A voice for
herbal medicine

We share traditional, scientific and practical insights written by experienced herbalists and health experts from the world of herbal medicine and natural health

Tulsi is an excellent herb for lifting heaviness and congestion in the mind and body

Tulsi

Ocimum tenuiflorum Lamiaceae

Tulsi's former botanical name Ocimum sanctum referred to its reputation as a sacred plant in India.

  • How does it feel?

    As you inhale over a cup of tulsi tea you cannot mistake the clove-like aroma of the eugenol, a key constituent of this aromatic herb. The clove taste comes through on the first sip too with the rest of the flavours lemony, slightly camphorous pungency with a touch of eucalyptol. There are wide ranges of essential oil profiles in different varieties of tulsi so the exact flavours will vary from different sources but a consistent theme is the pleasant aromatic heady impact. There is also a distinct astringent after-taste with the clove lingering longest.

    The overall impact is heady and uplifting, wholly aligned with the traditional reputation of this sacred herb.

  • What can I use it for?

    Tulsi stimulates the cerebral circulation whilst also relaxing the central nervous system. This unique quality brings mental clarity whilst also calming any nervous tension. Tulsi will counteract brain fog and exhaustion, particularly after trauma, depression and anxiety.

    It also steadies the adrenal hormonal stress response allowing you to cope better under pressure. It has a significant impact upon conditions that are exacerbated by stress and anxiety, such as high blood pressure and tension headaches.

    The pungent and fragrant volatile oils are felt to relieve congestion throughout the body and particularly within the respiratory system where it is an effective expectorant and has been used to reduce wheezing and tightness in the chest associated with asthma. Here, and also in the digestive system, tulsi will increase mucosal defences against chronic and repetitive infection. It has been used in larger doses as an aid to fever management.

    As a refreshing beverage, tulsi tea can be used instead of black tea or coffee as a a non-caffeine gentle stimulant.

  • Into the heart of Tulsi

    Tulsi is a fantastic rejuvenative to the mind and spirit. It will improve the circulation to the brain but also provide oxidative protection to the brain cells, and reducing neuro-inflammatory influences that are now known to contribute to a wide range of neurological and psychiatric conditions.

    Tulsi is classed as an adaptogen because it has a stabilising effect on the adrenal responses and reduces cortisol and adrenaline levels. It’s ability to do this whilst also calming the central nervous system make it excellent for dealing with emotional trauma and helping you to ‘move on’ and find clarity.

  • Traditional uses

    Tulsi is renowned in India for its religious and spiritual connotations (often grown around temples) and is consumed as a food, drink and medicine very widely. The leaves as well as the seeds have important roles in traditional Ayurveda and other health traditions, with the leaves commonly used in fever management, including in children, in respiratory and digestive upsets, and fluid retention.

    It is used in Thai, Vietnamese and Indian cuisines wherever in the world these are consumed.

    The two species of tulsi share similar properties. The leaves of Ocimum americanum are steamed and eaten as a side dish with rice and are also be used as a flavouring in salads, sauces, soups, and in teas, and as a remedy, like O. tenuiflorum, in fevers, respiratory and stomach problems.

  • What practitioners say

    Nervous system: Tulsi is good at relieving pain, both physical and mental. It opens the mind, heightening awareness and mental clarity which can help with feelings of mild depression. As a spasmolytic it is traditionally used to alleviate tension headaches from high vata and for congestion headaches from excess kapha. This quality also helps improve the quality of sleep and so tulsi can help with insomnia. Its adaptogenic qualities increase the body’s resistance to physical, emotional and environmental stress.

    Immune system and inflammatory conditions: As an adaptogen, tulsi improves the systemic response to physical, biological, emotional and environmental stress and enables one to enjoy more stamina, less stress and a stronger immune system. Tulsi’s ability to help us adapt has also been shown to be of benefit in chronic fatigue syndrome. It contains a number of constituents which have anti-oxidant activity protecting against lipid peroxidisation and therefore protective action against oxidative stress and a range of inflammatory effects. Neuroinflammation has been related to a number of degenerative diseases including dementia, chronic fatigue syndromes and clinical depression.

    Lungs: When used as a hot tea, tulsi clears kapha and mucus from the lungs and upper respiratory tract. It is of value in respiratory infections and fever where it reduces temperature by encouraging sweating whilst its penetrating nature clears dampness and toxins. It is of benefit in bronchitis, rhinitis and other respiratory allergies. In traditional medicine the lungs are seen as the ‘seat’ of grief and tulsi’s ability to diffuse prāṇa through the lungs helps with feelings of sadness and grief.

    Digestion: Where there is sluggish and incomplete digestion Tulsi warms and stimulates, moving stagnation.  Its aromatic pungency improves appetite and reduces fermentation in the digestive tract. Digestive complaints exacerbated by stress will benefit from tulsi’s anti-spasmodic and sedative qualities.

