If you've never heard of tulsi , you might be missing out on some serious health benefits! Tulsi is an herb from India that can be made into a delicious tea, and it is also called sacred basil (Ocimum sanctum or tenuiflorum), holy basil, and “The Incomparable One”. With a name like that, why drink anything else?
Tulsi is often used as a health tonic, and significantly in Indian Ayurveda tradition, so this article checks our the science behind it to shed some light on why that is. Read on to find out:
- What is tulsi holy basil?
- The real, scientifically-backed health benefits of tulsi holy basil
- Tulsi’s Health Impact on Lungs and Respiration
- Tulsi’s Health Impact on the Immune System
- Tulsi’s Health Impact on the Adaptability to Chronic Stressors
- Tulsi’s Health Impact on Anxiety
- Tulsi’s Health Impact on Diabetes
- Is Tulsi Holy Basil Safe During Pregnancy?
- A Word on the Spiritual Aspects of Tulsi Holy Basil
- How to Brew Tulsi Holy Basil
- More Fun Health Facts About Tulsi
- Tulsi teas to get you started
Ready to learn more? Let's go!
(Hugely) Updated June 2022.
What Is Tulsi?
Tulsi is a famous herb and tisane as we have said in the Indian herbal medicine philosophy called Ayurveda - one of the oldest methods of herbalism. This adaptogenic tea was known as “the elixir of life,” and taken for longevity long before the term “adaptogen” was ever coined.
What's an adaptogen, you say? Put simply, it's a class of herbs that can help us "adapt" to stress and stressors. To learn more about how adaptogens work, and how they can energize without caffeine, check out our post about them here in “What are Adaptogens and Why Are They Good For You? Part 1”.
True to its title as “adaptogen”, tulsi can be taken safely as a tonic (a fancy way to say drinking a tea or tisane for health purposes) over long periods of time, and has virtually no side effects in all the research we have found and experience we have. This means that it:
- Increases endurance
- And yet, it contains no caffeine!
Try it out as a coffee replacement! Why not try our own, with free shipping in the USA. This adaptogenic tea is loose leaf Tulsi - with a rich, warm, herbaceous flavor with a light spice and sweetness
High in antioxidants, tulsi is a "protective" herb. This means it contains phytochemicals that exhibit anti-inflammatory properties, and it has even shown protective action for human blood lymphocytes by reducing chromosomal damage due to radiation. Whoa!
It's also ridiculously high in antioxidants, scoring a whopping 2550 on the ORAC scale (matcha is 1384 by comparison). Tulsi's primary antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin A, rosmarinic acid, caryophyllene, eugenol, and ursolic acid.
Note: ORAC is a measure of antioxidant levels that allows for an easy comparison between foods, teas, etc. although it has its limits. To learn more about the ORAC scale, how it works, and how to spot when a health food company might be fudging the numbers, check out my post on the subject: How Are Antioxidants Measured? ORAC Scores and How Much You Need Per Day
Why Is Tulsi Holy Basil Good For You?
The health benefits of tulsi are seemingly endless! One of the best properties of adaptogenic herbs are their modulating activity. This balancing property is responsible for a lot of the good things that tulsi does in your body. Tulsi's main benefits include:
➤ Tulsi’s Health Impact on Lungs and Respiration
Most adaptogens act in a broad way on all body systems, but usually have an affinity for a specific one. Tulsi has an affinity for the lungs.
Traditionally, tulsi has been used for respiratory tract infections, strengthening the lungs, and for improving lung health in recovery. It is considered warming, drying, and stimulating in traditional medicine, but let us look more closely at the science behind it:
The therapeutic compound eugenol is not unique to Tulsi and has been isolated and researched for its health benefits from various plants. Eugenol has many therapeutic actions but its effects on the lungs are noteworthy. The aerial parts of Tulsi (i.e. above ground) are rich in Eugenol, and is likely the essential oil responsible for Tulsi’s traditional use in lung conditions.
