Holy Basil: Health Benefits of 'The Elixir of Life'

Holy basil is considered a sacred herb in many parts of the world
Holy basil is considered a sacred herb in many parts of the world

Ocimum sanctum, or holy basil, has been used for thousands of years and is considered a sacred herb in many parts of the world, hence, its name.1 Often dubbed ‘the elixir of life' and ‘the queen of herbs,' the uses of holy basil range from an anti-inflammatory, to an expectorant, to a tonic for energy and memory enhancement.2 The plant is typically found in the tropics and subtropical areas, often in homes to be used in religious ceremonies.2 The essential oils of the leaves are very aromatic and contain a wide array of important metabolites. 

Background

Believed to have first been grown in the wild in northern India, holy basil reaches a height of almost two feet and has many branches, making it almost seem like a shrub.3 The branches have hairy stems that bear leaves of approximately two inches long that are dark green to almost purple with a pungent scent. When holy basil flowers, the tiny lavender blooms are tightly displayed on a linear spire. 

Science 

One of the most important claims of holy basil is as an immune booster. In a double-blind trial of healthy volunteers, participants were given standardized capsules of ethanolic extracts of basil leaves or placebo.1 In the 4-week, post-study phase, participants' blood samples were analyzed for the content of Th1 and Th2 cytokines (interferon-gamma and interleukin-4) and the results were compared to baseline data. The results showed statistically significant increases in the levels of these two potent immune mediators over baseline in the basil group, when compared to baseline and the placebo group.1 

Since the rapidly expanding problem of antimicrobial resistance is being felt worldwide, researchers are constantly searching for alternate compounds with bactericidal action. One study examined the action of Ocimum essential oil on three major pathogens: Staphylococcus aureus (including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), Escherichia coli, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.4 Using oil concentrations of 2.25% and 4%, complete growth inhibition of S aureus and E coli was achieved and partial inhibitory action was seen in P aeruginosa. It should be noted, however, that while these results are impressive, the study only showed bacteriostatic activity and not bactericidal action. 

Another feature of holy basil is its apparent modulatory effects on the clinical aspects of metabolic syndrome.5 Researchers in this study recruited 100 volunteers with known elevations in blood glucose, lipids, and blood pressure. The participants were randomly assigned to take either placebo or holy basil extract twice daily for three months. Compared to baseline and the placebo group, the holy basil group showed impressively significant reductions in blood sugar levels, lipid profiles, and blood pressure. The mechanism of action of holy basil on these parameters is believed to be largely due to the herb's potent anti-inflammatory effect.