Reviewed by Dr. Michael Kessler, DC
What Is Basil (Ocimum basilicum)?
Basil, also called Ocimum basilicum or Saint Joseph’s wort, is a common, leafy green herb that is part of the mint family. Native to tropical environments spanning the globe, it’s often used as a food seasoning in a variety of cuisines. But basil uses do not stop there; the herb is also used in teas and supplements that have the potential to offer some health benefits.
There are a variety of basil strains that offer different flavors and benefits, so depending on what you’re looking for, you’ll want to choose discriminately. The most common types of basil are:
- Most widely grown and popular variety
- Commonly used in Italian cooking
- Has a licorice-like flavor
- Sold dried in supermarkets
- An anise-licorice type of taste
- Commonly used in Southeast Asian or Thai cooking
- Strong aroma, mild flavor
- A compact bush that grows well in a pot
- Can be substituted for sweet basil in recipes
Mexican spice basil
- Also called cinnamon basil
- Native to Mexico
- Cinnamon-like taste and scent
- Often served with legumes or spiced stir-fried veggies
Lettuce leaf basil
- Has large, soft, wrinkled leaves
- Licorice flavor
- Used in salads or tossed with tomatoes and olive oil
- Not from the same family as other forms of basil
- Also called Ocimum tenuiflorum, tulsi, tulasi, or the “Queen of herbs”
- The basil most commonly used in supplements and herbal teas
Basil Nutrition Facts
Dietary basil is generally used as a seasoning, and in very short supply. Basil seasoning can provide a little boost to overall nutrient consumption, but it’s not a go-to source for meeting your nutritional needs.
That said, one tablespoon (2.5 grams) of freshly chopped sweet basil leaves (typically all that’s required to season a few chicken breasts, for example) features:
One tablespoon (2 g) of dried, crumbled basil leaves yields:
Basil as seasoning, whether fresh or dried, is a great source of vitamin K. However, it is lacking in other nutrients in such small amounts.
Potential Health Benefits of Basil
You might find notable basil benefits for your health when it is offered in concentrated doses like supplemental extracts or oils, or even consumed in seed form.
Basil has been used as medicine for quite a long time. While it is most popular in folk medicine as well as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine as a treatment for a variety of issues, there is also some research suggesting basil could be useful for certain health conditions.
Some small-scale studies have observed that holy basil:
- May help lower blood sugar in diabetics: A human study looking at the effects of holy basil extract on diabetes had promising results. The research found that 60 people taking 250 mg of holy basil alongside a diabetes drug each day for three months experienced an average drop of 18% in blood sugar compared to those only on the drug. Participants took the extract before breakfast and dinner.
- May help reduce stress: One study looked at how holy basil extract influenced stress symptoms. A total of 158 people took 1,200 mg of holy basil extract daily for six weeks, and researchers noted a 38% reduction in stress symptoms compared to those taking placebo.
It’s important to note that there is a shortage of human studies to prove the health benefits of basil. However, lab and animal tests have shown promising results.
In these settings, sweet basil extract may promote:
Lowered Inflammation and Reduced Swelling
One study examining the extract of holy basil noted its ability to reduce swelling at rates comparable to anti-inflammatory medication. The study, presented before the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, showed that it was able to reduce swelling by up to 73%.
Other research has shown basil extract has the ability to reduce inflammation on bug bites and other skin irritation, likely attributable to anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
Improved Blood Flow
Sweet basil has also been observed to relax veins and improve blood flow in rat studies. This can lead to a range of health benefits, including a lower heart attack and stroke risk, lower blood pressure, improved circulation, and lower LDL cholesterol.
These vasodilation effects have been observed in dosages of 0.5 g per kilogram of bodyweight over a period of 10 days. This may have very useful effects for individuals with hypertension, and studies on rats have found basil extract to be useful in lowering blood pressure.
