Common name: Tulsi
Other names: Holy basil, tulasi, sacred basil
Latin name: Ocimum tenuiflorum, Ocimum sanctum
Affinity: Immune system, nervous system, digestive system, endocrine system
Actions: Adaptogen, antidepressant, carminative, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, immunomodulator, antiviral, antibacterial, nervine, rasayana, Indian tonic
Diseases: Indigestion(3), diarrhoea(3), nausea(3), cognitive problems(2), bronchitis(2), asthma(2), type II diabetes(2), colds and flu(2), skin problems(3), infections(2), allergies(2), depression(3), anxiety(1), nerve pain(2), Alzhemiers and dementia(2)
Parts used: Herb
Characteristics: Tulsi is a small fragrant herb often with purple-green leaves that is found growing wild and is cultivated throughout south East Asia and India (Kuhn and Winston, 2000). It is widely distributed in India and found growing from the sea level up to 1800m in altitude high in the Himalayas (Mondal et al., 2011). There are three varieties of this plant: Rama tulsi (green leaves), Vana tulsi (green leaves), and Krishna tulsi (red-purple leaves) (Kuhn and Winston, 2000).
History: Tulsi is sacred to the Hindu God Vishnu and in India it is often used in morning prayer for personal health, spiritual and family well-being (Winston, 2007). String made from the plants stem are used in meditation as it is thought to give clarity and protection. Tulsi is a rasayana herb in Ayurveda, otherwise known as a rejuvenator, and is thought to nourish a person towards health and long life. Daily use of the herb is associated with balancing the chakras or energy centres of the body. In the Puranas, everything associated with the herb is holy, i.e. the water given to it, the soil it grows in, and all its botanical parts (leaves, stem, flower, and so on). In Indian folk medicine, the leaves are brewed as a tea and this is used as an expectorant to help those with excessive bronchial mucus and bronchitis. It has a long history of medicinal use and is mentioned in the Charak Samhita, an ancient Ayruvedic text (Vats et al., 2004). Traditional use of tulsi is for bronchitis, bronchial asthma, dysentery, dyspepsia, skin diseases, and chronic fever.
Current applications: Maria Groves describes tulsi as ‘a greater protector’ (Groves, 2016). It improves health of the immune system to fight infections, strengthens digestion, decreases inflammation, relieves anxiety and depression. It is a ‘calm energy adaptogen’, the most relaxing kind of adaptogen herb, more so than ashwagandha, and may be suited for treating insomnia. David Winston writes, ‘I use holy basil to enhance cerebral circulation and memory’ (Winston, 2007). It relieves mental fog and can be combined with bacopa, rosemary, and ginkgo to help this and cognitive problems, ADD, ADHD, and head trauma. Combined with reishi and blueberry extract it may be effective in reducing allergies. Tulsi is undoubtably one of the most valuable healing herbs we have.
Science: Tulsi has been well studied using various experimental models and the data generally support its medicinal value. Tulsi has anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, analgesic, and anti-tumour effects (Godhwani et al., 1987; Kelm et al., 2000; Magesh et al., 2009). Using in vivo models, it also displayed nootropic effects (neuroprotective) suggesting it may have a role in treating Alzheimer’s or dementia (Joshi et al., 2006). Another study found it had cardioprotective properties, therefore suggesting it may have a role in treating heart problems (Sharma et al., 2001). An additional study found it reduced neuropathy in rats possibly due to anti-oxidant activity (Muthuraman et al., 2008).
In contrast to these studies of experimental models, there are not many human studies, especially high quality ones. However, there are two which are properly controlled. One study examined tulsi’s immunological effects in healthy individuals to find it increased levels of both NK and T regulatory cells after 4 weeks (Mondal et al., 2011). This study supports the immunomodulatory role of tulsi in herbal medicine, however, it also emphasises that its role on the immune system is likely complex and poorly understood. Tulsi does not simply repress inflammation, but likely modulates the immune system in complex ways. We need more human studies of infectious and autoimmune diseases to decipher how tulsi behaves in these types of disease. Notably, there is strong support in a human study for a role in tulsi in stress reduction, like other adaptogens (Saxena et al., 2011).
Safety: It is safe for most, however, avoid during pregnancy and it may interfere with trying to conceive.
Dosage: 1-4 capsules can be taken per day.
Brands: I recommend Organic India for high quality tulsi. It smells great.
Research on models
Anti-inflammatory / analgesic/ antipyretic effects: A study using in vivo models found tulsi extract had anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antipyretic activities (Godhwani et al., 1987).
