The small shrub native to India is a very promising adaptogen that is beginning to garner much attention in the West.
Known in Ayurvedic medicine as “the Queen of Herbs,” Holy Basil, or Tulsi, is renowned for its wide-ranging potency, with claimed effects that include more classic adaptogenic stress response alterations as well as strong antibacterial and antifungal effects¹.
Likely due to its previous lack of recognition in the West, many available studies on Holy Basil have been conducted with animal models. However, this article will focus primarily on research performed with human participants.
Holy Basil is first and foremost a powerful adaptogen. Its purported stress modulation ranges from chemical stress to metabolic and even psychological stress.
Metabolically, Holy Basil has been shown to help the body mediate blood glucose levels. In diabetic patients, Holy Basil treatment can cause a statistically significant decrease in blood glucose both during a fasting state and after consuming food².
Western diets are notoriously high in simple sugars, which can lead to problematic chronic spikes in blood glucose levels after eating. Holy Basil’s ability to help the body cope with these spikes could make it an important tool for many people.
Psychological stress is all too common in the modern world, and Holy Basil has shown promise in that realm as well. Holy Basil seems particularly effective at combating the effects of anxiety, with one study showing significant decreases in self-reported measures of generalized anxiety in participants³.
Another study showed significant improvements in parameters measuring general stress, including specific measurements like difficulty sleeping and exhaustion⁴. Like many adaptogens, Holy Basil appears to be adept at improving the body’s capacity to handle a wide range of stressors.
Along with its pure adaptogenic effects, Holy Basil has multiple antimicrobial benefits. Researchers have studied its potency as an antifungal agent for fungi that infect skin. A 2011 study exposed several types of skin-infecting fungi to extracts of Holy Basil, and found that the extracts were effective at inhibiting or preventing the growth of every one of them⁵. Studies have also identified Holy Basil as a powerful antibacterial agent, showing efficacy in killing both gram negative and gram positive bacteria⁶.
Holy Basil's antibacterial potential even extends into oral health. One study compared a water-based preparation of Holy Basil with a group of common mouth rinses, including Listerine. The rinses were tested by their ability to kill Streptococcus Mutans, a bacteria that drives tooth decay⁷. By the end of the study, the participants in the Holy Basil group showed the same statistically significant decrease in S. Mutans populations as the other groups⁸.
While there are a number of important phenolic components in Holy Basil, the main driver of many of these interactions seems to be a compound called Euganol.
Comprising about 50% of the constituent parts of Holy Basil extract, Euganol has a number of different activities in the body⁹. Euganol has been studied to have anti-inflammatory activity, specifically via pathways regulated by molecules called Nuclear Factor kappa-B and Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha¹⁰.
Both NF-κB and TNF-α are key to healthy inflammation involved in immune system function, but have also been implicated in the widespread negative impacts of chronic inflammation. Euganol’s ability to attenuate the activity of these molecules and their specific inflammatory pathways could account for some of the diverse effects of Holy Basil.
Holy Basil also boasts remarkable antioxidant capacity. This is due in part to Holy Basil’s interactions with Glutathione.
Glutathione is prevalent in almost every cell in the body, and functions as a key antioxidant and co-factor in cellular enzymatic reactions. Glutathione targets Reactive Oxygen Species, or ROS, which are the result of metabolic reactions¹¹. This makes Glutathione important for any cell or group of cells under metabolic stress.
Human cell line studies have shown that Holy Basil actually increases the level of Glutathione in cells, while simultaneously increasing the overall antioxidant capacity of cells¹². In simple terms, Holy Basil can actually increase the natural performance of cells.
While it is always difficult to extrapolate results from animal research into humans, one interesting study showed the interaction between Holy Basil and Glutathione helped mice stave off cellular and tissue injury from radiation exposure¹³. Euganol has also been shown to have antioxidant activity. Euganol can effectively scavenge a number of ROS, including nitric oxide, by stabilizing them chemically with its electron donation capabilities¹⁴ ¹⁵.
Holy Basil has an impressive list of potential abilities. Managing multiple different types of stress, while also combating fungi, bacteria, and toxic metabolic byproducts. While Holy Basil is promising, the basis of scientific research is still growing. We don’t know everything there is to know about this plant yet, but the future looks bright for the Queen of Herbs.
Cohen, MarcMaurice. “Tulsi - Ocimum Sanctum: A Herb for All Reasons.” Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, vol. 5, no. 4, 2014, p. 251, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4296439/, 10.4103/0975-9476.146554.
Agrawal, P, et al. “Randomized Placebo-Controlled, Single Blind Trial of Holy Basil Leaves in Patients with Noninsulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus.” International Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, vol. 34, no. 9, Sept. 1996, pp. 406–409, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8880292/.
Battacharyya, D, et al. “Controlled Programmed Trial of Ocimum Sanctum Leaf on Generalized Anxiety Disorders.” Nepal Medical College Journal, vol. 10, no. 3, Sept. 2008, pp. 176–179, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19253862/.
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Balakumar, S, et al. “Antifungal Activity of Ocimum Sanctum Linn. (Lamiaceae) on Clinically Isolated Dermatophytic Fungi.” Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine, vol. 4, no. 8, Aug. 2011, pp. 654–657, 10.1016/s1995-7645(11)60166-1. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.
Mishra, Poonam, and Sanjay Mishra. “Study of Antibacterial Activity of Ocimum Sanctum Extract Against Gram Positive and Gram Negative Bacteria.” American Journal of Food Technology, vol. 6, no. 4, 1 Apr. 2011, pp. 336–341, 10.3923/ajft.2011.336.341. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.
Ito, Tatsuro, et al. “Roles of Salivary Components in Streptococcus Mutans Colonization in a New Animal Model Using NOD/SCID.E2f1−/− Mice.” PLoS ONE, vol. 7, no. 2, 21 Feb. 2012, p. e32063, 10.1371/journal.pone.0032063. Accessed 27 Jan. 2020.
Agarwal, Pooja, and L. Nagesh. “Comparative Evaluation of Efficacy of 0.2% Chlorhexidine, Listerine and Tulsi Extract Mouth Rinses on Salivary Streptococcus Mutans Count of High School Children—RCT.” Contemporary Clinical Trials, vol. 32, no. 6, Nov. 2011, pp. 802–808, 10.1016/j.cct.2011.06.007. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.
Vasudevan, Padma, et al. “Bioactive Botanicals from Basil (Ocimum Sp.).” Indian Institute of Technology, vol. 58, May 1999, pp. 332–338.
Barboza, Joice Nascimento, et al. “An Overview on the Anti-Inflammatory Potential and Antioxidant Profile of Eugenol.” Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, vol. 2018, 2018, p. 3957262, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30425782/?from_term=eugenol+actions&from_filter=simsearch2.ffrft&from_pos=1, 10.1155/2018/3957262. Accessed 12 June 2020.
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Shivananjappa, Mahesh, and Manoj Joshi. “Aqueous Extract of Tulsi (Ocimum Sanctum) Enhances Endogenous Antioxidant Defenses of Human Hepatoma Cell Line (HepG2).” Journal of Herbs, Spices & Medicinal Plants, vol. 18, no. 4, Nov. 2012, pp. 331–348, 10.1080/10496475.2012.712939. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.
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