Tulsi: Indian Basil, The Healing Royal Herb

Basil was once considered the king’s herb and has rightly been known as a medicinal herb since ancient times in Asia and Europe. The healing properties of basil – especially Indian basil (tulsi) – have long been confirmed in studies. This basil variety is even said to help fight breast cancer. But Tulsi also contains a substance that should be warned about. So, is basil healthy or dangerous? You will find out about that in a moment – as well as everything worth knowing about basil and in particular about tulsi, its use in the kitchen, and its possible uses as a medicinal herb for your health.

Tulsi: The Royal Taste

The name basil (vasilikós) originally comes from the Greek and means “royal”. The small herbaceous plant deserves this award for its incomparable aroma alone – not to mention its numerous healing effects. And so, since ancient times, basil has been widely used in various cultures as a medicinal herb and even as an important part of sacred ceremonies. In scientific studies, the Indian basil in particular attracts attention, which we can now buy more and more frequently.

Indian basil is also called tulsi. It is said that the goddess Tulasidevi took the form of this medicinal plant to serve and protect people. Tulsi is therefore sometimes worn around the neck in the form of a plant stalk in its original homeland or planted at the entrance to houses. At the same time, the essential oils of basil repel biting insects, so the plant protects in several ways.

Basil in folk medicine

In European folk medicine, basil is best known for its effects on the gastrointestinal tract. It aids in digestion and—due to its antispasmodic, antibacterial, and calming properties—can relieve gas and cramps. Apparently, people used to be very convinced of the calming effect of basil and therefore prescribed the fragrant herb without further ado against hysterical symptoms.

In addition to these traditional areas of application, basil also has numerous properties that have already been scientifically proven.

Basil protects the eyes

The high content of carotenoids has a positive effect on the eyes and vision. For example, a 2009 study showed that diabetics with low carotenoid levels (lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene) had a higher risk of developing diabetic retinopathy than diabetics with high carotenoid levels. The researchers concluded that the risk of this eye disease could be influenced extremely positively with a diet rich in carotenoids.

Basil protects against stress

In addition to the carotenoids, there are plenty of other powerful ingredients in basil, such as polyphenols and flavonoids, which are jointly responsible for the antioxidant and adaptogenic properties of basil. Adaptogen means that these substances help the body to better deal with stress. The basil properties mentioned so far alone confirm its reputation as a rejuvenating agent (also known as Rasayana), at least in Ayurveda.

Tulsi: An Ayurvedic medicinal herb

Indian basil (Ocimum sanctum or Ocimum tenuiflorum) has played an important role in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. It is considered a medicinal plant that balances the three doshas and, as the elixir of life, is said to ensure a long and healthy life.

It is used for all acute inflammatory diseases, such as colds, dry cough, fever (including malaria), sore throat, and bronchitis, but also for kidney stones, heart problems, diarrhea, stomach pain, and stomach ulcers. Infections in the oral cavity, insect bites, and poorly healing wounds are just as much part of his range of treatments as problems with the teeth or gums. It can relieve headaches and seems to have a marked effect on night blindness.

It has a calming, strengthening, and clarifying effect on the nervous system and the psyche. It can help with depression and anxiety or panic attacks. Especially when there is a lot of stress, Tulsi has a calming effect. It protects and maintains the performance of the brain and thus plays a role in senile dementia.

Tulsi is used as part of a well-founded Ayurvedic therapy, but – as research shows – can also be used as a preventive measure against signs of aging and cancer.

The Effect of Tulsi

Known for thousands of years, Tulsi’s healing properties have been studied by numerous researchers to give Indian basil its rightful place in modern medicine.

Anti-inflammatory effects of Tulsi

For example, Vaibhav Shinde demonstrated the anti-inflammatory effects of Tulsi. In one study, a basil extract was able to reduce pain and joint swelling in arthritis patients by 73 percent within 24 hours. This can be compared with the effect of the anti-rheumatic drug Diclofenac – however, Tulsi does not show any side effects compared to the drug mentioned. However, it is precisely the side effects of conventional arthritis medication that pose a major problem for arthritis patients who take painkillers on a daily basis. So alternatives would be more than welcome here.

Eugenol, an essential oil of basil that gives it its clove-like smell, seems to be primarily responsible for the anti-inflammatory effect – the researchers suspect. It is therefore advisable to use Tulsi for rheumatic complaints, as this type of basil has a much higher eugenol content than the European varieties. With the European kitchen herb, you can probably only achieve a slight anti-inflammatory effect.

In studies, the whole plant is very rarely used. Extracts (excerpts) are usually used.

In Ayurvedic medicine, so-called juices, teas, or decoctions are used. You can also make such plant preparations yourself. For recipes, see the “Practical Use of Tulsi” section below. Of course, Tulsi also unfolds its effect when it is used fresh in juices, smoothies, or as a spice.

