Tulsi, commonly known as holy basil, is native to the basil family. Tulsi is considered an ethereal and divine herb worshiped as a goddess in Hinduism. Known as the "Queen of Herbs," tulsi is a compendium of scientifically-based healing properties that rivals some of the world's preeminent botanicals.
Tulsi is a sacred shrub native to India; however, it is also cultivated across East Asia and South America. Botanically, there are three common variations; Ocimum sanctum, Ocimum tenuiflorum, and Ocimum gratissimum. Energetically, it is warming and bitter. Used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine, this top-shelf herb does deserve a special reverence in the world of plant medicine.
Tulsi is commonly consumed as tea by steeping dried leaves in hot water. The leaves are also ground up and used as a seasoning agent in cooking. However, all plant parts have been studied in clinical research, from the seed to the flowering portion.
Bioactive Compounds in Holy Basil
Tulsi is a rich source of the terpene, eugenol, which lends to the shrub's aromatic nature. Terpenes such as eugenol are considered the largest naturally occurring plant compounds group. They are responsible for the flavor, aroma, and pigmentation of plants. This powerful terpene in holy basil is considered the active constituent of the plant, owing to its beneficial effects on health and disease. Eugenol has been demonstrated in animal models of upper respiratory infection to reduce lung inflammation. Literature reveals antioxidant and antibacterial properties of eugenol as well.
Ayurvedic Uses of Tulsi
Historically, in Ayurvedic medicine, one primary use of tulsi was as an adaptogen. Adaptogens are classified as botanicals that help the body adapt to and lessen the physiological effects of stress. Other commonly known adaptogen herbs include ginseng, licorice, and ashwagandha. Contemporarily, cell, animal, and human models of tulsi have demonstrated anti-inflammatory, immune-modulating, lung-protective, anti-diabetic, and toxicant-protective properties.
The Science of Tulsi
Hundreds of scientific studies have explored the wide range of benefits that span far beyond the few above. Holy basil presents immune-modulating capacity in both animal and human models. In one small study of healthy human subjects, consumption of tulsi leaf extract led to a statistically significant increase in immune cells utilized during infections.
In another study, tulsi was demonstrated to be immune-protective against rats with immune toxicity induced by pesticide chemicals. Beyond pesticide toxicity, tulsi reflects an ability to protect cellular tissues against radiation damage with DNA protective effects. It has also shown antioxidant restoration qualities when paired with other botanicals, including ginkgo.
In the gastrointestinal system, ulceration of the tissues can occur for a few different reasons. This leads to painful symptoms and possible complications if not properly managed. Tulsi has been shown to protect gastrointestinal tissues against ulcer formation through its ability to both reduce acid secretion and increase protective mucus secretion.
Eugenol, the terpene compound present in tulsi, has also been demonstrated to have lung-protective effects in cell and animal models. In one animal study of chemical-induced lung inflammation, eugenol improved lung function and reduced lung inflammation. Other studies demonstrate positive metabolic and antioxidant effects generated by tulsi leaves.
Overall, tulsi seems to be an all-encompassing plant with many effects on the human body. More studies are needed to confirm these effects.
Safe Consumption of Tulsi and Tulsi-based Products
In a systematic review of 24 studies evaluating the safety of tulsi, no significant adverse events were reported. In this study, tulsi was consumed in many different formats and doses over short and long periods of time.
Tulsi is commonly consumed as a tea infusion of the leaves and can also be found in some dietary supplement products. Before adding tulsi to your diet, make sure to discuss it with your doctor!
About the Author
Asia Muhammad, ND is a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine and an expert in functional medicine and personalized health. She specializes in gastroenterology, mind-body medicine, and stress management and has received additional training in mind-body therapies. Learn more at asiamuhammad.com or follow Dr. Asia on Instagram.