Throughout India, one will noticeably find a gardening pot of tulsi plant growing in most, if not all courtyards. Many practitioners start their day performing a religious ritual around the plant with watering and praying around it. The use of tulsi in daily rituals is a testament to traditional medicine wisdom and provides an example of ancient knowledge offering solutions to modern problems. 

Tulsi (meaning ‘the matchless one’) has long been used as part of Ayurvedic (traditional Indian medical system) medicine as a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress and to exert a normalizing effect upon daily bodily processes. Furthermore, of all the herbs used in Ayurvedic medicine tulsi is preeminent, and scientific research is now confirming its beneficial effects.

tulsi holy basil benefits

Disease of modern life

Nowadays, many of us are negatively affected by the high pace of modern life. Technology has vastly increased the pace of life so that many of us feel that we are now drowning in an ever-expanding ocean of data. Furthermore, industrial agriculture has burdened us with increasing exposure to unhealthy processed and packaged food and a plethora of pesticides, food packaging materials and other toxic industrial chemicals. Scientists note, while industrialization has led to longer lifespans, it is now recognized that the greatest causes of death and diseases on the planet are preventable lifestyle-related chronic diseases. [1]

Traditional medicines like, Ayurveda, have a holistic approach to health and disease that focuses on preserving and promoting good health and prevention though healthy lifestyle practices. One of these practices include regular consumption of adaptogenic herbs that enhance the body’s capacity to maintain balance in the midst of a variety of stressors. [1]

History of Tulsi

Tulsi is a sacred plant in Hindu belief. The offerings of its leaves is mandatory in ritualistic worship of Hindu deities. It is an aromatic perennial plant in the family Lamiaceae. It is native to the Indian subcontinent and widespread as a cultivated plant throughout the Southeast Asian tropics.

Tulsi is cultivated for religious and traditional medicine purposes, and for its essential oil. Today, it’s medicinal power is also confirmed by conventional medical research. As for history, legend has it that Tulsi is a manifestation of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. This is perhaps the reason for it’s placement in the centre of most Hindu households in India. Every part of the Tulsi plant is revered and considered sacred. Even the soil around the plant is considered holy.

What is Tulsi (holy basil)?

Tulsi is an aromatic shrub in the basil family that is thought to have originated in north central India and now grows native throughout the eastern world tropics. Within traditional Indian medicine, Ayurveda, tulsi is known by many names including “The Queen of Herbs”, and is revered as an “elixir of life” that is without equal for both its medicinal and spiritual properties. [1]

Fresh tulsi leaves taste hot and bitter. Dried leaves, simply stepped in water give an elixir that tastes fresh and earthy with mild minty undertones. There are many different varieties of the plant that come in different colours and shape of leaves. Three types of tulsi are commonly described. Two botanically and photochemically district cultivars include Rama (green leaves) and Krishna (purplish leaves), while a third type known as Vana or wild/forest tulsi (dark green leaves). The different types exhibit vast diversity in morphology and photochemical composition including secondary metabolites. Despite the differences in DNA and levels of eugenol (bioactive ingredient); they are traditionally used in the same way to treat similar ailments. [2]

Benefits of tulsi are just being confirmed by modern science. This emerging science on tulsi, which reinforces ancient Ayurvedic wisdom, suggests that tulsi is a tonic for the body, mind and spirit that offers solutions to many modern day health problems. Furthermore, western science has revealed that tulsi does indeed possess many pharmacological actions that fulfil the Eastern application towards promoting welling and resilience by adaptation to stress and the promotion of homeostasis. [1]

The medicinal properties of tulsi have been studied in hundreds of scientific studies in the last decade alone including in vitro, animal and human experiments. These studies revel that tulsi has a unique combination of actions that include: antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, chemo-preventive, neuro-protective, and many others. [3]   

Essential Oils and Secondary Metabolites

Secondary metabolites are organic compounds produced by bacteria, fungi, or plants which are not directly involved in the normal growth, development or reproduction of the organism. The absence of these secondary metabolites does not result in immediate death but rather a long-term impairment of the organism’s survivability. These often play an important role in plant defence against herbivory and other interstices defences. Humans utilize plant secondary metabolites as medicine, flavourings, pigments, and recreational drugs. [19]

What are essential oils?