Anti-inflammatory/ anti-oxidant: Extraction of tulsi compounds from leaves and stems resulted in the extraction of; cirsilineol, cirsimaritin, isothymusin, isothymonin, apigenin, rosmarinic acid, and eugenol (Kelm et al., 2000). Various experiments were performed ex vivo. Eugenol was found to have potent anti-oxidant effects, while other compounds were found to inhibit both cyclooxygenase-1 and cyclooxygenase-2 inflammatory pathways.
Nootropic properties: A study using in vivo experimental models found tulsi extract reduced the amnesic effect of administration of scopolamine and diazepam (Joshi et al., 2006). The authors concluded this suggests it may have a role in the treatment of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Cardioprotective: One study found that tulsi extract exhibited a cardioprotective effect using in vivo experimental models (Sharma et al., 2001).
Anti-tumour: A study found anti-tumour activity in ex vivo and in vivo models of lung cancer (Magesh et al., 2009). Tulsi extract was found to induce apoptosis in A549 cells via a mitochondria caspase dependent pathway.
Neuroprotective: One study detected an ameliorative effect of tulsi on peripheral neuropathy in rats, the authors hypothesised anti-oxidant and calcium attenuating effects may be related to this action (Muthuraman et al., 2008).
Type II diabetes: A study found that tulsi treatment of rats with type II diabetes induced by streptozotocin observed improvements in fasting blood glucose, glucose tolerance, and lipid profile (Hussain et al., 2001).
Research on humans
Immunomodulation: One study (n = 46, double blind placebo controlled crossover) examined the effects of a 300mg tulsi extract capsule taken once daily on the immune system in healthy individuals (Mondal et al., 2011). Significant increases in IFN, IL-4, T-helper cells, and NK-cells were observed after 4 weeks.
Stress: A study (n = 150, double blind placebo controlled randomised) found taking three 400mg capsules of tulsi extract per day over six weeks led to significant reductions in forgetfulness, exhaustion, sleep problems, and stress (Saxena et al., 2011).
Godhwani, Savitri, J. L. Godhwani, and D. S. Vyas. “Ocimum sanctum: an experimental study evaluating its anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antipyretic activity in animals.” Journal of ethnopharmacology 21.2 (1987): 153-163.
Groves, Maria. Body into Balance. Storey Publishing, 2016.
Hussain, Eshrat Halim MA, Kaiser Jamil, and Mala Rao. “Hypoglycaemic, hypolipidemic and antioxidant properties of tulsi (Ocimum sanctum linn) on streptozotocin induced diabetes in rats.” Indian journal of clinical biochemistry 16.2 (2001): 190-194.
Joshi, Hanumanthachar, and Milind Parle. “Evaluation of nootropic potential of Ocimum sanctum Linn. in mice.” (2006).
Kelm, M. A., et al. “Antioxidant and cyclooxygenase inhibitory phenolic compounds from Ocimum sanctum Linn.” Phytomedicine 7.1 (2000): 7-13.
Kuhn, Merrily A., and David Winston. Herbal therapy and supplements: a scientific and traditional approach. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2000.
Magesh, Venkataraman, et al. “Ocimum sanctum induces apoptosis in A549 lung cancer cells and suppresses the in vivo growth of Lewis lung carcinoma cells.” Phytotherapy Research 23.10 (2009): 1385-1391.
Mondal, Shankar, et al. “Double-blinded randomized controlled trial for immunomodulatory effects of Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum Linn.) leaf extract on healthy volunteers.” Journal of ethnopharmacology 136.3 (2011): 452-456.
Muthuraman, A., et al. “Ameliorative effects of Ocimum sanctum in sciatic nerve transection-induced neuropathy in rats.” Journal of ethnopharmacology 120.1 (2008): 56-62.
Saxena, Ram Chandra, et al. “Efficacy of an extract of ocimum tenuiflorum (OciBest) in the management of general stress: A double-blind, placebo-controlled study.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2012 (2011).
Sharma, Meenu, et al. “Cardioprotective potential of Ocimum sanctum in isoproterenol induced myocardial infarction in rats.” Molecular and cellular biochemistry 225.1 (2001): 75-83.
Vats, V., S. P. Yadav, and J. K. Grover. “Ethanolic extract of Ocimum sanctum leaves partially attenuates streptozotocin-induced alterations in glycogen content and carbohydrate metabolism in rats.” Journal of ethnopharmacology 90.1 (2004): 155-160.
Winston, David, and Steven Maimes. Adaptogens: herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co, 2007.