Holy Basil: Understanding the Adaptogen

Holy basil, also known as tulsi, is among the most revered herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. With over 3000 years of history, this plant has a range of possible health benefits. We take a look at its most common uses and the current research on the subject.

What Is Holy Basil?

Holy basil is a small shrub that is native to India and is one of the best-known remedies in Ayurvedic medicine. It is a member of the Lamiaceae family alongside many familiar herbs, including mint, oregano, sage, and more.

It is useful both as a medicinal and a culinary herb. Hindus also regard the plant as sacred, with many families growing it at home and worshipping it like a goddess.


In Hindi, the herb is called tulsi and, in Sanskrit, it is called tulasi. It also has several nicknames that indicate just how important it is to Hindu culture. They include “Queen of Herbs” and “The Incomparable One.” In Ayurveda, it is known as an “Elixir of Life” that can alleviate a broad range of diseases.

There are three different varieties of holy basil. Ocimum sanctum (also known as O. tenuiflorum) has two distinct phenotypes; Rama, or shri tulsi, has green leaves, and Krishna, or shyama tulsi, has purple leaves. Meanwhile, O. gratissimum is known as vana or wild tulsi and has dark green leaves.

All three types have similar uses and are rich in bioactive compounds, primarily eugenol. Eugenol is a terpene, and experts believe that it is responsible for many of holy basil’s benefits. However, the plant also contains various other active components, including:

  • Ursolic acid
  • Beta-caryophyllene
  • 1,8-cineole
  • Linalool
  • Vitamins A and C
  • Calcium
  • Zinc
  • Iron
  • Phosphorus
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Holy Basil Benefits

According to a 2017 review, the health benefits of holy basil are numerous. Some of the most notable examples include:

  • Adaptogenic
  • Antimicrobial
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antioxidant
  • Immunomodulating
  • Cardioprotective

Many researchers have focused on the herb’s potential benefits for lifestyle-related diseases, including diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Research has shown that it could help to improve blood glucose levels, blood pressure, and lipid profiles.

Tulsi could protect against the harmful effects of physical, psychological, chemical, and metabolic stress.

Another key area of interest is holy basil’s adaptogenic properties. Adaptogens are plants that help the body remain in a healthy state of balance under stressful conditions. A 2014 review found that tulsi could protect against the harmful effects of physical, psychological, chemical, and metabolic stress.

Therefore, some of the best-known benefits of holy basil include reducing stress and anxiety. Some people also recommend it to improve sleep, although there is less research to support this use.

Holy Basil for Anxiety

Early experiments on mice suggested that holy basil has anti-anxiety and antidepressant properties. There are also some human studies to support these findings.

A 2008 study included 35 participants with generalized anxiety disorder. They took 500mg of holy basil twice daily for 60 days. The results indicated that they experienced reductions in anxiety symptoms and associated depression and stress.

A 2011 trial investigated holy basil’s effects on 150 subjects with at least three symptoms of stress. They took either 1200mg of holy basil (in divided doses) or a placebo daily for six weeks.

At the end of the study, those who took the active treatment reported significant improvements in several areas. They included reductions in forgetfulness, sexual problems, sleep disturbances, and exhaustion.

There is currently no standard holy basil dosage for anxiety. However, as the above research demonstrated, doses of 1000–1200mg daily may be appropriate. In both human studies, the total dosage was divided into two; either 500mg twice daily, or 400mg in the morning and 800mg in the evening. In both cases, participants took the capsules after food.

Holy Basil for Sleep

There is less research into holy basil and sleep. However, it may provide some indirect benefits by relieving anxiety and stress.

A 2020 study on rats with induced stress and sleep disorders had some interesting results. The researchers found that in the sleep-disturbed animals, holy basil extract regulated several different sleep-related factors. They included cortisol, norepinephrine, glucose, and ghrelin levels.

More research is needed to determine how holy basil affects sleep in humans.

Cortisol and norepinephrine both act as stress hormones and can interfere with healthy sleep-wake cycles. Meanwhile, glucose and ghrelin are involved in energy production and appetite, respectively. Poor sleep can dysregulate glucose and ghrelin levels, increasing the risk of metabolic disorders.

However, although these results are promising, more research is needed to determine how holy basil affects sleep in humans. The lack of evidence also means that the optimal holy basil dosage for sleep remains unknown.

Holy Basil Dosage

There is no standard tulsi dosage, and how much an individual needs to take will depend upon numerous factors.

Age, body weight, and general health are all likely to play a role. Furthermore, those hoping to alleviate symptoms may require a higher dosage than those simply wishing to improve their wellbeing.

Anyone considering taking holy basil, or any supplement, should consult a healthcare provider for further advice.

Holy Basil Supplement Options

There are several different products available, including capsules, tablets, and teas.

Holy basil capsules are the most common option and provide a convenient consumption method with accurate dosing. Holy basil tablets offer similar advantages but are more difficult to find.


Teas are the most traditional way of taking holy basil. However, they generally provide a lower dosage than the other methods. Moreover, there may be some variance in the concentration of active compounds from one serving to the next.

Regardless of the supplement type, consumers should look for organic products that come with lab reports to confirm their purity. Untested supplements could contain contaminants such as chemical pesticides and other toxins. They may also contain insufficient amounts of active ingredients.

Holy Basil Side Effects

Most research suggests that there is a low risk of holy basil causing side effects

However, during a 2017 study on overweight and obese participants, there were reports of occasional nausea. In this case, the participants took the supplement before food. This contrasts with the anxiety studies above, during which the participants took holy basil after food and did not report any side effects.

High doses could also adversely affect male fertility, including sperm count, motility, and forward velocity. Researchers observed these effects in rats after administering 250mg/kg of holy basil extract for 48 days. However, the effects were reversible within two weeks of withdrawing the treatment.

It is unclear whether the herb poses any dangers to pregnant or breastfeeding women or those taking other medication. Therefore, these groups of people should avoid using holy basil unless a physician advises otherwise.

Final Thoughts on Holy Basil

Holy basil, or tulsi, is a renowned herb in Ayurvedic medicine. It is promoted as a natural remedy to promote general wellbeing and prevent lifestyle-related disease.

According to modern research, some of the most notable benefits of holy basil include reducing anxiety and regulating metabolic factors. It also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial effects.

It is generally considered safe, although side effects are possible in some cases. Therefore, it is best to take holy basil under the supervision of a knowledgeable healthcare professional.

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