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The Herbal Garden: Ocimum Sanctum Tulsi (Sacred Holy Basil)

by Anne McIntyre(more info)

listed in ayurveda, originally published in issue 150 - August 2008

In February this year I stayed with a wonderful Ayurvedic doctor in a small village in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, South India. Below the temple in the village was the holy river Tunga, and if you waded across the river and walked up a sandy path on the other side you would come to the Gurukula, a very special school for boys from the age of ten to 16. The Gurukula System is based on the great principles evolved out of educational experiments conducted by sages known as Panchamukhi – a five pronged system which includes study of the Vedas, science, Yoga, organic farming and fine arts. It is truly one of the most inspiring places I have visited.

The boys start the day at 5am with prayer, meditation, yoga and mantra, and their curriculum included study of sacred texts such as the Vedas and Upanishads as well as Sanskrit, Hindi and English, (the home language is Kannada).  Importance is given to self-study, growing organic foods, cleaning the premises and washing their own clothes. There is a real mixture of ancient and modern, Vedic and modern mathematics, physics and chemistry, yogic psychology, history, and music. In the evenings they play traditional Indian games, and at night sing Bhajans (devotional songs), chant verses from the Bhagavad Gita, do Pooja (prayers) and meditation.

The school buildings are laid out in a circle, in the middle of which is a beautiful shrine with a different icon for each of the four directions and the gardens surrounding this are full of holy basil wafting their sweet, aniseed like scent through the warm mountain air. It seems to me there couldn’t be a more appropriate plant.

Holy basil, or Tulsi, is one of the most sacred plants in India, dedicated to (the Hindu gods) Vishnu and Krishna. With its Sattvic qualities this lovely labiatae has an uplifting and strengthening effect on the mind and body. Sattva is the quality of love, light, tranquility, compassion, harmony and love. It promotes wisdom and intelligence, perception and clarity, as well as joy and contentment. According to Vedic wisdom Sattva enables spiritual awakening and development of the soul, as well as the awakening of the five senses, enabling us to experience the physical world around us. From Sattva comes health of mind and body and the clarity or inner peace through which we can perceive the truth.

Tulsi’s health-giving properties are supported by its array of constituents, including flavonoids, fatty acids (myristic, stearic, palmitic, oleic, linoleic and linolenic) triterpenes, sterols, and polyphenols, and are reflected through its immune-enhancing and adaptogenic effects and its benefits on digestion. The essential oils, including eugenol, carvacrol, linalool, nerol and camphor impart its wonderful sweet, pungent aroma and taste with warming properties which improve digestion and absorption of nutrients. Their antispasmodic actions helps relieve spasm, wind and bloating, while Tulsi’s appetizing, digestive, laxative and anthelmintic actions can be used for anorexia, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain and worms. In vitro trials confirm its activity against enteric pathogens and Candida (Geeta et al 2001). Tulsi also has a mild laxative effect and anti-ulcer activity, reducing the effect of peptic acid or irritating drugs on the stomach lining and increasing the production of protective stomach mucus. Its diaphoretic and diuretic actions aid elimination of toxins.

Tulsi’s Vata reducing properties help calm anxiety, mild depression, insomnia, and a variety of stress-related problems such as headaches and irritable bowel syndrome. Its antioxidant actions may account for its adaptogenic effect, and its ability to increase resilience to stress. Its Kapha reducing properties clear lethargy and congestion that dampen the spirits and fog the mind.

Tulsi’s decongestant action is excellent for treating coughs, colds, fevers, sore throats and flu. Combined with its expectorant and antispasmodic actions, as well as its ability to protect against histamine-induced broncho-spasm, Tulsi is helpful in the treatment of asthma and rhinitis. Studies have demonstrated holy basil’s activity against a range of micro-organisms including E. Coli, Staphylococcus aurous and Mycoplasma tuberculosis as well as other pathogens including fungi such as Aspergillus (Pandey 1996, cited by Tillotson 2001).

Research has clearly demonstrated Tulsi’s ability to lower blood sugar as well as cholesterol and triglyceride levels (Chopra/Simon 2000). In a study of 40 patients with non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, those taking 2.5 grams of dried Tulsi leaf each morning experienced a definite reduction in their blood glucose levels as well as cholesterol levels (Agrawal et al 1996).

In India, Tulsi is traditionally grown in domestic courtyards, partly for spiritual purposes but also because its aroma is said to purify the atmosphere. The plant gives off ozone, an unstable form of oxygen that helps to break down chemicals and dispel disease carrying organisms such as viruses, bacteria and insects (Tillotson 2001). Chopra and Simon quote numerous studies that have demonstrated Tulsi’s anti-inflammatory action, with an ability to inhibit prostaglandin production. Other studies show how Tulsi’s adaptogenic properties can protect healthy cells from toxicity from radiation and chemotherapy and protect the heart from damage caused by chemotherapy (Balanehru et al 1992, Vrinda et al 2001).

Tulsi can be taken in teas, as juice or 1:5 tinctures (one to two teaspoons three times daily). The leaf infusion (one cup three times daily) or one teaspoon fresh leaf juice is used in cough, upper respiratory infections, bronchospasm, stress- related skin disorders and indigestion. It is often combined with ginger and black pepper and honey.

This incredible plant is a joy to grow in the garden or in pots, and I am sure we all could benefit from its Sattvic nature.

Tulsi can have a mildly heating effect. Some sources recommend avoiding it during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

References

Agrawal P, Rai V and Singh RB. Randomized Placebo-Controlled, Single Blind Trial of Holy Basil Leaves in Patients with Non-Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus. Int J Clin Pharmacol Ther. 34: 406-409. 1996.
Balanehru S and Nagarajan B. Intervention of Adriamycin Induced Free Radical Damage. Biochem Int. 28: 735-744. 1992.
Chopra D and Simon D. The Chopra Centre Herbal Handbook. Rider. London. 200.
Geeta, Vasudevan DM, Kedlaya R, Deepa S and Ballal M. Activity of Ocimum sanctum (The Traditional Indian Medicinal Plant) Against the Enteric Pathogens. Indian J Med Sci. 55(8): 434-8, 472. Aug 2001.
Tillotson AK et al. The One Earth Herbal Sourcebook. Kensington Publishing Corps. New York. 2001.
Vrinda B and Uma Devi P. Radiation Protection of Human Lymphocyte Chromosomes In-Vitro by Orientin and Vicenin. Mutat Res. 498(1-2): 39-46. 15 Nov 2001.

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About Anne McIntyre

Anne McIntyre FNIMH MAPA is a fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and a member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners' Association. She has been practising as a herbalist for 30 years and has also trained in remedial massage, aromatherapy, counselling, homoeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine. She is the author of several books on herbal medicine, including The Complete Woman's Herbal (Gaia), The Complete Floral Healer (Gaia), The Herbal Treatment of Children (Elsevier), The Top 100 Remedies (Duncan Baird), The Complete Herbal Tutor (Gaia) and Healing Drinks (Gaia). Anne's latest book Dispensing with Tradition: A practitioner's Guide to using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way has recently been published. She teaches regularly in the UK and USA and spends as much time as she can in her herb garden which she opens to the public by appointment. She practises at Artemis House, Great Rissington, Gloucestershire, (Tel: 01451 810096) and in London and Wales once a month. She may be contacted on Tel: 01451 810096  www.annemcintyre.com

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