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Who hasn’t heard of basil, the main ingredient in most pesto? If you’re a foodie, you may even know about some of the more exotic varieties: there’s Thai, lemon, cinnamon, and even Queen of Sheba basil. But unless you’re into herbs or Indian culture, you may not know there’s a medicinal version.

Holy basil, or tulsi, is considered sacred in the Hindu religion. Many Hindu homes have a tulsi plant near the entrance, often in a special container decorated with images of gods and goddesses. Some people keep it indoors as well, as it has a reputation for chasing mosquitoes away. It’s also one of the most powerful herbs in Ayurvedic medicine.

The Health Benefits of a Good Pesto Basil

Known in India as the elixir of life and the queen of herbs, the name tulsi roughly translates to “the incomparable one” or “the matchless one”.

While they’re part of the same plant family (the Lamiaceae or Labiatae family, which includes mint and sage), holy basils (yes, there’s more than one) differ from pesto basils in both composition and health benefits. The taste is also quite different, so you might not want to replace the sweet basil in your favorite pesto with tulsi – especially if you’re having friends over for dinner!

Here are some interesting facts about basil

According to WebMD, fresh basil (the pesto kind) is pretty good for you. It has plenty of vitamins and minerals and some powerful antioxidants, including lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin. The health benefits are significant: (1)

  • Its antioxidants fight free radicals. Having too many of them running around in your body leads to cell damage, increasing your risk of cancer, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, and other health conditions.
  • It may help to lower high blood sugar and lessen its long-term effects.
  • It may prevent heart disease by helping to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides as well as improving blood flow.
  • Its essential oils fight inflammation, which is a big deal. Chronic inflammation is involved in many conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and more. (2)
  • Its antibacterial properties provide protection against respiratory, urinary, abdominal, or skin infections.

That’s a lot of power for a plant you can grow on your windowsill!

The Health Benefits of Holy Basil

There are many types of tulsi; the three best known are Rama, Krishna, and Vana. While each has its own strengths, they share some impressive benefits. Holy basil can do everything our familiar pesto basil can and more. Lots more. 

In a 2014 review of holy basil studies, Professor Marc Cohen (School of Health Sciences, RMIT University, Victoria, Australia) stated:

Of all the herbs used within Ayurveda, tulsi (Ocimum sanctum Linn) is preeminent, and scientific research is now confirming its beneficial effects.” He has plenty of reasons for this bold claim: (3)

  1. Tulsi protects organs and tissues from chemical stress from industrial pollutants and heavy metals – something anyone living the city life can appreciate.
  2. It also provides protection from physical stress from a number of causes.
  3. It counters metabolic stress through normalization of blood glucose, blood pressure, and lipid levels.
  4. It fights psychological stress through positive effects on memory and cognitive function as well as its anti-anxiety and anti-depressant properties. Preclinical studies in mice and rats demonstrate that its anti-stress effects are comparable to antidepressant drugs. 
  5. Its broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity works against a range of human and animal pathogens, suggesting it can be used as a hand sanitizer, mouthwash, water purifier, wound healer, and food preserver.

Research backs up the power and might of this herb

In a 2017 review of 24 independent clinical studies, Cohen and his colleague Negar Jamshidi add to the list: (4)

  1. Numerous in vitro and animal studies indicate the leaf has potent adaptogenic, metabolic, immunomodulatory, antioxidant, liver-protective, radioprotective, antimicrobial, and antidiabetic effects.
  2. Enhanced immune response was also reported in five studies. 
  3. Studies also showed significant improvements in mood and/or cognitive function. For example, 40 healthy young adults who received 300 mg of tulsi daily showed improved cognitive flexibility, short-term memory, and attention after the first two weeks.

Tulsi also shows promise as an anticancer and chemoprotective agent. (5)

Is tulsi safe?

When a drug affects us so profoundly, we worry about side effects. In Cohen’s review, only one of the 24 studies referred to any problems. In that study, obese adults took 250 mg of tulsi leaf extract twice daily before meals; occasional nausea was reported. (3) While that’s no fun, it’s not dangerous, and a lower dose should solve the problem.

Nevertheless, not everyone should take therapeutic doses of holy basil. Like turmeric, it acts as a blood thinner, so anyone taking anticoagulants (aspirin, warfarin, and other drugs that thin the blood) should consult with a medical professional first. And if you’re pregnant or nursing, you should consult that medical professional before taking therapeutic doses of just about anything.

How to Get the Benefits of Tulsi

If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to boost your health, a daily mug (or two) of holy basil tea might be just the thing. You can also use the essential oil in a homemade mouthwash or hand sanitizer or add it to a bath – just be careful not to use too much, as it could irritate your skin. If you want the therapeutic benefits, go with a supplement. And of course, get it organic if you can.

Remember, holy basil doesn’t taste like the pesto basil you’re used to. It can be bitter – so if you want to make a tulsi pesto, consider starting with a small batch or mixing it with your regular basil before going all in.

Do try it, though. They call holy basil the elixir of life for a reason! 


  4. Cohen MM. Tulsi – Ocimum sanctum: A herb for all reasons. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2014 Oct-Dec;5(4):251-9. doi: 10.4103/0975-9476.146554. PMID: 25624701; PMCID: PMC4296439.
  6. Negar Jamshidi, Marc M. Cohen, “The Clinical Efficacy and Safety of Tulsi in Humans: A Systematic Review of the Literature”, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2017, Article ID 9217567, 13 pages, 2017.
Steph Sterner

Steph Sterner

Steph Sterner is a holistic practitioner and the author of No Guilt, No Games, No Drama and other self-help books. She writes about personal development, why we think and feel the way we do, and the nature of consciousness. You can find her on Medium (@Steph.Sterner) or at


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