Tulsi lowers blood sugar

An alcoholic extract from Tulsi was able to lower blood sugar levels in a scientific experiment. At the same time, a reduction in cortisol levels was noted. Cortisol is a stress hormone that increases blood sugar levels. In said study, the effect of Tulsi was tested in comparison to tolbutamide, a drug used to treat type II diabetes. Compared to this drug, basil showed an effectiveness of 70%.

Considering that tolbutamide lowers blood sugar levels in the short term, but at the same time also promotes pancreatic fatigue and thus quickly leads to the patient having to inject insulin, it is definitely worth planting some tulsi plants on the windowsill or in the conservatory care and to regularly prepare extracts or tea from it.

Especially people with high blood sugar levels or adult-onset diabetes in the family can probably reduce their risk of diabetes – of course always as part of a healthy diet – if they drink a cup of Tulsi tea after every meal to influence the blood sugar level, which also promotes digestion and the stomach protects.

Tulsi protects against stomach ulcers

But Tulsi doesn’t just seem to protect the blood, but also the stomach. In the study by R. K. Goel, an alcoholic extract of the Tulsi leaves was able to show a protective effect against stress and alcohol-related stomach ulcers. The mucosa of the gastric wall was apparently strengthened by the plant.

Since the Tulsi leaves contain all the medicinally active ingredients in the extract, eating the fresh leaves should have a similar effect. However, the alcoholic extracts or a decoction (recipe in the penultimate section) usually have a stronger effect than the whole leaf.

Tulsi has an antibacterial effect and strengthens the immune system

Tulsi as a tea, juice, or decoction is traditionally used in its home countries to significantly lower blood sugar levels, flu, and feverish illnesses. The immune-stimulating, antibacterial, and general healing effects are illustrated by a study (see review) in which wounds closed more quickly and less scar tissue formed. In India, therefore, chewed or pounded tulsi leaves are used to apply to mosquito bites or poorly healing wounds.

The antioxidant effect of Tulsi in particular promotes the body’s own healing processes. Many studies have shown that after a Tulsi treatment, the antioxidant level increases significantly (see review), which indicates a good immune system in the body.

Tulsi and Cancer

In addition to the positive properties already mentioned, basil even seems to be effective against cancer. In experiments, the Tulsi showed both cell-protecting and specifically anti-cancer effects. In animal studies, Indian basil activated various antioxidant enzymes and detoxifying metabolic processes in the body, which can fight cancer cells, even at a dosage of 300 mg per kilo of body weight.

Tulsi’s immune-stimulating effect seems to further support this anti-cancer process since the immune system is known to be one of the key factors in natural cancer treatment. If the immune system is fit, it can fight proliferating cancer cells itself.

In a 2007 study, the researchers led by Nangia-Makker found that an extract from Tulsi can stop the growth of breast cancer by specifically preventing the formation of new cells and inhibiting the blood supply to the tumor. This starves the tumor and prevents cancer from metastasizing.

The effect seems to be similar to that of chemotherapeutic substances – only with far fewer side effects.

The researchers conclude that Tulsi could be further developed into a means of preventing and treating breast cancer. For example, Tulsi could also be used in combination with chemotherapy to reduce the dosage of these agents.

Tulsi reduces the side effects of radiation therapy

Almost more importantly, tulsi may also offer good protection against carcinogens and is therefore an important preventative ingredient in anti-cancer diets. The ingredients orientin and vimentin, two water-soluble flavonoids isolated from basil leaves, seem to be able to significantly protect cells from radiation and chromosome changes – as a study with mice showed. This property could make Tulsi an ideal companion to any radiation therapy regimen to alleviate its known side effects.

In the opinion of the scientists, however, further intensive studies are necessary in order to precisely research the benefits of the plant in cancer therapy.

The carcinogenic effects of isolated estragole

In the introduction, we already mentioned that basil obviously contains a carcinogenic substance in addition to its healthy components. How can that be, when in the previous paragraph the anti-cancer effect was mentioned?

Basil contains a certain essential oil called estragole, which studies have shown to be mutagenic and carcinogenic. Therefore, some sources advise against using basil as a medicine. Incidentally, this also applies to tarragon, aniseed, star aniseed, allspice, nutmeg, lemongrass, and fennel.

However, what was not taken into account in the earlier warning from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment is that a large number of antioxidant substances in basil also work together with estragole. In particular, the breast cancer study mentioned above clearly shows that an extract from basil leaves can make tumors disappear and not do the opposite.

