Health Benefits of Basil

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on July 03, 2023
5 min read

Originally native to India, Asia, and Africa, basil was held to be a sacred and noble herb. In fact, the word “basil” comes from the ancient Greek “basilikhon” which means “royal."

Today, Ocimum basilicum (the scientific name for basil) grows in many places around the world. Many people even grow basil in their kitchens or gardens. This fragrant herb is used as a seasoning in a variety of dishes, and plays a key role in Italian and Thai cuisine.  

There are more than 60 varieties of basil, with sweet basil being one of the most widely used. The herb has rounded leaves that are often pointed. It’s a bright green plant, although some varieties have hints of purple or red in their leaves. 

Sweet basil has a very strong smell and a recognizable flavor. Different varieties of basil offer slightly different flavors. For instance, lemon basil has a tangy lemon taste, while mint basil has a refreshing minty taste.  

Basil makes a colorful and flavorful addition to many dishes. It can also provide some serious health benefits. 

Holy basil, also known as tulsi, is an herb originally grown in the tropical climates of India and nearby countries. The scientific name is Ocimum sanctum or Ocimum tenuiflorum L. 

In addition to being an herbal supplement, the holy basil tulsi plant is an important part of Hindu culture. Those in the largest Hindu sect, Vaishnavism, use tulsi for worship, prayer, and other spiritual rituals.

In India, tulsi is an important antioxidant in holistic medicine. This form of traditional medicine is called ayurveda, which considers health problems to be imbalances within a person’s mind, body, and spirit.

Basil contains many vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants such as lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin. Many of its health benefits come from these antioxidants, as well as its essential oils. These compounds mostly disappear during the drying process, so opt for fresh basil when possible to gain the most benefits.

Health benefits of basil include:

Reduction of oxidative stress. Basil is full of antioxidants. Sweet basil contains a compound called eugenol, and lime and lemon basils have limonene. These antioxidants, along with others such as anthocyanins and beta-carotene, help to fight free radicals in the body that can otherwise lead to cell damage and increase your risk for a variety of health conditions, including cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes.

Blood sugar regulation. Some studies suggest that adding basil to your diet may help reduce high blood sugar levels and help lessen long-term effects of high blood sugar.

Heart disease prevention. The eugenol in basil can block calcium channels, which may help to lower blood pressure. Its essential oils can help lower your cholesterol and triglycerides. Basil also contains magnesium, which can help improve your blood flow by allowing your muscles and blood vessels to relax. 

Reduced inflammation. Essential oils in basil, including eugenol, linalool, and citronellol, help fight inflammation in your body. These anti-inflammatory properties help lower your risk of inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. heart disease, and bowel issues.  

Protection against infections. Basil has antibacterial properties. Its oils may help fight bacteria if you have respiratory, urinary, abdominal, or skin infections.   

In addition to the health benefits of other basil varieties, holy basil also provides some specific benefits. These include: 

Improves asthma symptoms. Early studies show that holy basil may reduce your airway swelling if you have asthma. But one of these studies relied on animals. And two clinical trials, which found swollen airway improvement in those taking holy basil, didn’t include a comparison group not taking holy basil. 

While helping with breathing and reducing irritation of airways is a common use of holy basil, more research is needed to confirm its benefits.

Improves immune system function. A traditional ayurveda belief is that holy basil improves overall immunity when taken on an empty stomach. Researchers verified this idea in a small study. The results showed improved immune system benchmarks, including an increase in the levels of T cells, which are blood cells that fight infections.

May reduce damage from some types of stress. Holy basil is an adaptogen, a substance that guards against physical and mental stress . Studies suggest it can protect you from the effects of:

  • Certain industrial chemicals
  • Heavy metals
  • Physical strain
  • Extremely cold temperatures
  • Poor diet
  • Low physical activity
  • Depression

More research is needed to verify these results.

Cancer prevention. Holy basil's phytochemicals can help protect against different types of cancer, including lung cancer, liver cancer, oral cancer, and skin cancer.

Improved mental health. Research shows that holy basil can improve your mental health. It has compounds that help ease anxiety and depression, increase your ability to think clearly, and lower the risk for age-related memory loss.

In 2 tablespoons (5 grams) of fresh chopped basil, you’ll find:

  • Calories: 1 
  • Protein: 0.2 grams
  • Fat: 0 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 0.1 grams
  • Fiber: 0.1 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams

Basil also has many vital nutrients. These include:

  • Calcium
  • Vitamin A 
  • Vitamin K
  • Manganese
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Potassium

Holy basil comes in many forms, including:

  • Teas
  • Capsules
  • Tinctures
  • Extracts
  • Powders

There's no official dosage information for holy basil. It’s important to remember that natural supplements aren’t well-regulated, so pay close attention to the label. Ask your doctor about dosage information and read the instructions before taking a supplement.

You can purchase fresh basil in the produce section at most grocery stores. If you need dried basil, you’ll likely find it with other dried herbs and spices. When buying fresh basil, look for vibrant, deep green leaves. Store it in the refrigerator wrapped in a slightly damp cloth or paper towel. 

There are many ways to enjoy basil. If you’re looking to use it in your diet, consider some of the following:

  • Layer basil with fresh mozzarella cheese and tomato slices, add some fresh cracked black pepper, and drizzle with olive oil.
  • Use it to finish a freshly cooked pizza or pasta dish (whole or chopped).
  • Blend it into homemade soups or sauces.
  • Add it to homemade pesto or hummus.
  • Place it with vegetables in a lasagna.
  • Mix it into a salad, such as a grilled corn salad or watermelon salad.
  • Garnish vanilla ice cream with a couple of small basil leaves.

Keep in mind that when you’re cooking with basil, it’s best to add the leaves toward the end of the process. The oils are volatile, so adding the herb at the end allows it to keep more of its delicious flavor.

Preliminary studies show that taking holy basil regularly is safe. However, ask your doctor before adding tulsi to your routine, because more research is needed to determine its potential side effects.