Basil is an herb in the mint family. It adds flavor to meals, and its nutrients can be beneficial to health.
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) plays a role in many cuisines in the Mediterranean, and especially Italian. It forms the basis for pesto and gives salads, pasta , pizza, and other dishes a distinctive taste. This herb also features Indonesian, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine.
In many grocery stores sweet basil is available while other varieties have different tastes and fragrances.
Tulsi is another form of basil, or holy basil (Ocimum santum). This plant plays a therapeutic role in Tamil and Ayurvedic medicines, practiced mainly in Southeast Asia. This is something different from sweet basil.
Learn more about the health benefits and nutritional value of basil in this post, and find out some tips on how to use it in the diet.
As a herbal medicine and as an essential oil, Basil can provide health benefits in the diet.
Basil contains certain macronutrients as well as a variety of antioxidants, such as calcium and vitamin K.
For example, sweet basil has a high concentration of eugenol, the chemical agent. This gives it a scent similar to a clove. Lime and lemon basils have high concentrations of limonene, which give them a citrusy scent. Eugenol and limonene both exhibit antioxidant properties.
Reducing oxidative stress
Antioxidants are necessary if the body is to remove free radicals.
Free radicals are unstable molecules which develop as a result of metabolism and other processes in nature. They can also form as a result of smoking and some dietary choices.
Antioxidants are compounds that help the body remove those molecules. If instead they build up, oxidative stress can result in cell damage and, possibly, disease.
The body produces some antioxidants but some of them also need to be absorbed from the diet. Anthocyanins and beta-carotene are amongst the many antioxidants in basil.
What foods have healthy antioxidant sources? Find out here.
Supporting liver health
A 2015 research in rats found that antioxidants had a beneficial impact on liver health in a powdered formulation that included tulsi, or holy basil. After using a toxin the scientists applied the powder to induce liver injury.
Tulsi — a plant in the average Western supermarket which is very different from the basil — plays a role in traditional Indian medicine.
A study published in 2013 investigated whether tulsi, or holy basil, is able to prevent cancer.
The authors concluded that the holy basil phytochemicals can help to prevent certain types of skin, liver, oral, and lung cancers.
They appeared to do this by increasing antioxidant activity, changing gene expression, triggering cell death, and slowing cell division.
The research in this study, however, were preclinical, or carried out in animals. Further work will be required to validate the results.
Protecting against skin aging
Sweet basil has properties that may help protect the skin from some of the effects of aging, according to research published in 2011.
The scientists were applying a basil extract to skin laboratory models in the study. The results suggested that in topical skin creams, including basil extracts could improve skin hydration and reduce roughness and wrinkling.
While basil extracts may have this effect at certain doses, basil consumption won’t necessarily benefit the skin.
However, if a person eats them as part of a varied diet, the antioxidants in basil and other plant-based foods may have a protective impact.
Reducing high blood sugar
Some traditional medicine practitioners commonly recommend basil to help manage blood sugar levels.
A 2019 study in rats showed that a sweet basil leaves extract helped to minimize high levels of sugar in the blood. The results also suggested that basil leaves could help treat the long-term effects of high sugar in the blood.
If further research confirms these findings, basil extracts might prove useful to people with diabetes.
Supporting cardiovascular health
A 2011 review reported findings that a sweet basil extract briefly decreased high blood pressure due, possibly, to the eugenol content of the extract. Eugenol can block the channels of calcium in the body, lowering high blood pressure.
Two minutes after the researchers took the sample, however, the blood pressure returned to its high levels.
Those who took the tulsi extract after 4 weeks had lower cholesterol levels and triglycerides than those who didn’t.
The authors concluded that the extract could help reduce some risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Find foods that may help lower blood pressure here.
Boosting mental health
Mental stress can cause free radical development within the body.
According to a 2014 review that examined the role of tulsi in ayurvedic medicine, there are properties in the plant that may help:
- alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression
- increase the ability to think and reason
- prevent age-related memory loss
- improve stress-related sleep and sex issues
Some studies have produced results comparable to those on diazepam and antidepressant drugs, the authors report.
