When I was in India in 2010, I saw basil plants growing outside the front door of most houses. Amid the cow dung (being dried for fire-making) there were these little scraggly looking plants, like an exuberant greeting amid the smog and dust. Upon asking, I was told that it’s extremely auspicious to have a tulsi (basil) plant in your home, as it is Krishna’s plant. Further investigation led me to Grieve’s “A Modern Herbal”, in which she says:

“In India the Basil plant is sacred to both Krishna and Vishnu, and is cherished in every Hindu house. Probably on account of its virtues, in disinfecting, and vivifying malarious air, it first became inseparable from Hindu houses in India as the protecting spirit of the family.[1]

Tulsi, of course, has been a trendy plant in the West for a few years now. I can certainly understand the lure of tulsi, as opposed to regular old garden basil, but basil in general has been used as medicine since it first journeyed across the oceans. While exotic herbs from halfway around the world are much more attractive to the average person than what is immediately available, I have noticed very little difference between the two in effect, and a huge difference in quality. Yes, tulsi is called ‘holy’ basil, which makes it sound more special than regular old garden basil, but it’s called this because basil is considered sacred in India, not necessarily because there is something special about Indian basil. That people go to health food stores to buy up extracts of such a special little plant is absurd to me, especially when it’s so ubiqitous here in our gardens and our grocery stores.

Basil has been described as everything from an elixir of life by an Indian herbalist I spoke to, to a poison that will ‘grow scorpions of the mind’ by Culpeper. Its uses range from digestive aid to mood elevator. It is antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral. It has been used for detoxification and for mental stimulation, and it is seen as an alterative, bringing the body back into balance. Let’s take a further look.

Basil: Ocimum spp.

Warm/ cool. Pungent.

Basil looks, at first, as though it has a whole bunch of conflicting uses. For sleepiness or as a sedative. To stimulate digestion and to calm an over active stomach. To open the heart and to calm anxiety. Upon further examination, it’s actually a single course of action that basil takes that produces all these disparate effects: basil opens things. It unclogs things, and clears things out. It opens blockages in the brain, it opens pores, it unclogs deposits of toxins in the fatty tissues, opens the heart, clears the lungs of mucus thereby opening the respiratory tract. Because of this, basil is a balancing herb.


Basil contains 19 different antispasmodic constituents (Alpha-bisabolol, anethole, apigenin, borneol, caffeic-acid, camphor, caryophyllene, eugenol, farnesol, geraniol, limonene, linalol, linalyl-acetate, luteolin, menthol, menthone, myrcene, thymol and valeric-acid)[2], making extremely useful in both digestive and menstrual complaints. It stimulates appetite for those in whom it is lacking, and warms the digestive tract, acting as a carminative and antispasmidic for spasms, flatulence, indigestion and cramping. It is extremely useful in cases of dysmennorhea or amennorhea with accompanying deficiency cold symptoms.

Nervous system

Basil, through its ‘opening’ mechanism, regulates the nervous system. It is fantastic as a stimulating tea in the morning, but often relaxing in the evening. Where basil works wonders for digestive sluggishness, it also works similarly for the mind, stimulating a sluggish, underactive person- the sluggish but restless type who looks like they have energy but don’t DO anything and are too distracted to focus on anything. I see this as a blockage somewhere- there’s obviously energy in the system but it’s not making it to the right places. Similarly, it works well for hyperactiveness and inability to concentrate- a restlessness of the heart which causes folks to not be able to sit still and, be ‘in the moment’. Basil helps to unblock these hold-ups. Because of this, it’s really useful in concentration blends. I use it combined with gotu kola in Clarity and Focus Elixir. 