Plants and products that include tea, spices and herbs provide well balanced nutrition to humans. Plant foods are high in vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbs, fats and more recently discovered—secondary metabolites. These secondary metabolites that include essential oils deserve a particular attention as they are a source of bioactive phytochemicals and phytotherapeutics for humans. These are complex hydrocarbons and oxygenated hydrocarbons arising from isoprenoid pathways, mainly consisting in monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes. Essential oils are produced and secreted by glandular trichomes, specialized secretory tissues diffused onto the surface of plant organs, particularly flowers and leaves.

Secondary metabolites (SM) are part of the defence system that enables plants to defend themselves against predators. Plants vary greatly in the amount and type of these SM and scientists believe it is this biodiversity that leads to plants survival success.

Essential oils (or, know as volatile compounds) in plants are supposed to mediate the relationship of a plant with abiotic factors such as light, temperature, draughts, CO2 levels and ozone levels. There functions include: reduction of abiotic stress, allelopathy, defence against herbivores, inter-plant singling, defence against microbial pathogens, attraction of pollinators and seed dispersers. There is a wide variation in the chemical profile of essential oils meaning a greater diversity in the mechanisms of action and molecular targets.

Essential oils are a complex mixture of molecules, which generally contains more then 20 different compounds. In general, monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes are the main component of essential oils. Furthermore, essential oils form complex interactions between different class of compounds such as phenols, aldehydes, ketones, alcohol, esters or hydrocarbons. Together these compounds carry cytotoxic capacity hence, used in investigating potential therapeutic effects of oils against several diseases especially cancer. [20]

Phytochemical profiling of tulsi leaf revealed it is rich in volatile oils with eugenol, methyl eugenol, carvacrol and caryophyllene as main constituents. It has been shown that the combination of tulsi with a drug (amifostine) significantly reduced the cell damage of the mouse bone marrow following whole-body gamma-irradiation exposure for 14 days. This combination reduced the toxic side effects of this drug at high dose, thus suggesting a better approach at radioprotection. This is likely due to its antioxidant properties via free radicals scavenging activity. [20]

Eugenol has great importance in pharmaceutical industry and tulsi is a rich source with a concentration dependent on environmental factors but on average contains 40-70% of the essential oil. Eugenol and other essential oils have been found to reduce raised blood sugar, triglyceride and cholesterol levels and activities of LDH, GPT, GOT and alkaline phosphates (diagnostic clinical enzymes) in blood serum. Hence, explaining tulsi’s therapeutic potential as antidiabetic, cardioprotective, hypolipidemic and hepatoprotective agent. [21]

Antioxidant Benefits

Tulsi is high in phenolic compounds and anti-oxidant properties which results in physiological benefits of body’s internal housekeeping and protection of the body from toxin-induced damage.

Laboratory studies have shown that tulsi protests against toxic chemical-induced injury by increasing the body’s levels of anti-oxidant molecules such as glutathione and enhancing the activity of anti-oxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase and catalase. [1] These enzymes and catalase assist in the mopping up of damaged free radicals and other toxic agents that result from many of the daily wear and tare of our systems including those caused by environmental factors.

A study investigated the cardio-protective activity of a combined treatment of few herbs including tulsi extract on rats with induced damaged cardio cells. Results were, significant cardiac protection, decreased lipid peroxidation, and restored antioxidant activities. [9]

In addition to all the above, tulsi offers protection against the vast range of pollutants, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, radiation and other industrial toxicants created from human activity. [1]

Combats Stress

While modern scientific studies suggest that tulsi is effective in treating a range of stressful conditions, within Ayurveda, tulsi is more commonly recommended as a preventative measure. A pro-active approach to enhance the ability to combat both psychological and physical stress and therefore prevent the development of stress-related diseases. [1]

Metabolic Stress — Anti-diabetic properties

Metabolic stress due to poor diet, low physical activity and psychological stress is prominent features of modern lifestyle. This leads to metabolic disorders where abnormal chemical reactions in the body alter the normal metabolic processes, examples being hypertension, high cholesterol and poor glucose regulation. Three or more metabolic disorders lead to a condition known as metabolic syndrome with the associated risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke.

A human study of 27 non-insulin-dependent diabetes subjects on hypoglycaemic drugs was done. Tulsi powder supplementation (1g of dry powder) was given for 1 month. Results are as follows:

– significant lowering of blood glucose (20.8%)

– significant reduction of total cholesterol (11.3%)

A clinical trial reported daily ingestion of 2.5g of tulsi leaves lead to significant improvements in FBG, PPG, and urine glucose in type 2 diabetes patients after 4 weeks. Similarly, lipid profile was improved significantly in MetS and diabetes participants in three clinical trials and a further study reporting improved lipid levels in healthy subjects. [2]

Six trails reported on the effect of tulsi on individual features of metabolic syndrome. Two studies reported significant improvement of blood pressure in hypertensive participants given 30ml of fresh tulsi leaf juice once daily or 30ml twice a day for 10 and 12 days, respectively. [2]

Physical stress

Prolonged physical exertion, exposure to cold and excessive noise disturb homeostasis by inducing physiological and metabolic stress.

