Holy Basil! For stress support in uncertain times
Updated: Jul 29
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum, Ocimum tenuiflorum) is a wonderful herb to discuss at this moment in time. Seasonally because it’s currently taking over my garden, but also because it’s a supportive, tonic herb that has application during today’s troubling challenges.
What is Holy Basil?
Holy basil, like its cousin culinary basil (Ocimum sanctum), is a member of the mint family. As such, it is extremely easy to grow, but has a tendency to take over in the garden like most mints (you have been warned!). Unlike many mints, though, it’s my experience that holy basil only spreads through seeds – it does NOT send out runners in the ground to perpetuate itself. But spread by seeds it does! Every year, when the soil gets warm enough – which seems to be around mid-late May in central Maryland – the tiny seeds begin to sprout all over my garden. I never have to worry about re-seeding them each year – they do very well on their own. Photos throughout this post are from random areas of my garden in 2020.
What is Holy Basil good for?
ATH has previously written a lovely article about holy basil’s therapeutic benefits, and I recommend that you revisit it here for an overall summary of its tonic properties. Here I would like to highlight a few, particularly relevant properties that can help many of us today. Holy basil is perhaps best known as an ‘adaptogen’ (a fancy word for what I like to call a ‘stress modulator’). Over time, with regular ingestion, holy basil can even out bumps in the road by making it easier for a person to respond to stress. After a few weeks taking an adaptogenic formula containing holy basil, my clients have often reported that they are “less reactive” than they usually are when faced with a stressful situation.
On a related note, Braun and Cohen (2015) discuss several studies regarding anti-depressant/anxiolytic properties of holy basil, including a study of 35 humans that showed a reduction in anxiety, stress, and depression symptoms. Renowned herbalist, David Winston, says that holy basil is useful for what he terms ‘stagnant depression’ – a lingering depression from perhaps a traumatic event, or a rut that a person just can’t seem to get out of.
Sounds like a great herbal ally during a pandemic?
What do I do with Holy Basil?
Though a relative of the common, culinary basil (Ocimum officinalis) that most of us are familiar with, holy basil (sometimes also known as ‘tulsi’) has a distinct flavor profile. Personally, I would not swap culinary basil for holy basil, but herbalist, president of the American Herbalists’ Guild, and my friend, Bevin Clare, in her new book Spice Apothecary says: “if you find that holy basil tastes too medicinal or intense, you can always use half sweet and half holy in a dish…while [all] basils share a semi-sweet aromatic taste, some are more pungent than others, and some even have a licorice-like taste.” (p. 63) Indeed, Braun & Cohen indicate that holy basil’s pungent taste comes from its high eugenol content, eugenol being the essential oil that gives cloves its strong flavor.
Alternately, rather than cooking with holy basil, I enjoy it as a tea. It is lovely hot in an herbal blend – it pairs well with mint, lemon balm, or skullcap for a calming cup. I also enjoy going out in my garden and harvesting a generous handful of holy basil leaves and adding it to my iced tea maker with the “regular” black tea. It adds a refreshing, tingly top note to the iced tea, similar to mint but “not quite”.
Finally, if you grow fresh holy basil, pull off a leaf or two daily and eat for overall health.
Where can I get Holy Basil?
Holy basil is easy to grow. Mountain Rose Herbs sells holy basil seeds, as does Strictly Medicinal Herbs. I often have extra seeds, myself, so give me a shout at my contact information below and I’ll send some to you!
If you’d like the dried herb, here again Mountain Rose Herbs is a good choice for cut-n-sift (tea) or powder. Some health-food stores may also sell it in bulk, or you may find it in off-the-shelf tea blends, typically under the ‘stress’ or ‘calming’ categories.
For a convenient, concentrated method, try a holy basil tincture or extract. David Winston’s Herbalist & Alchemist carries holy basil as a single herb, and it’s also contained in several of his thoughtful formulas (search ‘holy basil’ at herbalist-alchemist.com for a full list). Herbal Pharmacy, another solid extract company, also carries holy basil in several products.
Braun, L. and Cohen, M. (2015). Herbs and Natural Supplements: An evidence-based guide. (4th Ed.). Elsevier
Clare, B. (2020). Spice Apothecary: Blending and Using Common Spices for Everyday Health. Storey Publishing.
Donna Koczaja, M.S., RH(AHG) graduated from Maryland University of Integrative Health (formerly Tai Sophia Institute) with a Master of Science in Therapeutic Herbalism and a Post-Master's Certificate in Clinical Herbalism. She earned Registered Herbalist status from the American Herbalists’ Guild in 2018. Originally educated as a mechanical engineer, she combines the rigor of her original scientific training with the traditional healing art of herbal medicine to partner with her clients to uncover the root cause of their underlying health issues. Also a Master Gardener since 2008, her primary interest is in inspiring others to improve their health and sense of wellbeing through the joys of gardening and the power of natural medicine.