Heart Lifting

As a heart medicine, basil is calming and uplifting. It settles restlessness- a sort of inability to just ‘be’ by oneself or with oneself. A perfect example is a client of mine who had insomnia, low sex drive and depression issues. It was a classic deficiency case- she’d been vegetarian for years, and depressed since a couple of years before that. She was desperate for a boyfriend, and to connect with people, but at the same time I got the sense that she lived in a bit of a fantasy land, connecting with people in her head but not her heart, ascribing traits to people that they didn’t necessarily have, and expecting a lot after not knowing people for very long. She already didn’t believe that herbs ‘worked’ and was coming to me as a last resort as the antidepressants she’d been on for years left her unable to experience sex, though much more content in other ways. And so I took a risk. I felt pretty sure that there was some kind of imbalance, not in her physical heart, but in the way she connected to things. A restlessness that made her unable to sit still. Not connecting to the world at large was a defense mechanism that was working in some ways, but making her depressed and cut off from everyone around her, and not a long-term solution. So I gave her basil, combined with hawthorn, evening primrose and sweet everlasting. I gave it to her in a quiet setting, and instructed her to sit quietly for 30 seconds or so (during which I kept talking because antsy bird like people don’t like to sit in silence very much).

After 30 seconds she said “is something supposed to be happening” and I got nervous. After 45 seconds her eyes flung open and she said “what the hell did you put in this that isn’t on the label”. Her entire countenance had changed. Her chest had relaxed, her shoulders had relaxed, her eyes looked brighter. She was absolutely convinced that I’d put Ambien in the bottle, except that she didn’t feel groggy, only relaxed, and, as she put it, warm in her chest. It’s only been a few months, but she’s been sleeping through the night and much more relaxed into herself since. She’s also started painting again (something she quit when she started law school years ago).

So while basil is an exhilirant, I feel like it works slightly under the surface too, unblocking things, moving and shifting things, opening what was blocked.


It is this unblocking that I think gives basil its reputation as a marijuana detoxifier. Years ago I ran into a man in the US Army special forces who, on his Christmas break, was eating frozen cubes of basil every day. His naturopath had put him on it for a shoulder injury that wouldn’t heal. After learning that he smoked cannabis almost every day for ten years before joining the army, he said that cannabis stays in the tissues, often preventing injuries from healing properly, causing sluggishness of the brain and body that stays long after the immediate effects are gone. I don’t have first-hand experience with this as I don’t have access to any equipment that would test for such things as residue in the tissues. I will, however, say that it makes sense. That basil opens and clears blockages and sluggishness, and these are effects that are often caused by cannabis use. His shoulder recovered very quickly, and the last I heard, he hadn’t re-injured it.

Ear infection

I heard about this use on Paul Bergner’s “Vitalist Treatments For Acute Symptoms” CD, and got a chance to use it recently on my sister, who suffers from swimmer’s ear quite often. For external ear infections, roll up a basil leaf, and put it in the ear. It clears the infection quite quickly and effectively. For inner ear infections, I’ve had a lot of success making an oil of basil and garlic, as counter-intuitive as it seems to use something externally for an internal ear infection. I recently saw a one-year old boy who had a middle ear infection. He hadn’t had one before and it seemed to be the lingering effect of a cold not necessarily food-allergy related. After two days of basil and garlic oil it was gone.

Respiratory system

The volatile oils in basil (linalool and eugenol) are both antifungal and antibacterial, making basil an excellent thing to have around for respiratory infections. It is best suited for cold and damp conditions, with white phlegm and congestion. A steam of fresh or dried basil leaves is the best way to deliver these compounds directly to the respiratory tract. This is the case for most of the aromatic cooking herbs, like peppermint, rosemary, thyme, and oregano. Similarly to the other common cooking herbs, it’s also a useful diaphoretic in fevers with accompanying strong chills[3]

Circulatory stimulant 

Because basil is so good at moving and opening things, it is a lovely and gentle circulatory stimulant. A hot tea in winter can bring warmth and feeling back to cold numb fingers. It makes a beautiful infused massage oil, and a delicious smelling foot bath.


[1] Grieve, M. A Modern Herbal 1931

[2] Bergner, Paul. Medical Herbalism: therapeutics and case studies. 2001

[3] [3] Wood, Matthew The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. 2008

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