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What is Holy Basil or Tulsi? Herbal Medicine in the Spotlight

holy basil benefits

One of my goals for the 2024 calendar year is to improve my knowledge of herbal medicine. I thought what better way to do that than make it a new blog series. For the last few years, we have had an ongoing blog series entitled “Superfood in the Spotlight.” As the name would suggest, each blog takes a specific food and highlights the origin, history, and science behind it. We include a few meal ideas and recipes.

Now, I want to do the same with herbs. While many herbs are also used for culinary purposes, this series will focus more on using herbs therapeutically in the form of tinctures, capsules, and my favorite teas (aka infusions).

Herbal medicine is an important tool in our practice. Holistic nutritionists will often recommend herbal supplements to help clients address various issues from stress to digestive complaints to joint pain.  However, herbal medicine is about more than just taking an herb to treat a symptom.  Herbs work best when used holistically.

Holistic means “whole” therefore holistic herbalism means considering the whole person and the whole herb. Taking an herb by itself is not necessarily a holistic approach. If you were to drink copious amounts of caffeine and then finish it off with a cup of chamomile tea, you probably will not feel very relaxed despite chamomile’s calming properties. Herbs are most effective when taken in conjunction with good diet and lifestyle habits. It’s not just about viewing the whole person, but also the whole plant all the way down to the roots.

A part of viewing a plant from a holistic point of view means understanding it based upon different traditions of medicine. Particularly if that tradition of medicine comes from the same geographical region as the plant. A modern view of herbal medicine considers the various constituents of a plant and its actions upon our physiology. While it is important to understand herbs in this way, it doesn’t always give us the whole picture. Long before we were able to synthesize these specific chemical constituents of plants, we studied plants based on their appearance, their taste, and other properties.

Many traditional forms of medicine classified plants based on elements. I don’t mean elements found on the periodic table but rather the basic five elements of fire, water, air, earth, and ether (space.) While these elements vary based on the tradition, the common theme is that we can bring balance to the body by balancing the different elements.

Looking deeper into traditional forms of medicine, such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, can help us to understand the whole picture, as you will come to see throughout this blog and the rest of the series. For example, a simple google search of herbs for a cough will result in a long list of expectorants. However, there are different types of expectorants that will suit different types of coughs. A phlegmy, wet cough will benefit from a warm and drying expectorant to help expel the mucous, so you would take an herb that possesses the elements of fire and air.  In contrast, a warming and drying herb may actually aggravate a dry cough and therefore requires a soothing herb that possesses the elements of earth and water.

This blog series is meant primarily as an introduction to therapeutic herbs and for educational purposes only. We will cover common contraindications and safety considerations for each herb. However, you will want to speak to your general practitioner before starting a new herbal supplement, particularly if you are taking any medications. Many herbs are not safe to take while pregnant or breastfeeding.

If you are looking for herbal supplement recommendations specific to your needs, as well as other nutrition recommendations, feel free to connect with us.

What is Holy Basil?

  • Common Names: Holy Basil, Tulsi, Sacred Basil
  • Latin Name: Ocimum sanctum
  • Family: Lamiaceae
  • Parts Used: Aerial
  • Geographical Distribution: Native to the Indian subcontinent and grows throughout Southeast Asia.

Holy Basil – An Ayurvedic Perspective

As holy basil is an important herb in ayurveda, having a basic understanding of this ancient system of medicine will help us to fully appreciate holy basil’s benefits.  Ayurveda is a 5000-year-old system of traditional medicine originating from India. Ayurveda teaches us that we can bring balance to the body by balancing our constitutions or doshas. The doshas derive from the five elements: Fire, Water, Air, Earth, and Ether.

The doshas are as follows:

  • Pitta = fire + water
  • Kapha = Earth + Water
  • Vata = Air + Ether

We all have a predominant one or two dosha, or perhaps a balance of all three (tri-doshic). Our doshas make up our physiological and psychological traits.

If someone is suffering from an excess of vata, they may be feeling spacey, cold, unfocused, and anxious. An excess of kapha may cause someone to feel lethargic and have a sluggish digestive system.

Holy basil decreases vata and kapha but increases pitta. As holy basil is a warming herb, it can stimulate the mind but relax the nervous system.  Holy basil also stimulates digestive fire (known as Agni).

Holy basil is also known as a sattvic plant, which means it promotes harmony and balance in the body.

This is a good resource on Ayurveda, and you can also take a quiz to determine your dosha.

What is Ayurveda? A Complete Guide for Beginners (theayurvedaexperience.com)

Holy Basil – A Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective

Similar to Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine also looks at how to balance the body and mind in terms of balancing the different elements. Holy basil’s dominating element is fire. A person with excess dampness may benefit from Holy Basil’s warming properties. If you are feeling depressed, unfocused, and stressed this can mean both excess damp and excess wind/tension. This can also lead to overthinking or forgetting things due to stress.

Holy basil is also considered a Shen tonic. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Shen is the energetic part of ourselves that houses our spirit. Shen tonics ease stress and increase joy. Shen tonics are quite often also a nervine tonic and adaptogenic herbs.

For a full Traditional Chinese assessment, you can book an appointment at our clinic.

Holy Basil for the Nervous System

Holy basil has a strong affinity for the nervous system and is considered a nootropic herb, meaning it contains compounds that enhance cognitive function. It is also a nervine sedative, which means it has an overall calming effect on the nervous system. This differentiates from a nervine hypnotic, such as valerian, that can induce a state of sleepiness. All this to say, you can drink holy basil tea at any time of day without feeling fatigued.