Confirming those findings, however, will require further research. It is also unlikely that consuming tulsi — for example in a tea — will have the same effect as receiving a dose of an extract.
Reducing inflammation and swelling
Oxidative stress, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis, can lead to inflammation, a factor in various diseases.
Researchers analyzed the anti-inflammatory properties of two basic sweet basil essential oil preparations in 2017.
Basil oil can help treat various diseases that involve inflammation caused by oxidative stress according to their results.
However, it is not clear if eating basil could have the same effect.
Various practitioners of traditional medicine used basil as an antimicrobial agent and this use is confirmed by some scientific evidence.
Researchers added sweet basil oil to specific strains of Escherichia coli, or E in 2013. Coli. Coli. The bacteria came from people with infections of the respiratory, abdominal, urinary or skin, as well as from medical equipment. Oil was active against these bacteria, the results showed.
The researchers concluded that some basil oil preparations may help to treat or prevent certain types of infections.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the table below shows some of the nutrients weighing around 2.6 g in 1 tablespoon of fresh basil.
It also shows how much of each adult nutrient needs according to American Dietary Guidelines 2015–2020. Nonetheless, keep in mind that needs vary by sex and age.
Certain nutrients are given in micrograms (mcg) in this table.
|Nutrient||Amount in one 2.6-gram tablespoon of basil||Daily adult requirement|
|Vitamin A (mcg, RAE)||6.9||700–900|
|Beta carotene (mcg)||81.7||No data|
|Beta cryptoxanthin (mcg)||1.2||No data|
|Lutein and zeaxanthin (mcg)||147.0||No data|
|Vitamin K (mcg)||10.8||75–120|
In addition to these nutrients, basil contains various B vitamins, iron and other mineral traces, and a range of additional antioxidants.
Tips for use
Basil is a fragrant herb with a distinctive fragrance, enjoyed by many. The different types are different in flavors.
Sweet basil is the most common variety in the U.S. when it comes to cooking, but people do use lemon basil, clove basil, cinnamon basil and other types.
A person could:
- Sprinkle fresh, chopped basil over a pizza or into a wrap.
- Arrange some basil leaves over slices of tomato and mozzarella, then drizzle the dish with olive oil.
- Add basil to soups, tomato sauces, and stir-fries.
- Make a marinade with basil, olive oil, and chopped garlic.
- Add whole, chopped, or torn fresh leaves to a salad.
Or, try these recipes:
Many herbs grow indoors quickly, allowing people without gardens to enjoy freshly picked ingredients in their cooking. Find out more about Basil growing indoors here.
Some people should take care when eating basil.
High vitamin K levels can affect the action of certain drugs including warfarin ( Coumadin). Anyone who uses blood thinners should consult a doctor before they increase their basil intake.
Some individuals in the mint family have allergic reactions when they eat or otherwise come into contact with herbs.
Anyone suffering from this form of allergy should avoid basil and test premade products to make sure it is not an ingredient.
If an individual experiences hives, swelling, or breathing difficulties after eating basil, they should be given urgent medical care.
A serious allergic reaction can develop into anaphylaxis, a life-threatening emergency.
The use of basil in a varied and healthy diet can bring benefits.
Research into basil’s medicinal benefits, however, focuses mostly on extracts, rather than adding herb to the diet.
Many of the available studies have also investigated the properties of holy basil, or tulsi, a plant that is different from the one usually used in cooking.
In addition, there is currently insufficient empirical evidence to support many of those uses.
Could basil benefit my health if I add it to my diet?
Basil is a herb that has had beneficial health effects. Using different herbs and spices can give meals flavor and these ingredients often contain antioxidants that fight free radicals.
People with high blood pressure can reduce their consumption of sodium, and using more herbs such as basil is a way to provide meals with flavor, without adding salt.
Unless there is an allergy or concern over medicines for blood clotting, basil can be a very safe and healthy herb to add to any diet. Natalie Olsen, R.D., L.D., ACSM EP-C
Answers represent our medical experts’ opinions. All material is purely informational and medical advice should not be considered.