If you’ve never sipped a fragrant cup of holy basil tea – or even if you have – I hope this post will inspire you to brew one soon! Sometimes called “The Elixir of Life,” holy basil has been revered as one of India’s most powerful and sacred plants for over 3,000 years. (1) In addition to being an adaptogen – aka an herb that helps the body adapt to stress – it has a wide range of therapeutic properties and traditional uses.
Holy basil’s Sanskrit name, Tulsi, literally means “the incomparable one,” which gives you a sense of how venerated it is. Because it’s powerful and has an excellent safety rating, this is one herb I always keep on hand. More on safety considerations below, but first . . . .
What are the benefits of holy basil?
Not to be confused with the common culinary herb you and I would recognize in a yummy pesto, holy basil is one of those “duct tape” herbs that’s so versatile it’s almost easier to list what it doesn’t do.
“Holy basil is classified as a rayasana, an herb that nourishes a person’s growth to perfect health and promotes long life.” (2) Traditional medicine and/or current research have found it to be useful for:
- Supporting the body during stressful experiences (both physical and emotional)
- Balancing cortisol levels
- Inflammation (It positively impacts COX-2 expression, which is one of the enzymes responsible for inflammation and pain)
- Balancing the immune system
- Supporting neurological health
- Elevating mood
- Stimulating mental clarity
- Optimizing physical endurance
- Supporting collagen and elastin production
- Easing digestive discomfort
- Cardiovascular health
- Helping the body manage blood sugar
- Oral health (Tulsi tea is sometimes used as a mouth rinse)
- Supporting wound healing (3) (4)
In Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism, Donald Yance shares a story that I thought about for days after first reading it.
During a deadly outbreak of viral encephalitis in northern India in 1978, a test was done comparing holy basil with the standard conventional treatments. At a dose of only 2.5 grams of holy basil powder taken four times daily, there was complete recovery in 60 percent of the patients using this herb, and an unfortunate survival rate of zero in those treated with conventional medicine.” (3)
I’m in no way saying that holy basil is a treatment for any condition. We don’t know how the standard treatment compares to newer therapies, what other factors may have played a role, or many other details. However, the story speaks to the potential for tulsi to offer support during stressful events as the body works to restore homeostasis. It also demonstrates how well-regarded this herb is by those who have experience with it, including researchers.
Here’s what ethnobotanist David Winston says about its use:
In Indian folk medicine, the leaves of the holy basil plant are brewed into a tea that is used as an expectorant to treat people with excessive bronchial mucus and bronchitis. The tea is also used for people with upset stomach, biliouness, and vomiting. The powdered/dried leaves have been used as a snuff for nasal congestion, and the juice of the fresh leaf is put in the ear for earaches . . . and a poultice is made from fresh roots and leaves is applied to bites and stings from wasps, bees, mosquitos, ants, and other insects as well as leeches. The seeds are mucilaginous (slimy) and have been used to soothe the urinary tract when urination is difficult or painful.” (Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina & Stress Relief)
Is Holy Basil safe?
According to the Botanical Safety Handbook, 2nd edition, holy basil is a Safety Class 1A herb – the safest rating possible. It is described as:
“Herbs that can be safely consumed when used appropriately.
- History of safe traditional use
- No case reports of significant adverse events with high probability of causality
- No significant adverse events in clinical trials
- No identified concerns for use during pregnancy or lactation
- No innately toxic constituents
- Toxicity associated with excessive use is not a basis for exclusion from this class
- Minor or self-limiting side effects are not bases for exclusion from this class”
Always check with your doctor before adding herbs to your diet, and listen to your intuition to help you make the best choice for yourself.
Can I take holy basil while pregnant or breastfeeding?
Holy basil has a good safety profile, even in places where it is used as a condiment in addition to a medicine. However, in animal studies relatively large doses have caused a reduction in embryo implantation and litter size, so caution should be used by those who wish to get pregnant or are currently pregnant.
No concerns have been identified for nursing women. For a more in-depth discussion of opinions regarding the use of adaptogens during pregnancy/breastfeeding, see my beginner’s guide to adaptogens.
How much is recommended?
Adaptogens are herbs rather than pharmaceutical drugs, so there are no “dosages” as we typically understand them. Holy basil is used as both a culinary and medicinal herb in many cultures, so the “dosage” varies quite a bit from person to person.
According to Rosalee de la Foret:
It will be difficult to take too much of this herb. I’ve seen daily recommendations of up to 4 ounces (approximately 2 cups)!” (1)
However, herbalists do share knowledge about what therapeutic ranges seem to produce a beneficial effect for most people. The suggestions below are recommendations from two of my favorite herbal books: Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism and Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief.
- Tincture – For a 1:5 or 1:2 extract, it is suggested to take 40-60 drops three times per day. (2) You’ll find a link to the tincture I recommend below plus a recipe for making it at home. Best taken between meals.
- Tea – Two to four cups daily. (3) Recipe below.
- Standardized extract supplement – When it includes at least 2.5% ursolic acid, the therapeutic dosing range is considered to be between 200 to 500 mg daily.” (3)
As always, please check with your health care provider before using any herbal remedy.
How to make holy basil tea (Tulsi tea)
Add 1 teaspoon dried holy basil leaf to 8 ounces of hot water. Cover and steep for 5-10 minutes, then drink.
How to make holy basil tincture
If you’d rather buy pre-made holy basil tincture, this is a good one. The makers recommend adding approximately 1/8 teaspoon to 2 ounces of water, two to four times per day.
To make a 1:5 tincture: Mix 1 ounce dried holy basil leaf (by weight) with 5 ounces (by volume) of 60 proof or higher alcohol and allow it to infuse for six to eight weeks. Strain and store in a dark glass dropper bottle. As mentioned above, recommendations are 40-60 drops three times per day.
To make a 1:2 tincture: Mix 1 ounce dried holy basil leaf (by weight) with 2 ounces (by volume) of 60 proof or higher alcohol and allow it to infuse for six to eight weeks. Strain and store in a dark glass dropper bottle. Recommendations are 40-60 drops three times per day.
Items mentioned in this post
1. Foret, Rosalee de la. (2017) Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients into Foods and Remedies That Heal
2. Winston, David. (2007) Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina & Stress Relief
3. Yance, Donald (2013) Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism
4. Kaul, D et. al. (2005) Effect of herbal polyphenols on atherogenic transcriptome. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16180103