Holy Basil for the Cortisol Balance

Holy basil is an adaptogen, meaning that it helps the body cope with stress. While this is in part due to its nootropic effects, but also its ability to regulate stress hormones. Studies in mice have shown that holy basil can reduce elevated levels of corticosterone (i.e. cortisol, the stress hormone).

Increased levels of cortisol can affect focus and change how we metabolize carbohydrates. Basically, when we are stressed, we will crave more sugar and carbs to cope with the stress. As cortisol is a steroid hormone, it can affect our other steroid hormones, particularly our sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone). This means high levels of cortisol may also be a factor regarding issues dealing with fertility, PMS and PCOS.

Holy Basil for Blood Sugar Balance

Holy basil has also been shown to have an affect on blood sugar regulation, both directly and indirectly. It may increase insulin sensitivity in cells, which is a common issue with type 2 diabetes. By lowering cortisol levels, holy basil indirectly lowers insulin.  Cortisol increases blood sugar and therefore insulin levels.

Holy Basil for Digestion

Holy basil has carminative properties, meaning it can help relieve gas. It is also a circulatory stimulation and is an antispasmodic. This makes holy basil an excellent remedy for digestive gas, spasms, and cramps. Its warming qualities and circulatory effects mean it can make for a nice tea after a large meal.

Holy Basil for Immunity

Holy basil has anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. Holy basil can particularly be beneficial for upper respiratory tract infections. It has relaxing diaphoretic properties; this means that it dilates capillaries and opens pores to induce sweat and break a fever.

The whole picture – The who, what, how and when

Looking at all the properties of holy basil, we can begin to put together the larger picture and see that it is so much more than just an adaptogen. We can also see how and when holy basil can be used and who will benefit from it.

Holy basil is warm and uplifting, therefore most appropriate during the colder months, especially when the lack of sun affects mood levels. Cold can also increase stress, particularly in the northern hemisphere when the cold months also mean the busy holiday season. 

Holy basil’s digestive and blood sugar balancing benefits may also make it a good option during the holiday season when there is lots of food available. So it’s ideal time of year is October to February (or to March/April if you’re in Canada like us).

In terms of time of day, it’s probably best to enjoy holy basil morning to midday as excess heat may interfere with sleep. It’s the perfect afternoon slump tea because it will improve focus for the remainder of the workday without making you anxious during the evening.

If you follow the principles of Ayurveda, which suggests your largest meal be lunch time, then enjoying some holy basil tea afterwards will aid in digestion.  A person who would most benefit from Holy basil may be feeling somewhat depressed, stressed, and lethargic, maybe they appear calm on the outside but inside their mind is racing. This is due to both excess damp and excess wind/tension or an excess of vata and kapha in the Ayurveda. In which case, holy basil’s heating and drying properties help to clear that up.

The digestive system may also be feeling just as sluggish as the mind and therefore they will benefit from the actions of holy basil upon the digestive system. Holy basil’s slight bitter flavor aids in the secretion of bile and its circulatory properties gently stimulate peristalsis (digestive fire or Agni in Ayurveda).

A stressed and tired person may also be experiencing a lot of sugar cravings and holy basil can aid with this by keeping glucose levels balanced and cortisol lowered. However, it may not be appropriate for someone with a TCM diagnosis of “excess heat”.  A person with excess heat speaks fast, is very anxious and may have difficulty slowing down. Their digestive system may also be overactive and therefore they are prone to diarrhea or loose stools. These traits are also similar to an excess of pitta in Ayurveda. A person with excess heat needs more grounding and cooling, whereas holy basil is a warming and uplifting herb.

Holy Basil Tea Recipe

Holy basil’s naturally pungent flavor makes it a yummy herbal chai masala. Adding cooling spices like fennel, anise and cardamom to a chai masala will also help to balance it out.

Recipe: Tulsi Chai Masala  


  • 2 Holy Basil Tea Bags
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 cinnamon stick
  • 1 clove
  • 4 fennel seeds
  • 2 black peppercorns
  • 3 green cardamon pods
  • 1-inch fresh ginger
  • ½ tsp turmeric (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons coconut sugar to taste.
  • 1 cup milk of choice


  1. Gently crush the spices with a mortar and pestle. A rolling pin in Ziplock bag will also work. Just enough to release the aroma
  2. Add spices and water to a small saucepan on high heat and bring it to a boil, reduce to simmer and add tea bags. Lower the heat to a medium low and simmer for two minutes. Add the milk.
  3. Bring the chai to a boil. Remove the pot from the heat until the bubbles come down. Do this once more to get the most flavour.
  4. Simmer the chai for 5-7 minutes.
  5. Strain the chai with a sieve, add sugar or sweetener of choice and serve hot.

Recipe Adapted from Authentic Indian Masala Chai (Spiced Milk Tea) – Masala and Chai


Kirsten Colella, CNP, is a Holistic Nutritionist who graduated from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition with high honours.  Living on a farm in Durham, Ontario with her family, Kirsten likes to use all the herbs growing around the farm, creating new flavour and food ideas (like her Stinging Nettle Birthday Cake, and many chai-flavoured desserts). Kirsten shares her delicious recipes, colourful food pics and health-promoting food ideas on our Instagram page @essentialbalanceholistic             


Sources quoted for the blog:    

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