Study done on animals forced to swim under restraint and cold-exposure have shown that tulsi enhanced breathing and swimming time while reducing oxidative tissue damage and normalizing many physiological and biochemical parameters caused by physical stressors. In addition, enhancements in neurotransmitter and oxidative stress levels in the brain regions where noted. Researches noted, the brain did not adapt to the noise even after 30 days but how the noise effected the brain was less. The abundance of phytochemicals such as phenolics and flavonoids in tulsi may be held responsible for its attenuating activity. [4,5]

Mental stress

Regular consumption of tulsi not only helps protect and detoxify the body’s cell and organs, it can also help reduce toxic stress by relaxing and calming the mind and offering many psychological benefits including anti-depressant activity and positive effects on memory and cognitive function. [1]

Study performed on mice put under variety of stressors and given tulsi leaf extract concluded tulsi extract demonstrated significant anti-anxiety and anti-depressant potential. [6]

In an another study, 35 human subjects were treated with 500mg/capsule, twice daily, after meal for 60 days. Results were lowered generalized anxiety disorder and its correlated stress and depression. It further significantly improved the willingness to adjustment and attention in human. [7] 

A 6-week study of 130 human subjects given a tulsi extract resulted in improvements in forgetfulness, sexual problems, feeling of exhaustion, and sleep problems. [8]

A hospital based clinical set-up study on the anti-stress activity of tulsi was done on 35 subjects. Subjects were given 500mg of tulsi extract two times a day, taken over 60 days, significantly reducing stress and depression levels in 35 patients with anxiety disorder. [12]

Brain Health and Cognition [10]

Tulsi has a calming effect that leads to clarity of thought, along with a more relaxed and calm disposition. Extract of tulsi showed that it had anti-convulsant, anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects.

A few animal studies show, tulsi extract had a favourable effect on cognition. As well, it improved memory caused by cognitive dysfunction and learning, and memory in Alzheimer’s rat model. [10] 

Normal ageing is known to deteriorate memory in humans. Oxidative stress from daily activities cause damage to the living system which may be responsible for neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s in the elderly. Nootropic represent a new class of psychotropic agents with a positive effect on central nervous system, particularly on intellectual performance, learning capability and memory. A study done on rat models showed, tulsi plant possess nootropic activity as it resulted in retention of acquired learning and improvements in memory. [11]

Anti-inflammatory properties [2]

Many studies have documented the anti-inflammatory properties of tulsi in test tube, as well as animal and human subjects. The tulsi plant is known to contain several bioactive compounds including eugenol, ursolic acid, B-caryophyllene, linalool, and 1,8-cineole. In addition to these the photochemical composition of tulsi is very complex and these bioactive metabolites may work together to provide benefits. 

Enhanced immune response was reported in five clinical studies. One study found increased immune response with increased Natural Killer and T-helper cells in healthy adult participants compared to placebo after 4 weeks of 300mg tulsi leaf extract taken daily.

A scientific review on the topic suggests, tulsi may have an important role in addressing other inflammatory disorders and that the Ayurvedic tradition of consuming tulsi on a daily basis may be an effective lifestyle measure to address many modern chronic diseases. [2]

Rheumatism and Arthritis benefits

A study on arthritis in rats given tulsi oil showed significantly reduced inflamed paw. The ant-arthritic effect of 3 ml/kg dose was comparable to aspirin @ 100 mg/kg. In addition, the tulsi oil inhibited carrageenan and inflammatory mediators induced inflammation. [23]

Pain relief

In Ayurvedic medicine, tulsi fresh leaf extract or a decoction with hot water is used to alleviate muscular pain, joint pain, and severe headache. There are several studies that have demonstrated that tulsi extract alleviates neuropathic pain.

