winston uses holy basil to treat poor memory, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) because of its ability to enhance cerebral circulation; and to treat stagnant, situational depression, in which one is stuck in a depressive state related to a particular trauma [1]. By moving stuck energy in the energetic nervous system, holy basil ‘lifts’ the depression, uplifting the heart and allowing it to open to feel emotion and connection with others. Holy basil also helps heart health by enhancing healthy circulation via its slight blood thinning and circulatory stimulant actions, reducing cardiovascular stress both physically and via its adaptogenic actions. 

… Uses Continued in The Herbarium.

The word “herbarium” is traditionally used to describe a collection of dried plants preserved in some fashion to display and offer as reference. A traditional herbarium may be a room or a building, a box, or a cabinet. We’ve reproduced tangible herbariums into a grand virtual herbarium. Inside these digital walls, members will discover a preservation of our herbs and knowledge, catalogued into an ever-expanding library of plant monographs as well as articles, videos, and media on a variety of topics, all based on carefully gathered research and the wisdom of many contributing herbalists. Contributors include clinical herbalists and those versed in the science of herbalism to traditional and folk herbalists drawing from tradition and intuition.

We know that learning about herbs is a life-long endeavor. If you are looking for a resource to help you expand your knowledge and continue your journey in herbalism, we invite you to come join our community in The Herbarium! We also offer a free herbal blog chock full of informative articles and online programs designed for students who wish to build their foundation of herbalism knowledge.



[1] Winston, David and Maimes, Steven. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.

[2] Wood, Matthew. (2008). The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants.

[3] Altman, Rebecca (2014). BASIL: OCIMUM SPP. Retrieved on January 12, 2015.

[4] Mondal S., Varma S., Bamola V.D., Naik S.N., Mirdha B.R., Padhi M.M., Mehta N., Mahapatra S.C. (2011). J Ethnopharmacol. 2011 Jul 14;136(3):452-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2011.05.012. Epub 2011 May 17.

[5] Baliga MS, Jimmy R, Thilakchand KR, Sunitha V, Bhat NR, Saldanha E, Rao S, Rao P, Arora R, Palatty PL. (2013). Nutr Cancer. 2013;65 Suppl 1:26-35. doi: 10.1080/01635581.2013.785010.

[6] Agrawal, P., Rai, V., Singh, RB. (1996). Int J Clin Pharmacol Ther. 1996 Sep;34(9):406-9.

[7] Bhattacharyya D., Sur T.K., Jana U., Debnath PK. (2008). Nepal Med Coll J. 2008 Sep;10(3):176-9.

Jane Metzger is the Course Development Director at the Herbal Academy of New England.

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