Common Names

Basil herb , Sweet Basil
Botanical Name
Ocimum basilicum

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What is it?

The leaves of the very familiar kitchen herb, Basil, without which any good pesto or pasta sauce would be mere shadows of their rightful selves! There are many strains of Basil around the world, over 150, with many similarities,including they are all highly aromatic and beneficial on a number of levels!




How has it been used?

Basil has historically been used to treat nervous irritability and to help with stomach cramps (it is still used for this in Chinese medicine). It also has a rich history of use to help increase the production of milk in nursing mothers.

M Grieve writes that 'the derivation of the name Basil is uncertain. Some authorities say it comes from the Greek basileus, a king, because, as Parkinson says, 'the smell thereof is so excellent that it is fit for a king's house,' or it may have been termed royal, because it was used in some regal medicine'

Avicenna, in his Canon of Medicine, one of the most influential medical books in history, writes of Basil being heating and drying. He says 'it is a powerful tonic for the heart and decongests the lungs and chest. It is beneficial for hot tempered persons, specially when used after it is rinsed with rose-water. It is very useful in headache and is a deobstruent drug for cerebral obstructions.'

Dioscorides, the Greek physician from over 2000 years ago, wrote of Basil being used in African medicine to allay the pain from the sting of a scorpion.

The juice of the leaves can relieve the discomfort of insect bites and stings and Nicolas Culpeper wrote that 'being applied to the place bitten by venomous beasts, or stung by a wasp or hornet, it speedily draws the poison to it'

Thomas Bartram describes Basil's actions as 'antispasmodic, carminative, galactagogue, sedative (mild) stomachic, antibacterial, vermifuge, anti-depressant and adrenal stimulant' and suggests that it may be used 'for nervous irritability, to increase milk in nursing mothers, for nausea and vomiting and for the recovery after hysterectomy'

Andrew Chevallier describes Basil as having 'a mildly sedative action, proving useful in treating nervous irritability, depression, anxiety and difficulty in sleeping'. He says that 'it may also be taken for epilepsy, migraines and whooping cough'

Maurice Messegue, the renowned French folk-healer highly rated Basil 'for restlessness and migraines'

In Thailand, amongst other places in the East, Basil is used as an antidote to the sluggish stupor of a hashish overdose and they also use it as part of the withdrawal from mind-altering and addictive drugs.

Religious history of Basil

The religious history of Basil is quite remarkable. It was thought to be found around Christ’s tomb after his resurrection and many old churches including the Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian and Macedonian Orthodox all use Basil to prepare their holy waters to this very day.

Hinduism also reveres Basil (where it is called Tulsi) and it will always be found planted around their temples. Basil is considered sacred to the gods Vishnu and Krishna and believed to be a protector in life and death. It is an old tradition in India to place Basil in the mouth of the dying to ensure that they reach God.

Likewise, in some of the ancient civilisations of Greece and Egypt Basil was placed in the hands of the dead to ensure a safe journey in the afterlife.


Science on Basil

~ Recently there has been renewed scientific interest in Basil as investigation has shown that its essential oils (the ingredients that give Basil its distinctive scent) have exceptionally high antioxidant and antimicrobial actions (Wannissorn, B., Jarikasem, S., Siriwangchai, T., and Thubthimthed, S. Antibacterial properties of essential oils from Thai medicinal plants. Fitoterapia 2005;76(2):233-236)

~ In a study of patients with chronic bronchitis, exposure to essential oils of basil caused lowering of plasma levels of dienic conjugates and ketons and activation of catalase in red cells characteristic of antioxidant effects Siurin, S. A. (Effects of essential oil on lipid peroxidation and lipid metabolism in patients with chronic bronchitis]. Klin Med (Mosk) 1997;75(10):43-45)

~ Basil essential oil appears to help with mental burn-out and fatigue (Varney, E. and Buckle, J. Effect of inhaled essential oils on mental exhaustion and moderate burnout: a small pilot study. J Altern.Complement Med. 2013;19(1):69-71)

~ There is a natural phenolic compound contained in many Lamiaceae herbs, such as basil, that inhibits complement-dependent inflammatory processes. Based on in vitro study, this compound, rosmarinic acid, was able to reduce radical oxygen species production, protein and DNA synthesis inhibition, and apoptosis caused by the two mycotoxins. Rosmarinic acid dose dependently attenuated radical oxygen species production and DNA and protein synthesis inhibition induced by both of the toxins. Similarly, apoptosis cell death was prevented, as demonstrated by reduction of DNA fragmentation and inhibition of caspase-3 activation (p<0.001) (Renzulli, C., Galvano, F., Pierdomenico, L., Speroni, E., and Guerra, M. C. Effects of rosmarinic acid against aflatoxin B1 and ochratoxin-A-induced cell damage in a human hepatoma cell line (Hep G2). J Appl Toxicol 2004;24(4):289-296)

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of well over 200 further studies and articles on Basil are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Basil

There are no reports in the medical literature of toxicity associated to Basil and, as this is a herb that is used in large amounts in food, I think we can confidently assume it is safe for all ages, pregnancy, breastfeeding etc. All that said I think that this is not a herb to over-use any more in medicine than as you would in food, where too much would overpower everything else. Basil is a potent, aromatic, insistent remedy with which less is frequently more...