Oral preparation of 50 mg/kg bodyweight of tulsi extract attenuated sciatic nerve transection-induced axonal degeneration, reduction of nociceptive threshold, and motor incoordination. A few studies on rats also show reduction in pain after surgery or injury. [25]

Infection protection

Modern research has revealed that tulsi has anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal activity. It has been shown to boost defences against infective threats by enhancing immune responses in animal studies and healthy humans. [1]

There is some experimental evidence, non-human trials, to suggest tulsi may help in the treatment of various human bacterial infections including UTI, skin and wound infections, typhoid fever, cholera, acne and related illnesses. [14]

A study that used combination of tulsi and another plant extract against few bacterial and fungi strains (E. Coli, Pseudomon as putida, Malassezia furfur) showed positive results preventing or minimizing the growth of the strains at various concentrations. [14]

Another study, used oils at 4.5% and 2.25% concentration extracted from tulsi completely inhibited growth of S. aureus and E. coli; while partially inhibiting growth of P. aeruginosa.  These bacterial strains are major pathogens causing skin and soft tissue infections. [15]

Tulsi essential oil could be a valuable tropical anti-microbial agent for management of skin infections caused by these organisms.

Anti-cancer properties [22]

Cell cancer studies have shown that tulsi induces cytotoxic and apotheosis in cultured human breast cancer, human fibrosarcoma, and human lung cancer cells. Preclinical studies have also shown tulsi to be effective in preventing chemical-induced skin, lung, gastric, oral and hepato-carchinogenesis in experimental animals, thereby indicating it’s usefulness in preventing cancer.

A study showed aqueous extract (tulsi stepped in water) was effective when given orally in increasing the mouse survival rate when exposed to radiation. The mice were given 10mg/kg/day for five consecutive days before irradiation, this resulted in better protection and survival rate.

In addition, extensive studies have also shown that water soluble flavonoids present in tulsi provided significant protection against radiation-induced sickness and death.

In an animal study, tulsi leaf solution was given to subjects before whole body exposure to a gamma irradiation, produced a significantly higher bone marrow stem cell survival.

Exposure to ionizing rotation causes DNA damage and preclinical studies have shown that tulsi was effective in protecting against and reducing some of this damage.

Studies on the anti-cancer properties of tulsi note radioprotective effects. A range of mechanisms include free radical scavenging, antioxidant, inhibition of lipid peroxidation, immunomodulatory, and antimutagenic activities are observed to be responsible for this effect.

Nutrient Profile [24]

Tulsi contains vitamin C and A, and minerals like calcium, zinc and iron, as well as chlorophyll and many other phytonutrients. Per 100g of Tulsi contains:

Protein: 30 Kcal

Fat: 4.2 g

Carbohydrates: 2.3 g

Calcum: 25 mg

Phosphorous: 287 mg

Iron: 15.1 mg

Vitamin C: 25 mg

Tulsi also contains powerful and potent, bioactive essential oils including eugenol (up to 70%).

Possible Drawbacks

Despite the lack of large-scale or long term clinical trails on the effect of tulsi in humans, the findings from 24 human studies published to date suggest that tulsi is a safe herbal intervention that may assist in normalizing glucose, blood pressure and lipid profiles, and dealing with psychological and immunological stress. [2]

However, plant metabolism is very variable and before medicinal plant extracts or products are approved for primary health care, they need to be standardized, subjected to stringent quality control and assessed to ensure their safely. [15]

A study on adult rats reported longterm feeding of tulsi leaves (200 and 400 mg/kg bodyweight) decreased sperm count and mating behaviours. It is possibly unsafe when taken during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant as at large doses taken orally it reduced the chance of fertilized egg attachment to the uterus. [16]

It may also have an interaction with medications that slow down blood clotting and caution is advised. [17]

Safety during pregnancy and lactation has not been investigated; until more is know, tulsi should probably be avoided at those times. [24]

Final Thoughts

In modern complementary and alternative medical practice, plants are the primary source of therapeutics and each part of the plant, including the seeds, root, stem, leaves, and fruit, potentially contains bioactive components. [15]

Tulsi plant in India is worshipped, ingested, made into tea and used for medicinal and spiritual purposes within daily life. Furthermore, modern day scientific research into tulsi demonstrates the many psychological and physiological benefits from consuming tulsi.

You can enjoy this potent and powerful herb in our flavourful elixir Fortify Chai. Here, we combine tulsi with green tea and 5 spices that include: cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, fennel and black pepper. The focus of Fortify blend is the powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and stress-relief properties of above mentioned ingredients, soothing you to fall into a sweet slumber when enjoyed at night.

