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What Is Holy Basil?

In Thai cuisine, holy basil is often paired with garlic.
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  • Written By: S. N. Smith
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 31 March 2014
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Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), called Tulasi or Tulsi (“incomparable one”) in Sanskrit, is a culinary herb with an ancient tradition rooted in ayurvedic medicine. A native of India, it is now cultivated all over the world. It produces a pleasant fragrance that is said to discourage mosquitoes and for this reason, this variety of basil is used by many gardeners as a patio plant.

In warm, tropical climates, it grows as a perennial, but in Europe and North America, the plant is considered a half-hardy annual. The plant appreciates full sun but will tolerate filtered light and partial shade. Like other basils, it requires well-drained soil and should be planted in the late spring to early summer when day- and night-time temperatures are not likely to dip below 50°F (10°C). Holy basil does well as a container plant and makes a lovely and unusual addition to the home herb or ornamental garden.

There are two varieties of holy basil: the milder white, or pale green, and the more assertively flavored red. The leaves and stems of the red plant have a reddish-purple cast. The leaves of both varieties are smaller than those of Mediterranean sweet basil and have serrated rather than smooth edges. The stems and leaves are lightly covered with little hairs.

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Holy basil is sometimes referred to as “hot basil” or “pepper basil” because, unlike sweet or Thai basil, which have a flavor more reminiscent of licorice, this variety is spicy and more like cloves. Its flavor intensifies as it cooks, so most people prefer to eat it cooked rather than raw. In Thai cuisine, the herb is often matched with garlic, hot chilies, and fish sauce to flavor stir fries. It is not interchangeable with Western, or sweet, basil in most recipes that call for the latter.

Above and beyond its culinary uses, holy basil is considered one of the most sacred and important herbs in the Hindu and ayurvedic traditions. Also known as Tulasi, it is referred to in the Charaka Samhita, a fundamental text of ayurvedic medicine. It is valued for antibacterial, antifungal, and inti-inflammatory properties.

Holy basil is considered to be an adaptogenic herb, which means it is thought to help the body adapt to various forms of both physical and mental stress. There is some evidence that the plant is effective in lowering blood sugar, so scientific studies are examining its potential as an aid in treating diabetes.

This form of basil is traditionally made into remedies for headaches, heart disease, colds, asthma and bronchitis, gastrointestinal disorders, and inflammatory illnesses. It is also used to combat certain forms of poisoning as well as malaria and dengue fever. Medicinal compounds use the leaves and essential oil in several forms, including tea, powder, and fresh leaves.

Holy basil is regarded as purifying to both the mind and body, and it is considered an essential part of religious households in the Hindu tradition. Because this herb is considered to be not merely a medicinal or culinary herb but also a sacred herb, its care and maintenance is carefully attended to.

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Discuss this Article

anon261073
Post 12

I am a full time mother of four children and I also work full time, My anxiety level was so that I did not think that I could take much more, when a friend at work recommended holy basil.

After work, I went straight to the store to purchase it and immediately took it. I must say that it started working sooner than I expected. That night was the one of the most pleasant mean times I could remember.

anon156105
Post 11

I have three "special needs" children and my stress levels have gotten so bad that I am constantly shaking and I can barely hold down two or three bites of food at a time without getting sick. I can't get into the counseling center for another three weeks, but I feel like I physically can't hold out that long.

When I went to World of Nutrition, they recommended the Holy Basil Trinity blend. I just took 2 tablets about 45 minutes ago and wow. For the first time in 3 weeks, I have stopped shaking! I don't feel drugged or loopy, but definitely calmer. I had to chase it down with a few Tums, but my stomach is a mess anyway so I don't think I can blame that on the pills.

The ladies at the store recommended two in the morning with a few bites of breakfast and two at bed with dinner. But, if I start shaking again during the day, they said it was safe to add in a few here and there with a few bites of food.

Granted, this is not licensed medical advice, and I am dealing with a pretty severe case of anxiety and am using Holy Basil only until I can get help from a licensed physician. But I can tell you that it works!

anon143987
Post 10

Does Holy Basil impact a woman's menstruation? I started taking it several days before my period and noticed my bleeding is heavier than usual. I couldn't find much information on holy basil and menstruation, other than the herb has a blood-thinning effect, which may explain this.

Other than that, it is day 5 of taking Holy Basil and I do feel calmer than my anxiety and panic attack ridden self. I still feel stress and anxiety but it feels like the herb is working on my side to combat the mental forces that trigger me into fight or flight mode.

I've never taken prescription medication for my anxiety disorder, so I am unable to compare. I have taken Kava Kava and Ashwagandha and found they have less noticeable effects than Holy Basil.

anon131564
Post 9

Holy Basil doesn't give a buzz but seems to help with stress. I would imagine it would help with some anxiety but wouldn't do the same thing as Zoloft, however, as I believe Zoloft is an SSRI.

anon55514
Post 7

I just tried this stuff today, and it works wonders. I work out and eat well but am still stressed from owning two companies. This leaves me feeling refreshed and takes off the edge.

It was remarkable to me how quick it works. I agree with other comments made about taking the edge off and things not bothering you after you take it. Yeah!

anon41063
Post 6

To answer everyone's question so far:

Holy Basil does help you relieve stress and a bunch of other medical conditions (preferably have fresh Holy Basil leaves, rather than capsules that do contain certain other types of substances.)

Holy Basil does not give any kind of buzz. Unless you have a huge quantity of its concentrate, it is just like a spice.

Holy Basil is not intended to supplement any prescription drug, it would just help you overcome stress in a gradual process. Please take a few leaves of Holy Basil everyday along with your prescription drug, and then slowly reduce on the dosage of your prescription (if you were taking 2 capsules everyday, have 1 and then 1 every other day, and slowly stop it, just making sure you are having a nice transition.) Holy Basil helps you get rid of the condition, and so after a few years of Holy Basil, quit it in a slow fashion.

anon38111
Post 5

Can Holy Basil be taken if you take a perscription medication for depression such as Lexipro or Zoloft?

anon35714
Post 4

i heard holy basil gives you a buzz! is this true? what does give you a nice buzz that is legal?

anon34607
Post 3

I have recently started using Holy Basil extract gel caps and have found them to be very helpful in making my stressful day more tolerable. Things that used to get on my nerves no longer are annoying. There is no noticeable extreme change with this supplement; it just takes the edge off in a very quiet way. Not like a prescription drug at all and no side effects other than feeling more peaceful.

Lucy1
Post 2

I was also told by a GNC employee about the product. I bought it during a particularly stressful period at school and work. It definitely helped calm me down. It is not as potent as valerian, which also works well, so it doesn't interfere with your day. It just made a noticeable difference in the edginess I was feeling.

anon27761
Post 1

I was told by a clerk at GNC that holy basil has worked for a lot of his clients with relieving mild anxiety and stress. Has this been anyone else's experience?

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