Some evidence suggests that basil extract can reduce systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Theoretically, taking basil extract with antihypertensive drugs might increase the risk of hypotension. (Umar, A., Imam, G., Yimin, W., Kerim, P., Tohti, I., Berke, B., and Moore, N. Antihypertensive effects of Ocimum basilicum L. (OBL) on blood pressure Hypertens.Res 5-7-2010)

General comment on herbal safety

All medicinal herbs that have the power to do good have the potential to do harm. The old maxim 'the poison is in the dose' precisely describes how too much of anything can be bad for us. The ancient rule to 'firstly, do no harm is, to this day, held as the core directive by all practitioners of traditional herbal medicine. Not only are we careful to do our best to use the right herbs, but equally we take care to not give too much of them or use them overlong.

For some years now, against this proven and safe way of herbalism, there has been a rising tide of excessive caution and scare-mongering in many parts of the world. The same authorities that, not so long ago, decried herbal medicines as ineffectual, have now taken up a different adversarial position; that they are dangerous substances that should only be prescribed by Doctors, who of course have zero training in them.

Lists of '10 popular herbs and why you should avoid them' include things like Garlic and Ginger that might 'thin your blood'. Such cautions are absurd to the point of the ridiculous, but fear is a universal driver that has long been proven to be effective at manipulating people.

Unfortunately, the same unnecessary fear and worry has crept into many natural health websites and popular publications on herbs. Herbs that we have safely used for thousands of years, that have no reports of adverse reactions in the medical literature despite widespread use by millions of people, are suddenly described as contraindicated because of something that should have been seen as completely unimportant, or at the utmost a merely theoretical concern, such as a laboratory study on one of the herb's constituents to use an all too common example.

I wonder sometimes if the writers of such articles feel that the herb will be more deserving of respect if it is thought to be a little bit dangerous, in other words more like a drug than something that has simply come out of the earth and been used by ordinary people for generations beyond count.

There is just so much misinformation about herbal medicine on the internet now. Ludicrous claims and cautions abound in equal measure; it seems like one group are trying to make money out of the public whilst the other are busily trying to scare them off.

I have to believe that the kind of reader who takes the time to read pages on herbs that are as extensive as this one is much less likely to be swayed by marketers or misinformers. I hope that you will keep your wits about you if you get conflicting opinions from people who have never really got to know these herbs, who have never worked with them, or learned how to use them safely and effectively.

I want to remind you that the reason that herbs can never be patented and owned by any individual or corporation is because they are, and always will be, the People's medicine. They belong to all of us and it is my great hope in sharing this work that you will learn how to use them wisely for yourself, and the people you care for. Be safe, but do not be afraid.


Personal experiences

Basil is a great herb to get to know in clinical practice. In small doses, it can have a pleasantly stimulating effect on the mind and nerves, relieving fatigue and aiding insight. In larger doses, Basil has a kind of detoxicant effect, helping to bring clarity to a clouded mind in a rather robust manner.

A good way to get to appreciate the power of Basil to use it as a compress to rapidly clear the head when someone has a heavy, congestive headache, the kind where people say, 'they just can't think' This is done by soaking a cloth in a strong tea of Basil (one heaped tsp of the dried herb soaked for 10 minutes in a covered cup of freshly boiled water) and then placing the cloth wringing wet over the sore head. See what happens next, in a matter of minutes the fog may clear and the headache with it, or at the least it should significantly subside.

Note that a 'cool' constitution is best to use the compress as hot as is comfortable, whereas a 'hot' constitution will be better to chill the tea down, even to the point of putting ice in it or straining it after it has infused and putting the tea in the fridge until very cool, more about constitutions below.

Basil has been revered by spiritual traditions around the world because its presence aids calmness. I will often add just a small amount to a tincture (e.g. 10 mls in a 200 mls bottle) to help a patient who I see is suffering from confusion or a clouded mind. Of course, people have to work through their problems but there is a great strength in knowing how to let Nature help us along our way and in this regard Basil has shown that it amply deserves its ancient reputation as a 'wisdom remedy'.

A personal appreciation of Basil can come to anyone with a special interest in herbal medicine by taking just a small dose of it with a quiet and attentive mind and then seeing what happens. Your body is a remarkably intelligent living laboratory which will respond to such an enquiry with much instinctive and palpable feedback!

Further to this, if you would like to learn more about the ancient art of pulse testing, a simple but powerful way to ask the intuitive intelligence of the body for its responses to a herb by feeling the pulse whilst giving a tiny dose by mouth, read here

Basil combines particularly well with Rosemary and Ginkgo when we want to increase the flow of energy to the mind and it works perfectly with Bacopa, Withania and/or St John's wort when we want a restorative tonic to the brain and nervous system.


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Basil is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

Part of the reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This useful and rather fascinating subject is introduced further here

Another big part of using the right herb when it is most needed comes from understanding the need to treat what is going wrong for the person that had led up to their getting a health condition. In this light, Basil can particularly offer its benefits when an activation is needed in the 'cycle of healing' - more about this here

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd