Often referred to as holy basil, Tulsi is a potent herb that has been used in India for thousands of years to treat colds, coughs, and flu. According to Ayurveda, tulsi promotes purity and lightness in the body, cleansing the respiratory tract of toxins and relieving digestive gas and bloating. Tulsi leaves offer a rich source of essential oil, containing eugenol, nerol, camphor, and a variety of terpenes and flavonoids. The oil is a strong antiseptic against many kinds of disease-causing organisms, including bacteria, fungi, and parasites.
In terms of the Ayurvedic doshas, tulsi carries the bitter, pungent, and astringent tastes and generates a warming influence on the physiology. The herb is predominantly Kapha-reducing, but it can also be used to pacify Vata and Pitta. However, it can have a mildly Pitta-aggravating effect in individuals who are severely overheated.
Tulsi has spiritual as well as medicinal significance in Ayurveda. In Hindu mythology, the plant is an incarnation of the goddess Tulsi, offering divine protection. Many Indian families keep a living Tulsi plant in their homes – tending to it with great care and reverence. The plant’s woody stalks are often made into beads used in meditation malas or rosaries.
The Native Shrub
While basil is found on every continent, tulsi or holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. It is a bushy shrub that grows to about 18 inches in height. Its leaves are oval and serrated, with colors ranging from light green to dark purple, depending on the variety. In the wild, tulsi is an annual, but it can be kept as a perennial by trimming it before it forms seeds. The plant has delicate lavender-colored flowers, and its fruit consists of tiny rust-colored nuts.
Tulsi’s Benefits in Soothing Stress
Tulsi oil has antioxidant properties that may explain its effectiveness in reducing the damaging effects of stress on the body. A number of studies of animals have shown that tulsi protects healthy cells from the toxicity of radiation and chemotherapy. In addition, tulsi seems to influence the neurochemistry of the brain in a way similar to antidepressant medications.
If you are taking tulsi for stress relief, we recommend growing your own plant from seeds or cuttings. To benefit from their health-promoting effects, nibble on a few leaves every day. You can also use holy basil freely in your cooking and in making freshly brewed tea.
If you can’t find holy basil, common sweet basil is a reasonable substitute. Although not as extensively researched as holy basil, sweet basil does appear to have many of the same medicinal properties.
One precaution: Studies from the 1970s suggest that holy basil might have a mild anti-fertility effect in animals. Although this effect hasn’t been demonstrated to occur in human beings, if you are pregnant or are trying to become pregnant, don’t take medicinal doses of this herb.
Grow Your Own Tulsi Plant
Starting with seeds: Place the seeds between warm, moist paper towels for a day, and then plant them a half-inch below the surface in rich potting soil. A sprout will start to break through in 10 days. Once the plant reaches a height of about 12 inches, you can 1) pinch back any flowers to keep it from going to seed; or 2) allow the plant to seed and start a new generation.
Learn more about the healing practices of Ayurveda here.
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