  • Research

    The cognitive enhancing properties of tulsi have been demonstrated in a controlled clinical trial. 300 milligram capsules of ethanolic leaf extracts per day were compared with placebo, over 30 days. Reaction time and error rates in cognitive tests improved with tulsi compared with placebo after the first 15 days.

    In a double-blinded randomized controlled cross-over trial on healthy volunteers 300 mg capsules of ethanolic extracts of leaves of tulsi or placebo were administered to 24 healthy volunteers on empty stomach and the results of 22 subjects who completed the study were analyzed. After stimulation with lipopolysaccharide and phytohaemagglutinin there were significant increases in cytokines (interferon-γ and interleukin-4) and percentages of T-helper cells and Natural Killer cells were seen after 4 weeks in the tulsi extract intervention group in contrast to the placebo group.

    A randomized, placebo-controlled, single-blind, crossover study assessed the effects of the dried leaves on the levels of blood glucose and serum cholesterol in 40 non-insulin-dependent diabetic patients. Patients received orally 2.5 g leaves daily for 4 weeks. Blood glucose levels, measured after fasting and eating, decreased by 17.6% and 7.3% respectively. Mean total cholesterol levels also decreased slightly (by 6.5%) during the treatment period. No adverse effects were observed.

    Tulsi was beneficial in the treatment of recurrent respiratory tract infection in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial.  Ten out of 11 children who received a placebo had a recurrence of infection during the 6-month follow-up period compared to only one child of 7 treated with holy basil. The improvement in the herbal treatment group was associated with an improvement in polymorphonuclear cell functions.

  • Did you know?

    Tulsi is sacred to the Hindu god Vishnu, the Lord of Preservation, and is used in morning prayers to ensure good personal health and wellbeing. It is commonly found in Hindu courtyards and near temples. Meditation beads are also often made from the wood of the tulsi shrub.

Additional information

  • Safety

    No significant safety issues have been noted in accounts of the traditional use of tulsi. This is not surprising. Tulsi (like its close relative basil) was seen as a safe food plant with added therapeutic (and in this case spiritual) benefits.

    Different species of tulsi are known sources of methyleugenol, in isolation a carcinogen, but also found in plants such as basil itself, as well as nutmeg, pimento, lemongrass, tarragon, star anise and fennel.

    Given that tulsi is a less familiar plant in western countries there have been theoretical safety concerns: closer investigation shows safety prospects comparable to the other plants naturally containing methyleugenol. and human studies indicate that methyleugenol is short-lived in the body, and despite the exposure through the diet and environment, human blood levels are relatively low. Humans have a long evolutionary history of exposure to these constituents as foods and possess a competent detoxification pathway for them.

  • Dosage

    The therapeutic dose for tulsi in the Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia of India is 2–3 g of the leaf powder per day. Higher doses have been used for fevers and other acute conditions.

  • Constituents

    • Essential oil (up to 2%) including eugenol (variable though up to 62 %), methyleugenol (up to 86 %), and α- and β-caryophyllene (up to 42 %), estragole,  limonene, linalool, carvacrol and eucalyptol.
    • Flavonoids incl apigenin, luteolin
    • Tannins incl gallic acid and chlorogenic acid (up to 4.6 %)
    • Triterpenes: incl ursolic acid
    • beta-carotene, beta-sitosterol, carnosic acid, oleanolic acid, rosmarinic acid.
  • Traditional energetics

    • Rasa (taste) pungent, bitter.
    • Virya (action) heating.
    • Vipaka (post-digestive effect) pungent.
    • Guna (quality) dry, light.
    • Dosha effect: strengthens pitta, and reduces vata and aggravated kapha
    • Dhatu (tissue) plasma, blood, nerve, reproductive.
    • Srotas (channels) respiratory, digestive, nervous, circulatory, urinary.
  • Recipe

    Incredible Immunity Tea

    Bacteria and viruses are most active at lower body temperatures, so when we have a fever, this is in response to our immune system’s effort to reduce microbial overload. That is where this delicious Incredible Immunity Tea recipe below comes in. It helps your immune system fight the infection.

    Ingredients:

    • Yarrow top 3g
    • Peppermint leaf 3g
    • Elderflower 3g
    • Tulsi leaf 3g
    • Fresh ginger root 3g, about 11/2cm (5/8in)

    This will serve 2–3 cups of flu-free freedom.

    Method:

    • Put all of the ingredients in a pot. Add 500ml (18fl oz) freshly boiled filtered water.
    • Leave to steep for 5–10 minutes, then strain.
    • Drink while it’s piping hot.
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

Sign up to our Newsletter

Sign up to our newsletter to receive the very latest in herbal insights.

Sign up to our newsletter