Prakash and Gupta (2005) mention Tulsi’s ability to inhibit the growth of tuberculosis via the essential oils extracted from its leaves. This, coupled with the anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiviral properties of eugenol (and other oils) point to its history as a respiratory-condition medicinal.
In another study the anti-inflammatory effects of eugenol were powerful enough to cause functional lung improvement. It improved lung mechanics, reduced alveolar collapse (air sacs in the lungs), modulated inflammation in the lungs, and had positive effects on acute lung injury. The authors suggest it has potential for both acute and chronic lung conditions (Magalhães, et al., 2010).
In another rat study, tulsi was given to asthmatic rats and was found to be more effective than dexamethasone. Tulsi improved pathological changes, inflammatory markers and immunological markers compared to the control group (Eftekhar, et al., 2019).
➤ Tulsi’s Health Impact on the Immune System
Tulsi has immunomodulatory action, making it a great choice if your immune system needs a nudge or if it needs to back down a bit. If you are wondering “What? How can it both nudge more and also less?” Well that is why it’s an adaptogen! This immune regulation makes it safe in moderation even for those with an overactive immune system (but like everything, always, talk to your healthcare provider, don’t self-treat!).
Prakash and Gupta (2005) take note of the potential for the use of Tulsi in Rheumatoid Arthritis. In this specific case, they note that Tulsi has stimulating action in conditions of immunosuppression.
Tulsi’s immune regulation is powerful but may not be appropriate for those with autoimmune conditions. The modulating effects manifest instead in cases of infection where the plant reduces excessive immune reactions that might cause more damage than help (certain inflammatory mechanisms of immunity, for example) while still encouraging immune competence (Williamson (ed), 2002; Eftekhar, et al., 2019).
For those so inclined, Williamson’s book Major herbs of Ayurveda is a print book which more succinctly states this effect. Overall, several research articles I have examined for information and robustness mention how tulsi with both upregulate and down-regulate certain aspects of immune action in the face of illness or injury, and it is this dual action that makes tulsi modulatory (it doesn’t just stimulate the immune system as a whole, it reduces certain aspects of immune action that can be harmful when overdone).
While adaptogens are immunomodulatory, in my personal experience I have found that they tend to lean one way or another on the spectrum of up-regulation or down-regulation of immune function (with the exception of ashwagandha, which I have found more often neutrally modulates) (Chattopadhyay, 2017). For this reason, if you are considering adaptogens for autoimmune conditions it is advised that you work with a qualified professional experienced in the use of adaptogens.
Overall, I find Tulsi is initially stimulating, but ultimately calms and restores the nervous system.
➤ Tulsi’s Health Impact on the Adaptability to Chronic Stressors
By reducing the negative impact of stress on the body (and improving the body’s adaptability to chronic stressors), tulsi acts as a preventative against chronic illness.
Chronic stress is insidious and systemically harmful. Recent studies are linking chronic stress with morphological changes in the brain, psychiatric illnesses, immune suppression, breakdown the link between the nervous system and endocrine system leading to imbalances and chronic, low-grade inflammation which, in turn, is a precursor to various illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmunity, cancer, diabetes, and depression and anxiety (Mariotti, 2015).
The impacts of chronic stress drive home the need for lifestyle changes to reduce chronic stress- but sometimes situations and environments cannot always be altered in a timely fashion. This is where adaptogens like Tulsi can help. Broadly speaking, adaptogenic herbs will support the physiological response to stress by minimising mitochondrial damage due to cortisol, support the nervous system, and regulate endocrine function (Panossian & Wagner, 2011).
In accordance with the criteria required of adaptogens Tulsi fed to rats demonstrated a non-specific resistance to stress (Gupta, et al., 2002). In a separate mouse study, mice exposed to stressful exertion swim tests performed better with Tulsi intervention than control. Tulsi improved blood glucose levels, cortisol levels, and white blood cell count (Anju, 2011).
A literature review found 24 human studies that saw benefit for chronic conditions (psychological stress, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome) with Tulsi intervention and no significant adverse effects were reported (Jamshidi & Cohen, 2017).
By reducing stress, tulsi can improve sleep quality even though on the other hand Tulsi's lack of caffeine, coupled with its ability to increase endurance, improves energy levels and restores health after long-term illness, making this tea a great option for anyone dealing with chronic fatigue.
➤ Tulsi’s Health Impact on Anxiety
In regard to the psychotherapeutic effects, tulsi has been found to have anti-anxiety and anti-depressant properties, making it interesting as a herbal tea for anxiety.
In a small human study, tulsi intervention significantly improved generalised anxiety disorders (GAD) and their related stress and depression. It also improved attention and it “improved willingness to adjustment”, leading the authors to conclude it may be a promising anxiolytic treatment for GAD (Bhattacharyya, et al., 2008). Like with everything, more research is needed.
Tulsi’s Health Impact on Diabetes
Tulsi has shown anti-diabetic properties in clinical trials by stimulating insulin secretion
In a study with diabetic rats, the diabetes prevented insulin secretion from beta cells and prevented antioxidant enzyme action. Intervention with the aqueous extract of Tulsi reduced the complications from oxidative stress and increased insulin activity. It also reduced serum glucose levels and total cholesterol (Jayant & Srivastava, 2016).
In another rat study, Tulsi demonstrated anti-diabetic effects by modulating the action of the cellular antioxidant defence system, increasing glutathione and antioxidant enzyme levels, and increased glucose uptake into the cells (Sethi, et al., 2004).
A 2012 study that had human participants with type 2 diabetes, participants were observed for 90 days in two intervention groups. One group received the medication Glibenclamide and the other group received the same medication in addition to Tulsi. The group receiving complementary care with Holy Basil did not experience any hypoglycemic episodes.
Compared to the Glibenclamide group, the tulsi group saw decreased fasting blood glucose levels, and postprandial blood glucose levels. Additionally, their glycosylated haemoglobin levels decreased more than in the group taking only Glibenclamide. The authors conclude from the results that Tulsi can be used as an adjuvant, or “complementary intervention” in patients with Type 2 Diabetes (Somasundaram, et al., 2012).
Is Tulsi Holy Basil Safe During Pregnancy?
Following on from that caveat, more research still needs to be done on the safety of tulsi holy basil during pregnancy also. The limited studies that we do have suggest mixed results, with some showing that tulsi has benefits during pregnancy, and some showing that tulsi produces possible negative side effects.
Traditionally, tulsi has been used for its antifertility effects (in both males and females), and one study demonstrated this action in rat studies, however the extraction process of the herb used in the study is not one that can be conducted by laypersons (petroleum ether and benzene extractions!!). The leaves also have abortifacient effects (dose-dependent), which means this is not recommended to take in therapeutic amounts during pregnancy or when trying to conceive (Prakash & Gupta, 2005).
Due to this incomplete information, it is NOT recommended for you to consume tulsi if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.
A much better tea option for pregnancy is honeybush tea. For the full story about why that is, check out my post about honeybush and rooibos tea during pregnancy.
Spiritual Aspects of Tulsi Holy Basil
Ayurveda sees tulsi as a holistic herb, meaning that its properties go beyond the physical. It is considered a healthy tonic both emotionally and spiritually. Ceremonially, it has been used in different traditions as a connection between the mind, body, and spirit.
Additionally, in the Hindu faith, tulsi is believed to ward off negativity. As such, it is planted in ceramic pots called "Tulsi Vrindavan" that are placed outside every home (see photo above that our founder Vientiene took in India visiting a distant cousin’s home).
The leaves are also used in religious practices worshipping Krishna, Vishnu and Vithoba. It is such a sacred plant that a married Hindu woman will wear a gold chain with a golden tulsi leaf on it to signify she is married (along the lines of wedding rings in the West) - at least in the Founder’s experience living in Kerala, India for a year!
How to Brew Tulsi Holy Basil Tea
The only rule when steeping tulsi is: don't burn it. Apart from that, the time and quantity of tea are quite flexible!
Start with 1-2 tsp of the loose leaf (heaped) for one mug of tea (like a cup of water), which would mean 4x that for a 1 litre pot (4+ heaped teaspoons for a quart teapot in US speak). Boil the water, then let it sit for a minute to cool down a little.
Avoid using water that's hotter than 200F (93C). Because boiled water initially cools down very fast, just leaving it for a couple of minutes will do the trick. You can also pour it into another vessel before pouring it over your rinsed leaves, as this reduces the temperature also.
Steep the tea for around 5 minutes. If you want a stronger flavor, add another teaspoon of leaves and steep for 5-8 minutes (better to increase the amount of tea rather than the brewing time if you're after the maximum amount of antioxidants).
To get the full antioxidant hit, ensure that your tea steeps for a minimum of 5 minutes.
For more information on brewing teas and tisanes, check out our "Ultimate Guide to Brewing Tea and Tisanes" blog post here.
More Fun Health Facts About Tulsi
What other evidence is there about this incredible herb Tulsi Holy Basil?
- It helps reduce the physiological response to stress (stress is an underlying principle in disease)
- It helps protect your heart (cardioprotective)
- It has wound-healing properties
- Tulsi helps prevent oxidative damage, its ORAC (antioxidant) level is ~1.8x that of matcha tea
- It has shown protective action and increased recovery time in rats exposed to gamma radiation
- Its leaves help reduce “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and increase “good” (HDL) cholesterol
- Tulsi even has beauty applications, and can add luster to your complexion
- It can help prevent weight gain - In a promising study with obese mice fed a high fat diet, the antioxidant activity of tulsi demonstrated exceptional benefits. Improvements were observed in blood glucose levels, eating habits, adipose tissue weight, organ weight and body weight. More specifically, waist circumference, fat mass, and body weight all majorly decreased, toting holy basil as a potential anti-obesity intervention (Mohanty & Pattnaik, 2021)!
Give it a try!
Here are our two tulsi teas, plus MA's moringa, which is also a really tasty adaptogen (you can learn more about moringa in my post on it here).
Remember too that we're a carbon positive teashop with free US shipping!
Body positivity! Climate positivity!
A Note From The Herbalist...
Adaptogenic herbs are some of my favorite herbs! I love the fact that I can make a blend of stimulating adaptogens and drink those in the morning in place of caffeine.
While caffeine-containing teas are not bad by any degree, caffeine acts as an unregulated stimulant, which will actually deplete and weaken your nervous system over time and ultimately make you more susceptible to stress.
Adaptogens do the opposite! They support the nervous system and provide nutrients to help it thrive, they stimulate in a modulatory fashion, and are protective against non-specific forms of stress.
If you haven't heard of adaptogens before now (meaning you skimmed this blog post!), don't fear: here's the link again to my two-part series on adaptogens where you can learn all about this class of plants (including ginseng and moringa as well).
So, if you are feeling run down or depleted, I’d recommend skipping the midday caffeine in favor of an adaptogen like tulsi tea instead. :-)
And of course... All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. The information here is for educational use only.
NOTE: Tulsi is not recommended for pregnant or nursing women. For mamas or mamas-to-be, reach for honeybush instead.
Tulsi Holy Basil References and Further Reading
Pattanayak P, Behera P, Das D, Panda SK. Ocimum sanctum Linn. A reservoir plant for therapeutic applications: An overview. Pharmacogn Rev. 2010;4(7):95–105. doi:10.4103/0973-7847.65323. Accessed September 17, 2019.
New references, updated edition
Prakash, P., & Gupta, N. (2005). Therapeutic uses of Ocimum sanctum Linn (Tulsi) with a note on eugenol and its pharmacological actions: a short review. Indian journal of physiology and pharmacology, 49(2), 125–131. Retrieved June 8, 2022 from https://ijpp.com/IJPP%20archives/2005_49_2/125-131.pdf
Magalhães, C. B., Riva, D. R., DePaula, L. J., Brando-Lima, A., Koatz, V. L. G., Leal-Cardoso, J. H., Zin, W. A., & Faffe, D. S. (2010). In vivo anti-inflammatory action of eugenol on lipopolysaccharide-induced lung injury. In Journal of Applied Physiology (Vol. 108, Issue 4, pp. 845–851). American Physiological Society. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00560.2009
Williamson, E. [Ed.]. (2002). Major herbs of Ayurveda. Edinburgh, UK: Churchill Livingstone.
Eftekhar, N., Moghimi, A., Mohammadian Roshan, N., Saadat, S., & Boskabady, M. H. (2019). Immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory effects of hydro-ethanolic extract of Ocimum basilicum leaves and its effect on lung pathological changes in an ovalbumin-induced rat model of asthma. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 19(1), 349. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12906-019-2765-4
Chattopadhyay, Subhasis & Cone, Robert. (2007). Role of Ashwangandha (Withania Somnifera) in Immune Modulation: Proposed Influence in Immune-Regulation. SoM Articles. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/41660639_Role_of_Ashwangandha_Withania_Somnifera_in_Immune_Modulation_Proposed_Influence_in_Immune-Regulation
Mariotti A. (2015). The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future science OA, 1(3), FSO23. https://doi.org/10.4155/fso.15.21
Gupta, S. K., Prakash, J., & Srivastava, S. (2002). Validation of traditional claim of Tulsi, Ocimum sanctum Linn. as a medicinal plant. Indian journal of experimental biology, 40(7), 765–773. Retrieved June 8, 2022 from http://nopr.niscair.res.in/bitstream/123456789/17367/1/IJEB%2040(7)%20765-773.pdf
Jamshidi, N., & Cohen, M. M. (2017). The Clinical Efficacy and Safety of Tulsi in Humans: A Systematic Review of the Literature. In Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (Vol. 2017, pp. 1–13). Hindawi Limited. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/9217567
Anju. (2011). Adaptogenic and anti-stress activity of Ocimum sanctum in mice. Research Journal Of Pharmaceutical, Biological And Chemical Sciences, 2(3), 670-678. Retrieved 8 June 2022, from https://www.rjpbcs.com/pdf/2011_2(3)/81.pdf.
Bhattacharyya, D., Sur, T. K., Jana, U., & Debnath, P. K. (2008). Controlled programmed trial of Ocimum sanctum leaf on generalized anxiety disorders. Nepal Medical College journal : NMCJ, 10(3), 176–179. Retrieved June 8, 2022 from https://www.nmcth.edu/images/gallery/Editorial/SA2o5d_bhattacharya.pdf
Kumar Jayant, S., & Srivastava, N. (2016). Effect of Ocimum sanctum against alloxan induced diabetes and biochemical alterations in rats. In Integrative Obesity and Diabetes (Vol. 2, Issue 5). Open Access Text Pvt, Ltd. https://doi.org/10.15761/iod.1000162
Sethi, J., Sood, S., Seth, S., & Talwar, A. (2004). Evaluation of hypoglycemic and antioxidant effect ofOcimum sanctum. Indian journal of clinical biochemistry : IJCB, 19(2), 152–155. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02894276 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3454204/pdf/12291_2008_Article_BF02894276.pdf
Somasundaram, G., Manimekalai, K., Salwe, K., & Pandiamunian, J. (2012). evaluation of the antidiabetic effect of ocimum sanctum in type 2 diabetic patients pubmed. International Journal Of Life Science And Pharma Research, 2(3), 75-81. Retrieved 8 June 2022, from https://ijlpr.com/admin/php/uploads/95_pdf.pdf.
Mohanty, S., & Pattnaik, A. (2021). Scientific Evaluation of Anti-obesity Potential of Methanolic Leaves extract of Ocimum sanctum (Linn.) in Monosodium Glutamate - High Fat Diet Induced Obese Mice. In Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (Vol. 55, Issue 2s, pp. s535–s543). EManuscript Technologies. https://doi.org/10.5530/ijper.55.2s.125