How does it feel?
Basil has a classic aromatic herby, fresh flavour profile with hints of citrus and pine. It has a mildly pungent quality, making it a truly uplifting and pleasant medicine to use as fresh or dried, in tea, tincture or in food. The flavour and aromatic profiles of basil are best experienced with the fresh herb.
What can I use it for?
Basil is a well loved kitchen herb so named the ‘king of herbs’ due to its popularity. It belongs to the mint family – a plant family that holds many of our most familiar kitchen herbs such as sage, oregano, thyme and marjoram.
Basil, like its culinary sister species, is abundant in aromatic oils that have various effects on our nervous and digestive systems. Basil may be thought of as a kitchen remedy to ease digestive problems associated with stress and nervousness.
The action of basil’s volatile oils make it an excellent carminative. Carminatives help to settle and support digestion, often resolving flatulence and bloating. Basil is considered a ‘specific’ for flatulence and discomfort caused by trapped wind. Basil can be used fresh or dried as a tea, or made into a refreshing syrup, which might be favoured by children. Using basil in cooking is an excellent way to support digestion and the absorption of nutrients. Where a more powerful action is required, however, a higher medicinal dose than that used in food may be needed.
Due to its antioxidant and cardio-protective effects, basil improves peripheral circulation as well as circulation to the brain. Basil’s uplifting nervine action may be linked to its ability to support circulation to the central nervous system.
Using herbs such as basil in our daily lives offers us a wide variety of health benefits. Basil is a gentle medicine which is widely available, and easy to grow at home on a warm, sunny windowsill. Its aromatic compounds are potent cellular protectors with anti-ageing properties. As a daily tonic basil can help to enhance the feeling of well-being and vitality.
Into the heart of Basil
Energetically, basil is a warming stimulant. Galen, a renowned 1st century. Roman physicians described basil as moist and hot in the second degree. Basil’s warming and stimulating effect may be mediated by its ability to promote the movement of blood to the periphery. The volatile oils it contains have the general effect of opening, relaxing and relieving tension, which may be experienced as both relaxing and energising.
Fragrant plants like basil have been traditionally thought to clear stagnation, which is a way of discussing inflammation and the accumulation of metabolic debris in energetic terms. They are specific for ‘depressive’ states – this refers to both depressed or reduced function of the tissues, but also depressiveness of the mind and mood. Basil elevates, rejuvenates and enlivens by improving the flow of blood to all tissues (4).
Matthew Wood (4) describes this cold, depressed tissue state as “ a deep cold within an organism from the dying down of the innate heat of life – and not from mere cold exposure. Basil is a great herb to include where this enlivening and warming quality is needed to deeply invigorate one’s constitution.
Basil’s fragrance has an immediate emotional impact due to the close connection between the sense of smell and psycho-emotional brain centres. After being taken in via the nose, these warming, aromatic stimulants open up the lungs, enabling them to deliver more life-giving oxygen to the cells, creating the sensation of energy and nourishment.
A historical reference is made to basil as “ a herb that helps the heart, changing the grief of the soul caused by black bile into cheerfulness and joy, and the head, procuring sleep when steeped in water and drunk (1)”. Black bile is a term used in mediaeval physiology’s understanding of the four humours. It refers to cold and dry states in a person and was understood to be the root of melancholy. Warming, moist herbs would be best applied as an antidote for this particular humeral imbalance.
Basil has a long history of use as medicine. It is referenced by Pliny who was an authority on scientific matters up to the Middle Ages and formed a compilation of medicinal remedies dating to the early 4th century AD. He wrote that ‘basil vinegar is also good for the stomach, and to break wind upwards, to treat jaundice and dropsy and applied to the belly, to stop (bloody) diarrhoea’. It was also referenced as having a diuretic effect and an additional application taken as a vinegar infusion to strengthen the womb.
Basil was also referenced as having an effect upon the mind. Parkinson, herbalist to Charles l, noted that a cordial of basil is used in “trembling of the heart or palpitations and for melancholy or sadness” (1).
