Herbs around us: Know health benefits of Tulsi

  • Ocimum tenuiflorum (synonym Ocimum sanctum), commonly known as holy basil, tulasi or tulsi, is an aromatic perennial plant in the family Lamiaceae. It is native to the Indian subcontinent and widespread as a cultivated plant throughout the Southeast Asian tropics.

Tulsi is cultivated for religious and traditional medicine purposes, and for its essential oil. It is widely used as a herbal tea, commonly used in Ayurveda, and has a place within the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism, in which devotees perform worship involving holy basil plants or leaves.

DNA barcodes of various biogeographical isolates of tulsi from the Indian subcontinent are now available. In a large-scale phylogeographical study of this species conducted using chloroplast genome sequences, a group of researchers from Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, have found that this plant originates from North-Central India. The discovery might suggest the evolution of tulsi is related with the cultural migratory patterns in the Indian subcontinent.

Tulsi leaves are part in the worship of Vishnu and his avatars, including Krishna and Rama, and other male Vaishnava deities, such as Hanuman and some brahmanas. Tulsi is a sacred plant for Hindus and is worshipped as the avatar of Lakshmi. Traditionally, tulsi is planted in the centre of the central courtyard of Hindu houses or may be grown next to Hanuman temples.

The ritual lighting of lamps each evening during Kartik includes the worship of the tulsi plant, which is held to be auspicious for the home. Vaishnavas traditionally use Hindu prayer beads made from tulsi stems or roots, which are an important symbol of initiation. They have such a strong association with Vaishnavas, that followers of Vishnu are known as "those who bear the tulsi round the neck".

Tulsi Vivah is ceremonial festival performed anytime between Prabodhini Ekadashi (the eleventh or twelfth lunar day of the bright fortnight of the Hindu month of Kartik) and Kartik Poornima (the full moon of the month). The day varies regionally.

Tulasi has been used in Ayurveda and Siddha practices for its supposed treatment of diseases.

The leaves of holy basil, known as kaphrao in the Thai language, are commonly used in Thai cuisine for certain stir-fries and curries such as phat kaphrao — a stir-fry of Thai holy basil with meats, seafood or, as in khao phat kraphao, with rice. Two different types of holy basil are used in Thailand, a "red" variant which tends to be more pungent, and a "white" version for seafood dishes. Kaphrao should not be confused with horapha, which is normally known as Thai basil, or with Thai lemon basil.

For centuries, the dried leaves have been mixed with stored grains to repel insects.

Some of the phytochemical constituents of tulsi are oleanolic acid, ursolic acid, rosmarinic acid, eugenol, carvacrol, linalool, β-caryophyllene (about 8%).

Tulsi essential oil consists mostly of eugenol (~70%) β-elemene (~11.0%), β-caryophyllene (~8%) and germacrene (~2%), with the balance being made up of various trace compounds, mostly terpenes.
Also known as "tulasi," "Holy Basil," "The Incomparable One" and "Elixir of Life," tulsi is an herb used in Ayurveda, and in some herbal tea/tisane and true tea blends.

Types of Tulsi

The tulsi plant (Ocimum sanctum L. or Ocimum tenuiflorum L.) is a close relative of culinary basil (Ocimum basilicum), but it is differentiated by its medicinal properties and some physical characteristics. There are three main types of tulsi plants:
  • Rama Tulsi (also known as Green Leaf Tulsi): A green tulsi with light purple flowers and an aromatic, clove-like scent (thanks to its chemical component of eugenol, which is the main aroma in cloves) and mellower flavor.
  • Krishna Tulsi (also known as Shyama Tulsi or Purple Leaf Tulsi): A purple plant with a clove-like aroma and peppery flavor.
  • Vana Tulsi (or Wild Leaf Tulsi): A bright, light green tulsi plant that grows wild and is indigenous to many areas of Asian and North/East Africa; it has a more lemony aroma and flavor.

Proposed Health Benefits of Tulsi

Of the three types of tulsi, Krishna Tulsi is often considered to be the most beneficial to health, followed closely by Rama Tulsi. Vana Tulsi has less potency, but it is sometimes blended with other types of tulsi for a more pleasing flavor. 

In Ayurvedic practice, common uses of tulsi include treatments for:
  • Asthma, bronchitis, colds, congestion, coughs, flu, sinusitis, sore throat and similar ailments
  • High blood pressure and high cholesterol
  • Headaches, earaches, and eye disorders
  • Skin diseases and insect bites
  • Cramping, gastric disorders, indigestion, intestinal parasites, mouth diseases, ulcers, and vomiting
  • Diabetes and blood sugar imbalances
  • Joint pain and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Kidney stones
  • Malaria
  • Cancer

Medical research conducted by institutions favorable to alternative medicine confirms that tulsi is:
  • A powerful adaptogenic herb (an herb that reduces stress and increases energy)
  • Able to reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • High in antioxidants
  • Immuno-modulating (able to increase or decrease the immune system's activity to the optimal level)
  • Protective of the liver, and more generally protective against certain chemical toxins and radiation, but not contraindicated by chemotherapy (so it's safe to use while receiving chemo)
  • Tulsi is also sometimes used to decrease fertility in men and women, so it is not recommended that those who are trying to conceive to drink large amounts of tulsi.

The available medical literature is uniformly positive. It does mean, however, that some uncertainty remains. One attitude to take about this is that since the herb has been consumed for centuries, especially in India, is apparently harmless and the benefits, although not completely certain, are widespread, why not take it and see if your results make it worthwhile to continue?

In general, determining the benefits or dangers of many of the things we ingest is difficult. Since the 1980s, prestigious medical research institutions have determined that egg and whole milk consumption is dangerous for heart health, then later determined that either they are not or that the dangers were exaggerated. A 2013 article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted that independent studies of most of the ingredients in common cookbook recipes have been found to cure cancer—and to cause cancer. The authors conclude that no one study or group of studies can provide definitive answers to the health benefits or dangers of the foods and herbs we ingest. Gradually and over time as more and more studies are conducted, something close to consensus may be reached. 

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