Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), also called tulsi, has been used in India for over 3,000 years, and is rapidly increasing in popularity in America. Hindus grow the holy basil plant in a prominent place in their courtyard or home, and consider the herb to be sacred to the god Vishnu. During morning and evening prayers, holy basil, which is reputed to have cleansing energy, is used to bring health and spiritual purity to the one in prayer and his or her family.
When I lived in Maryland, I frequented an Indian grocery store where the owner grew a holy basil plant in his store for spiritual purposes. Being one who’s interested in people’s relationship to plants, I asked the owner about his plant. He told me it was for health and good luck.
Though some Americans carry on the Hindu spiritual tradition with holy basil, the herb’s medicinal popularity is mostly due to its qualities as an adaptogenic herb. Adaptogens are a special class of herbs which, in addition to dietary and lifestyle practices, have the ability to help people cope with stress physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. The individual herbs within the adaptogen class are not one-size-fits-all. Each herb has qualities suitable to certain individuals’ physical, emotional, mental and spiritual responses to stressors.
As an adaptogen, holy basil is being used internally for its antistress effects. Holy basil is used to protect neurons from the negative effects of stress, and also to reduce stress-related secretion of the hormone cortisol, which is a necessary hormone involved in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal cortex negative feedback loop, but sustained, high levels of cortisol release can cause health problems over time.
One of the responsibilities of cortisol is at the tail-end of an illness; cortisol levels will increase to signal to the immune system to “cease-fire”. During periods of stress, cortisol levels also go up. In the case of excess cortisol secretion during stressful times, the immune system is lowered, making one more susceptible to getting sick. Also, the reserves of energy we have to get us through stressful times becomes drained, or depleted, which needs to be restored in order to decelerate the aging process, and health problems associated with aging.
Holy basil has many other health-promoting uses. It contains antioxidants, and can protect against radiation. In a randomized placebo-controlled single blind clinical trial of people with non-insulin-dependent-diabetes-melitius (NIDDM), holy basil showed a hypoglycemic (blood sugar lowering) effect on fasting and postprandial (after eating) blood sugar levels, and suggests holy basil for adjunct therapy for NIDDM.
Holy basil has a wonderful, smooth flavor, and makes a really great tea, which is why it’s an ingredient in my Restorative Peace Tea formula. Though related to the culinary sweet basil and Thai basil, holy basil is less of a cooking herb–though you can cook with it, and there are recipes out there for it.
Last year I began growing holy basil from a couple of plants I bought. I saved the seeds over the winter, and sowed them this spring. Now I have 30 or 40 holy basil plants. It’s that easy. Hindus plant the the seeds in blessed soil, and water it with sacred water. I confess that I didn’t go through any added ritualistic measures with my holy basil plants, but I love them, and I think they know that. I sprinkle them with Espoma Plant-Tone fertilizer for organic gardening. They really respond to it.
A species of holy basil (Ocimum gratissium) is considered very invasive in some places, such as Hawaii, so be careful with which variety you get.