It was written that “a liniment of basil corrects cold in the head, clears catarrh, and with vinegar and oil of roses or myrtle helps headache; the powdered seed is taken as snuff to provoke sneezing to clear the head, or the juice made up with goose grease and dropped into children’s ears for problems there”.
Dioscorides from Ancient Greece recommends the juice of what we believe to be basil for “dimness of sight and rheums of the eyes” whilst other bygone texts also reflect this use for watering eyes with irritation and inflammation. Additionally, basil was used mixed with a copper compound for the treatment of warts (1).
What practitioners say
Basil has a number of therapeutic actions that render it able to improve and support the digestive system. These actions are thought to be due to its action on the nervous system via its high volatile oil content. Basil’s effects are mostly seen in the upper digestive tract where it produces a stomachic action – helping to improve digestion and reduce flatulence (3). Basil also has an antispasmodic action which is useful for griping pains. It is indicated for irritable bowel syndrome and other conditions where there is excess contractility and spasm in the digestive tract.
Basil also has antibacterial properties which are understood to relate to its potent volatile oil components. Studies have shown these to be effective against some food-borne pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella species(2). While they may begin mildly, gut infections can be serious if not treated properly under the supervision of a healthcare professional. A herbalist may use basil alongside other potent antibacterial herbs to overcome gastric illness or to help reduce inflammation and discomfort that is often experienced thereafter.
Basil has some reference for use as an adaptogenic tonic to the autonomic nervous system (3). It is also commonly thought of as an anxiolytic (resolving anxiety) herb in both modern and historical texts. It may be used forin cases of anxiety and depression alongside other nervine herbs and adaptogenics. Its actions may help relieve anxiety, nervousness, low mood and irritability via a harmonising effect on the autonomic nervous system (3).
Basil relaxes smooth muscle spasm and may also be useful for migraines or headaches which are related to tension in the musculoskeletal system (3).
Basil can help control and decrease blood glucose levels and has anti-diabetic properties. Studies have demonstrated that basil can decrease blood glucose and advanced glycation end products – a marker in diabetes mellitus. Basil may be supportive as part of a treatment approach that includes other herbs and nutritional interventions specific for treating diabetes under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. Anti-atherosclerotic and anti-thrombotic effects have also been identified (2), both actions that support the health of blood vessels in cardiovascular disease. Clinical herbalists can be found on our resources section.
Basil is both a diuretic (increases the fluid output) and also mildly diaphoretic – meaning that it increases the output of sweat (3).
Basil’s antimicrobial activities are understood to be related to its volatile oil content. One such compound called eugenol has been found to have anti-fungal, nematocide and specific anti-bacterial effects against food-borne pathogenic bacteria. Basil is also well-referenced as a vermifuge and it may be helpful for arthropod stings due to its anti-inflammatory actions (2).
Its anti-fungal actions are said to be specific to Tinea a fungal infection of the skin (3). It is also traditionally used to treat insect stings, snake bites and skin infections externally (5).
Basil’s volatile oil components also have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. In addition to the volatile oils, basil contains other herbal constituents that modulate immune function directly. For example, the polysaccharide components in basil have been shown to have anti-tumour, anti-oxidant and anti-ageing activity (2).
A small number of herbals reference basil as having immuno-regulatory and immune-enhancing effects (2, 3). Basil is understood to affect immunity on a cellular level and has also been shown to produce inhibitory activity to counter HIV-1 (5).
Many herbal medicines are under investigation in modern humans, in vivo and in vitro studies in order to discover antibiotic-resistant compounds in plants. There are currently no human clinical trials on basil. However, there are a number of in vivo and in vitro studies that focus on basil extracts or compounds derived from basil which demonstrate a variety of promising effects.
A clinical review of such studies was carried out to demonstrate basil’s therapeutic potential. The review found reports of the following properties to be legitimate; antimicrobial; anti-diabetic; anti-inflammatory; antioxidant; anti-platelet and anti-thrombotic. Additionally, a distilled water-based leaf extract of basil also showed strong antispasmodic activity – largely due to the action of eugenol (5).
Basil also has anti-insecticidal properties. Immunomodulatory properties are also suggested – with one study indicating that basil has a cellular level of immunomodulatory activity including platelet anti-aggregant properties and inhibitory activity to counter HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (5).
Finally, an g in vivo study is included which demonstrates some neuroprotective activity of basil extract in rats. The study showed that basil reduced neuroinflammation in rats with induced cerebral MS-like manifestations. Basil combined with ursolic acid significantly reduced the cognitive deficit parameters for mitochondria-dependent apoptosis (a direct pathway for neuronal death in neurodegenerative diseases) (6).
Animal studies are not condoned by Herbal Reality, however for the purpose of including research from which some understanding of therapeutic actions can be confirmed and due to the lack of available human studies, animal studies have been taken into account.
Did you know?
Basil has several name derivations and beliefs associated with it. The common name basil may be derived from the Greek words basileus meaning ‘king’ or basilikon meaning ‘royal’. Because of its popularity, basil is sometimes referred to as the ‘king of the herbs’.
A Latin word, basiliscus, refers to ‘basilisk’ a mythical fire-breathing dragon who could kill with just a glance. According to Roman legend, basil is the antidote to the venom of the basilisk. The botanical name Ocimum is derived from the Greek meaning “to be fragrant”.
Basil is a tender herbaceous plant. Its leaves grow on opposite sides of square stems. The leaves are rounded, slightly cupped, and curve to form a point at the tip. The leaves are generally light green, although some varieties have reddish or purplish leaves. They can grow to between 30.5 to 125cm high, depending on variety and conditions.
The flowers are small, usually white in colour and arranged along a spike that grows from the tip of the stem. After pollination, the flower falls off and four round, dry structures called achenes develop, each one containing a seed. The seeds are small, dark, and edible.
- Common basil
- Sweet basil
- King of the herbs
Basil is not recommended for use in medicinal doses during pregnancy. It is considered to be safe for use during breastfeeding (3).
- Fresh herb
- Dried herb
- Tincture (1:3 in 45%): Take 4ml in a little water up to twice a day (3).
- Infusion: To make a tea place 3 grams of dried material in one cup of boiling water infuse for between 10 – 15 minutes. This should be drunk hot twice a day.
Plant parts used
- Volatile oil – α-Pinene, β-Pinene, Methyl chavicol, 1,8 cineole, Linalool, Ocimene, Borneol, Geraneol, B-Caryphyllone, n-Cinnamate, eugenol, chavicol and terpenoids.
- Phenolic acids and flavonol-glycosides
- Fatty acid composition – stearic acid, oleic acid, palmitic acid, linoleic acid, myristic acid, α-Linolenic acid, carpic acid, lauric acid and arachidonic acid (2).
- Antioxidant compounds of basil are caffeic, vanillic and rosmarinic acids, quercetin, rutin, apigenin, chlorogenic and p-hydroxybenzoic acid (2).
It is native to tropical regions of Central Africa to Southeast Asia (India, Pakistan, Iran and Thailand). It can be found growing wild in tropical and subtropical regions.
Basil is not currently included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species database.
Habitat loss and over-harvesting from the wild are two of the biggest threats faced by medicinal plant species. There are an increasing number of well-known herbal medicines at risk of extinction. We must therefore ensure that we source our medicines with sustainability in mind.
The herb supplement industry is growing at a rapid rate and until recent years a vast majority of medicinal plant produce in global trade was of unknown origin. There are some very real and urgent issues surrounding sustainability in the herb industry. These include environmental factors that affect the medicinal viability of herbs, the safety of the habitats that they are taken from, as well as the welfare of workers in the trade.
The botanical supply chain efforts for improved visibility (transparency and traceability) into verifiably sustainable production sites around the world are now certified through the emergence of credible international voluntary sustainability standards (VSS).
Read our article on Herbal quality & safety: What to know before you buy and Sustainable sourcing of herbs to learn more about what to look for and questions to ask suppliers about sustainability.
Concentration of volatile oil in basil cv. Sweet Genovese was higher after cultivation at 25°C than at 15°C. Drying and freezing results in loss of concentration and changes in the proportion of each constituent. The concentration of volatile oils in dried basil is significantly reduced after 6 months of storage. As with most herbs, particularly aromatic herbs, air drying leads to greater retention of the aromatic compounds (1).
Herbal medicines are often extremely safe to take, however it is important to buy herbal medicines from a reputed supplier. Sometimes herbs bought from disreputable sources are contaminated, adulterated or substituted with incorrect plant matter.
Some important markers for quality to look for would be to look for certified organic labelling, ensuring that the correct scientific/botanical name is used and that suppliers can provide information about the source of ingredients used in the product.
A supplier should be able to tell you where the herbs have come from. There is more space for contamination and adulteration when the supply chain is unknown.
How to grow
Basil is one of the easiest herbs to propagate from seed and it requires minimal care to cultivate a happy crop for use in culinary or medicinal recipes.
Sow indoors in late spring, or outdoors in early summer. It is normally a reliable germinator and easy to over-sow, so don’t get too carried away. Depending on temperature, germination normally takes 1-2 weeks. If you are a well-organised kind of person, you might consider successive sowing every couple of weeks to give you a longer, staggered harvest period.
Pot on to individual pots when the seedlings have a few ’true’ leaves. If you are planning to keep it in a pot, best to use one that is at least 10cm in diameter. Otherwise, plant into its final position with a spacing of 10-15cm between plants. If you are growing outdoors (in the UK), try to give the plant a sheltered sunny spot – a south-facing wall is ideal. If you don’t have a sheltered sunny spot, you may be better off growing it indoors – in a greenhouse, or a sunny windowsill.
Herb syrups are a wonderful way to preserve the freshness and flavour of aromatic herbs while making them palatable for all. They can also be used in culinary recipes.
- 1 1⁄2 cups water
- 1 1⁄2 cups sugar
- About 20 sprigs of basil. You can include lemon rind, cinnamon, star anise, orange etc or keep it simply herby with basil.
Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan, bruising the leaves against the side of the pan with a spoon. Place over moderate heat and bring to a simmer. Cover immediately to avoid loss of aromatic compounds.
Remove from heat and let stand for at least 30 minutes. Strain out the remaining plant material with a sieve, squeezing them into the syrup to extract their flavour. This syrup can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator for about 2 months or frozen for 3 to 4 months.
You can find how to make different types of herbal preparations in our home herbalism section here.
- Tobyn, G., Denham, A. and Whitelegg, M. (2011). CHAPTER 22 – Ocimum basilicum, basil. [online] ScienceDirect. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780443103445000276?via%3Dihub [Accessed 6 Sep. 2023].
- Shahrajabian, M.H., Sun, W. and Cheng, Q. (2020). Chemical components and pharmacological benefits of Basil (Ocimum basilicum): a review. International Journal of Food Properties, 23(1), pp.1961–1970. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/10942912.2020.1828456.
- Menzies-Trull, C. (2013). Herbal medicine keys to physiomedicalism including pharmacopoeia. Newcastle: Faculty Of Physiomedical Herbal Medicine (Fphm).
- Wood. M. 2004. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Organs and Systems. North Atlantic Books, U.S.
- Purushothaman, B., Srinivasan, R.P., Suganthi, P., Ranganathan, B., Gimbun, J. and Shanmugam1, K. (2018). A Comprehensive Review on Ocimum basilicum. Journal of Natural Remedies, [online] 18(3), pp.71–85. doi:https://doi.org/10.18311/jnr/2018/21324.
- Garabadu, D. and Singh, D. (2020). Ocimum basilicum attenuates ethidium bromide-induced cognitive deficits and pre-frontal cortical neuroinflammation, astrogliosis and mitochondrial dysfunction in rats. Metabolic Brain Disease, 35(3), pp.483–495. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s11011-020-00536-z.