May Thwart Memory Loss and Reduce the Impact of Stress on the Brain
One study using mice found that sweet basil extract was able to improve memory in mice that were exposed to chronic stress.
The mice were forced to swim and move through an elevated, plus-sized maze for stress exposure. Those that were given the basil extract were able to make it through the maze more easily, and the extract was observed to alleviate memory impairment and neurodegenerative changes that can occur from stress exposure.
The researchers of the study suggest further examining basil extract’s effects on Alzheimer’s prevention/treatment.
Can Halt Growth of Certain Cancers
Due to the antioxidant capacity and capabilities of basil, researchers have examined its impact on cancer cells in a lab setting. Researchers exposed panels of human cancer cells to basil extract and found it can cease the proliferation of a diverse array of cancer cells, including colon carcinoma.
Other areas of promise include:
- Anti-aging capabilities
- Improved joint pain
- Prevention of growth of breast, colon, and pancreatic cancers
- Mental alertness (when essential oil is inhaled)
- Improved food safety
- Antibacterial affects
Extracts and oils offer the potent levels of the active ingredients required to make a meaningful impact on health. That doesn’t mean basil isn’t a healthy ingredient for your favorite meals; it just means that a normal dietary intake of basil is unlikely to produce the above health benefits. The compounds are dose-dependent.
Overall, much more large-scale, human-based research needs to be completed in order to confirm basil’s specific health benefits.
Basil seeds, also called sabja or tukmaria, are also edible and can be eaten to add some extra nutrition to your diet. They are very high in fiber—a serving of just one tablespoon offers seven grams. Fiber plays an important role in digestive health, heart health, appetite, gut health, cholesterol, and blood sugar. Sprinkling some on a salad or into a smoothie can help add some much needed, and very healthful, fiber to your diet.
Sweet basil extract or essential oil could potentially be used to experience one of the benefits listed above. But because the dosing and efficacy for humans have yet to be established, these forms should only be used to supplement existing treatments under the supervision of a doctor.
On the other hand, one thing we do know basil can guarantee is flavor.
That flavor will vary depending on which variety is used. Sweet basil is most commonly used in Italian dishes and is the main ingredient in pesto, which is made from crushed basil, garlic, parmesan cheese, olive oil, and pine nuts. Basil also complements a host of other seasonings like garlic, rosemary, mustard, and oregano, among others.
Thai basil is commonly used in curries, noodles, stir-fries, and soups, while cinnamon-y Mexican spice basil can be found in pies, cookies, and other baked goods.
If you’re using fresh basil leaves, be sure to use only the leaves and discard the stems. When using basil, wait until the meal is almost cooked before applying; long exposure to heat can reduce the flavor and cause it to lose its appealing bright-green hue.
Basil Side Effects and Precautions
Given that you’re not allergic to basil or any other members of the mint family, if you’re eating basil via seasoning or pesto, you’ve likely got nothing to worry about. Most people who take supplemental basil oils or extracts can rest easy as well. That said, in specific cases, basil supplementation may cause some undesired effects.
Basil extracts may lead to blood thinning, which is concerning for people who take blood-thinning medication, are preparing for surgery, or have a bleeding disorder. Supplementation may also lower blood sugar, so if you’re taking medicine for diabetes, it’s best to advise your doctor so that dosing can be adjusted.
Basil also contains a compound called estragole that was linked to liver cancer in lab rodents. For this reason, experts advise against taking extracts orally over long periods.
Holy basil supplements should also be avoided if you are trying to conceive or are currently pregnant. Animal studies have shown these supplements can negatively impact sperm or trigger contractions.
Basil: A Tasty Herb That May Provide Multiple Health Benefits
Basil can add some flavor to your meals and offers some healthy nutrition to your overall diet. There is promising evidence of potential basil health benefits, though most studies concentrate on basil taken in extract or essential oil form. At this point, however, science has not definitively concluded that the herb can treat or prevent health conditions in humans.
Talk to your doctor before adopting any basil extract or oil regimen for your health.
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