Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is a member of the mint, or Labiatae, family. Though it is closely related to sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) frequently used in cooking, holy basil has a much richer history. The plant, which is native to tropical Asia, is now found in most tropical parts of the world. It has only recently gained popularity in the United States, although it has been grown in India for more than 3000 years.
Also known as "Tulsi" or "The Incomparable One," holy basil is one of the most sacred plants in India. In Hindu mythology, Tulsi symbolizes the goddess Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, who is one of the religion's most important deities. The herb has been valued for centuries because of its benefits for the mind, body and spirit.
But while its history is deeply rooted in religion and mythology, it has also been used in several ancient systems of medicine, including Ayurveda, Greek, Roman and Siddha traditions for thousands of years.
King of the Stress Busters
Holy basil is a powerful antioxidant with demonstrated antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties. In Ayurvedic medicine, holy basil has been used to treat a variety of conditions - everything from the common cold to bronchitis to fever to certain digestive complaints, including ulcers. Although many of these treatments are still unproven by conventional testing, modern science is now taking a closer look at this fascinating herb.
In the past decade, a number of scientific studies have focused on the effects of holy basil. Some investigations have shown great promise - suggesting holy basil may indeed prove effective in those customary uses. But science has even looked beyond the traditional scope, studying the herb for its therapeutic potential in cancer, specifically as an adjuvant to radiation therapy, and even for its stabilizing effects in diabetes.
The most compelling data, however, suggests that holy basil possesses its greatest potential in the areas of stress relief and relaxation. And in the fast-paced world in which we live, these findings may prove to be extremely significant.
Stress is a natural part of everyday life. Stress occurs when the demands placed upon us exceed our body's ability to cope. The body's response to stress, often referred to as the "flight-or-fight" response, occurs automatically at these times. The adrenal glands release stress hormones, including cortisol, adrenaline and corticosterone, which give you a boost of energy and strength to either "fight" or "flee." This makes sense when faced with a physical threat, but this same response also helps you deal with stressful psychological or emotional demands. For example, this energy boost can enhance your focus helping you to perform optimally at work or improve mental clarity, allowing you to quickly deal with a conflict at home. So in this sense, some stress (and our body's response to it) is good for you - it helps us respond in emergencies. When the stressful situation has passed, the hormone levels naturally decline.
It's when stress becomes chronic that it can create problems. Stress hormones have other, not-so-obvious effects. They play a role in metabolism, inflammation and immune system responses. So when our body is continually stressed, that is, continually bombarded by high levels of cortisol and corticosterone, our digestive function can become impaired - leading to increased appetite and weight gain, our nervous system can be damaged - leading to anxiety or depression, and our immune system can be suppressed - leading to sickness or even autoimmune diseases.
So, while we don't want to "turn off" the stress response, we also don't want to remain in a state of continual stress. This is where holy basil comes in.
How does holy basil combat stress?
Famed botanist, Dr. James Duke has declared that holy basil is an adaptogen. Given that Dr. Duke knows more about herbs than most human beings, I'm going to readily side with his position. As an adaptogen, holy basil enhances the body's natural protective response to physical and emotional stress. Adaptogenic herbs do not alter mood, but rather, they help the body function optimally during times of stress.
Multiple scientific studies examining this property of holy basil have found that supplementation with various extracts of holy basil decreases stress hormone levels, corticosterone in particular. Lower levels of corticosterone are associated with improved mental clarity and memory, and long-term, can reduce the risk of age-related mental disorders.
Compounds in holy basil
Holy basil leaves are a natural source of many important compounds that provide a wide variety of health benefits. Eugenol and caryophyllene are aromatic compounds, so named because of their pleasing fragrance or "aroma." These compounds are present in many plants, including holy basil, and have long been used in essential oils because their fragrant scent is said to elevate both mood and spirit. Scientific studies have shown that eugenol, in particular, helps to combat stress and enhance mental clarity. Research has also shown that the triterpenoic acids isolated from holy basil effectively improve the body's response to stress.
What studies support holy basil's stress-alleviating effects?
There are several studies which examine the anti-stress effects of different components of holy basil. An herbal preparation, which combined a standardized holy basil extract along with three other Ayurvedic herbs, has been shown to improve the body's ability to adapt to stress. The subjects were continually subjected to stress leading to elevated levels of stress hormones. Administration of the combination of herbs brought the hormone levels back to normal. Further testing revealed the combination also exhibited preventative effects against stress. When taken on an on-going basis, the combination reduced the level to which the hormones were raised following exposure to stressful situations.
When isolated and examined individually, holy basil significantly contributed to these effects. Several studies have shown that certain alcohol extractions of holy basil combat the effects of stress. Supplementation dramatically reduced the corticosterone level, helping the body cope with stress, elevating mood and improving mental clarity. Eugenol has been shown to possess similar effects. These key components of holy basil help the body respond to both physical and mental stressors, reducing the damaging effects that ongoing stress can have on other aspects of health.
Holy basil supplements
Because multiple constituents of holy basil have been shown to combat stress, an effective supplement must provide each of these key active components at therapeutic dosages. In particular, the supplement should be standardized for eugenol, caryophyllene and triterpenoic acids. The best holy basil supplements are in soft-gel capsules. Take as directed and always check with your doctor before starting with vitamins or supplements.
Stress is linked to many aspects of both physical and mental health. Over time, stress can negatively affect the health of the digestive, immune and nervous systems. While the underlying causes of stress must be examined before one can truly heal oneself, dietary supplements can aid in the process. Holy basil, in particular, is an effective way to both prevent and combat the damaging effects of everyday stressors.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at www.MedicineHunter.com