This study also showed very well that it is not the individual substance in basil that is effective, but the combination of substances. Because the experimental application of three individual substances of the basil showed in none of the three test series a cancer-fighting effect, only the total extract, which contains all the basil substances, was effective against tumors.

Another point that speaks against possible carcinogenicity of basil is that in the study that led to the warning about basil and other herbs containing estragole, the rodents concerned were exposed to a multiple of the naturally occurring concentration of estragole, i.e. a concentration that one could hardly achieve with basil tea, basil dishes or even basil preparations.

In the course of the centuries-old research into Tulsi, apart from slight constipation, no side effects were observed in any study or application – simply because a total extract from the leaves (tincture) or the seeds and no isolated active ingredients of the basil were always used.

Overall, all these studies show that almost all Tulsi effects known from the Ayurvedic tradition have been confirmed. Basil – especially the Tulsi basil – generally has an antibiotic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, cholesterol, and blood sugar lowering as well as immune-stimulating and adaptogenic effect. This is why it can be of use in so many different diseases and conditions. Research has shown Tulsi to be the elixir of life more than clearly, and if you want to benefit from it, you should reserve a particularly nice place for the basil on your windowsill.

Basil and Tulsi on the balcony and terrace

Basil friends have a wide variety of different basil plants or seeds to choose from: How about lemon, orange, aniseed, or cinnamon basil, for example? There are also green, red, and violet basil as well as small-leaved and large-leaved varieties. Or you can get the mighty Tulsi basil from specialist retailers.

Growing basil is relatively easy if you follow a few basic rules. Basil needs a lot of light, and a lot of heat and does not tolerate temperatures below 10 degrees. The basil should always be kept evenly moist. It does not like waterlogging or drought.

In early spring, basil can be sown in pots or boxes on the windowsill. Later it will be isolated.

If you buy basil in a pot, it is also advisable to separate the plants, which are usually much too close together. To do this, divide the rootstock into 4-6 parts and carefully pull the roots apart. The individual parts are then planted either at a greater distance in a larger pot or individually in small pots.

In this way, the plants develop better and grow larger. Experience shows that basil thrives better in pots in the summer than outdoors, where it is threatened with a quick end by snail damage. Basil feels completely at home in a sheltered place on the terrace or balcony.

The leaves before flowering is best used for cooking and medicinal purposes, as they then contain even more active ingredients. If you always pick the leaves from above, the basil will not even start to bloom. It branches out more and more and becomes so nice and dense and bushy.

Finally, at the end of summer, the basil is allowed to bloom to harvest seeds for the next year. The basil only survives the winter in a very bright window or in a warm conservatory.

Tulsi and basil in the kitchen

Basil is almost always used fresh in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the dried leaves only have a fraction of their original aroma. When processed as a pesto, basil also tastes good in winter and can be stored longer.

In culinary terms, the leaves are used as fresh as possible and you avoid cooking them longer, as they then lose their taste. The basil tastes particularly good – if shortly before the end of the cooking time – in pasta sauces, vegetable dishes, and stews, but of course also in salads.

There are three types of basil in Thai cuisine:

  • Bai Horapa is the best-known basil, which tastes sweet like anise. It is used in many curries.
  • Bai Gaprao is the Thai name for sacred Tulsi. A well-known dish is a spicy pad ga prao (recipe in the next section).
  • Bai Menglak is a lemon-flavored basil that is commonly used in seafood or fish dishes.

In Europe, Tulsi basil is best known as a tea. It tastes aromatically sweet in tea blends and is used both fresh and dried. But of course, you can process tulsi – just like “normal” basil – into pesto and use it in salads or other dishes.

Practical application of Tulsi as a remedy

Here are some uses of Tulsi:

Tulsi Juice as Rasayana (Makeover)

To make the juice, soak 5-6 dried Tulsi leaves per serving in 1 cup of water for 3-4 hours, then simmer for 5-7 minutes and drink hot. Take one cup of it twice a day for three days.

Tulsi tea

A tea from Tulsi can be helpful for colds, gastrointestinal complaints, and health care (diabetes prevention, lowering blood pressure, etc.) and especially for stress-related complaints. Pour hot water over a teaspoon of crushed Tulsi leaves per cup and let steep for 10 minutes.

Tulsi decoction

A decoction of Tulsi is recommended in Ayurveda to treat influenza and influenza. Take 40 tulsi leaves and boil them in ½ liter of water until half has evaporated. This decoction is taken warm three times a day with a pinch of salt.

Have fun trying it out, enjoy and stay healthy!

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Written by Bella Adams

I'm a professionally-trained, executive chef with over ten years in Restaurant Culinary and hospitality management. Experienced in specialized diets, including Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw foods, whole food, plant-based, allergy-friendly, farm-to-table, and more. Outside of the kitchen, I write about lifestyle factors that impact well-being.

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