References

1. Marc Maurice Cohen. 2014. Tulsi – Ocimum sanctum: A herb for all reasons | https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4296439/

2. Jamshidi et al. 2017. The Clinical Efficacy and Safety of Tulsi in Humans: A Systematic Review of the Literature | https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5376420/

3. Uma Iyer. 2009.  Effect of Ocimum sanctum Leaf Powder on Blood Lipoproteins, Glycated Proteins and Total Amino Acids in Patients with Non-insulin-dependent Diabetes Mellitus. |https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232072038_Effect_of_Ocimum_sanctum_Leaf_Powder_on_Blood_Lipoproteins_Glycated_Proteins_and_Total_Amino_Acids_in_Patients_with_Non-insulin-dependent_Diabetes_Mellitus

4. Samson J. 2007. Oxidative stress in brain and antioxidant activity of Ocimum sanctum in noise exposure. | https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17379314/

5.  Archana et. a. 2002. A comparative study of different crude extracts of Ocimum sanctum on noise stress. | https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12237819/

6. Chatterjee et. al. 2011. Evaluation of ethanol leaf extract of Ocimum sanctum in experimental models of anxiety and depression. | https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/13880209.2010.523832

7. Bhattacharyya et. al. 2008. Controlled programmed trial of Ocimum sanctum leaf on generalized anxiety disorders. | https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19253862/

8. Saxene et al. 2012. Efficacy of an Extract of Ocimum tenuiflorum (OciBest) in the Management of General Stress: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study. | https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2012/894509/

9. Panda et al. 2009. Evaluation of cardioprotective activity of Ginkgo biloba and Ocimum sanctum in rodents. | http://archive.foundationalmedicinereview.com/publications/14/2/161.pdf

10. Sampath et al. 2015. Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum Linn.) leaf extract enhances specific cognitive parameters in healthy adult volunteers: A placebo controlled study. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282204912_Holy_basil_Ocimum_sanctum_Linn_leaf_extract_enhances_specific_cognitive_parameters_in_healthy_adult_volunteers_A_placebo_controlled_study

11. Joshi et al. 2005. Evaluation of nootropic potential of Ocimum sanctum Linn. in mice. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c312/cd6c9280c765a53af400a194ba87bc73d1ec.pdf

12. Bhattacharyya et al. 2008. Controlled programmed trial of Ocimum sanctum leaf on generalized anxiety disorders. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19253862

13. Same as reference 2 above. 

14. Chantra et al. 2011. Detection of Antimicrobial Activity of Oscimum sanctum (Tulsi) & Trigonella foenum graecum (Methi) against some selected bacterial & fungal strains. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269107198_Detection_of_Antimicrobial_Activity_of_Oscimum_sanctum_Tulsi_Trigonella_foenum_graecum_Methi_against_some_selected_bacterial_fungal_strains

15. Yamani et al. 2016. Antimicrobial Activity of Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) Essential Oil and Their Major Constituents against Three Species of Bacteria. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4868837/

16. Gupta et al. 2002. Validation of traditional claim of Tulsi, Ocimum sanctum Linn. as a medicinal plant. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1300/9e5d5c8b66b4c999e3fd92c9d50a56634412.pdf

17. Singh at al. 2001. Effect of Ocimum sanctum fixed oil on blood pressure, blood clotting time and pentobarbitone-induced sleeping time. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11694358

18. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/02003?n1=%7BQv%3D1%7D&fgcd=&man=&lfacet=&count=&max=25&sort=default&qlookup=dry+basil+leaves&offset=&format=Full&new=&measureby=&Qv=1&ds=&qt=&qp=&qa=&qn=&q=&ing=

19. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secondary_metabolite

20. Sharifi-Rad at el. 2017. Biological Activities of Essential Oils: From Plant Chemoecology to Traditional Healing Systems |  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6155610/

21. Prakash et al. 2005. Therapeutic uses of ocimum sanctum linn (tulsi) with a note on eugenol and its pharmacological actions: a short review |  https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/465f/23f9689ebce3ed34e842a21dbc4b40a48722.pdf

22. Baliga et al. 2016. Radio protective effects of the Ayurvedic medicinal plant Ocimum sanctum Linn. (Holy Basil): A memoir. | http://www.cancerjournal.net/article.asp?issn=0973-1482;year=2016;volume=12;issue=1;spage=20;epage=27;aulast=Baliga

23. Singh et al. 2012. Diversified potentials of Ocimum sanctum Linn (Tulsi): An exhaustive survey | https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f969/6ab6f0cc265d8d972c18f9096366da5e2c1b.pdf

24. Pattanayak et al. 2010. Ocimum sanctum Linn. A reservoir plant for therapeutic applications: An overview | https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249909/

25. Uritu et al. 2018. Medicinal Plants of the Family Lamiaceae in Pain Therapy: A Review | https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5964621/