Stress is linked to many aspects of both physical and mental health. Over time, stress can negatively affect the health of the digestive, immune and nervous systems. While the underlying causes of stress must be examined before one can truly heal oneself, dietary supplements can aid in the process. Holy basil, in particular, is an effective way to both prevent and combat the damaging effects of everyday stressors.
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is an herb native to India, where it is known as tulsi. It is sacred in the Hindu religious tradition and is regarded as one of the most important plants used in Ayurvedic medicine. If you go to India, you will see holy basil growing in profusion around Hindu temples. Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is a member of the mint family.
Also known as “Tulsi” or “The Incomparable One,” holy basil is one of the most sacred plants in India.
Stress is a normal and natural part of everyday life. Stress occurs when the demands placed upon us exceed our body’s ability to cope. The body’s response to stress, often referred to as the “flight-or-fight” response, occurs automatically at these times. The adrenal glands release stress hormones, including cortisol, adrenaline and corticosterone, which give you a boost of energy and strength to “fight” or “flee.” This makes sense when faced with a physical threat, but this same response also helps you deal with a more subtle, but equally stressful psychological or emotional demand. For example, this energy boost can enhance your focus helping you to perform optimally at work or improve mental clarity allowing you to quickly deal with a conflict at home. So in this sense, some stress (and our body’s response to it) is good for you – it helps us respond in emergencies. When the stressful situation has passed, the hormone levels naturally decline.
It’s when stress becomes chronic, or on-going, that it can create problems. Stress hormones have other, not-so-obvious effects. They play a role in metabolism, inflammation, and immune system responses. So when our body is continually stressed, that is, continually bombarded by high levels of cortisol and corticosterone, our digestive function can become impaired – leading to increased appetite and weight gain, our nervous system can be damaged – leading to anxiety or depression, and our immune system can be suppressed – leading to sickness or even autoimmune diseases.8-10
So, while we don’t want to “turn off” the stress response, we also don’t want to remain in a state of continual stress. This is where holy basil comes in.
How does holy basil combat stress?
Holy basil functions as an adaptogen, enhancing the body’s natural response to physical and emotional stress. Adaptogenic herbs do not alter mood, but rather, they help the body function optimally during times of stress.1,7
Multiple scientific studies examining this property of Ocimum sanctum have found that supplementation with various extracts of holy basil decrease stress hormone levels, corticosterone in particular.11-16
Lower levels of corticosterone are associated with improved mental clarity and memory, and long-term, can reduce the risk of age-related mental disorders.17
There are several studies which examine the anti-stress effects of different components of holy basil. An herbal preparation, which combined a standardized holy basil extract along with three other Ayurvedic herbs, has been shown to improve the body’s ability to adapt to stress. The subjects were continually subjected to stress leading to elevated levels of stress hormones. Administration of the combination of herbs brought the hormone levels back to normal. Further testing revealed the combination also exhibited preventative effects against stress. When taken on an on-going basis, the combination reduced the level to which the hormones were raised following exposure to stressful situations.11,12
When isolated and examined individually, holy basil significantly contributed to these effects.
Cortisol is called the “stress hormone” because it is secreted during times of fear or stress, whenever your body goes into the fight or flight response. Cortisol is made in your adrenals. In the constant state of stress so commonplace today, cortisol creates chronic to severe inflammation that eventually causes premature aging and leads to an earlier death. In fact, cortisol is often called, “the death hormone.”
Cortisol suppresses another important, DHEA, the “youth” hormone.
Cortisol causes blood sugar to elevate and this then leads to an acidic blood condition. Acidic blood leads to the modern life-style epidemics we see today like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Some other affects of elevated cortisol are:
- Lowered immunity
- Poor short-term memory
- Weight gain, especially in the abdominal region and the waist
- Loss of muscle tone
- Reduced growth hormone, testosterone, DHEA and estrogen
Cortisol and Fear
If you’re a big fan of TV and newspapers, you are well aware that the media constantly reminds us that we live in an unpredictable and potentially dangerous world. For many of us our thoughts are on overdrive and our minds are constantly filled with negative chatter. Worry and concern cause fear and that fear can consume us.
In Chinese Medicine, it has always been understood that our adrenals, kidney and bladder are the organs connected to the emotion of fear.
When you live a life full of chronic fear, as many of us do, you are weakening your adrenals, your kidneys and your bladder. As they become weaker, you will find yourself becoming even more fearful. It’s a vicious cycle that has to be broken.
Holy basil affects the body’s “energy field” according to ayurvedic physician and author Dr. Vasant Lad. Ayurvedic tradition says that holy basil performs the indispensable spiritual function of balancing and toning the energetic chakra system. It is considered the maha guna (great quality) that balances sattva (pure quality), and it delivers nutrients to the mind necessary for the experience of enlightenment. Its quality is pure sattva. Holy basil opens the heart and the mind, bestowing the energy of love and devotion (bhakti). Sacred to Vishnu and Krishna, it strengthens faith, compassion and clarity.
– David Winston, RH (AHG), and Steven Maimes, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief
studies have shown that it modulates the effects of a variety of stress responses, as well as decreases cholesterol and increases endurance.20-25
To test the ability of Holy Basil to modulate homeostatic imbalance, scientists arranged a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in which 71 humans took 1,200 mg a day of Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), and 79 others took a placebo. For both groups, various cognitive and energy-related symptoms of stress were measured using a standard analysis (RMANOVA) at 0, 2, 4, and 6 weeks.
Scores were determined to be substantially improved for all stress related symptoms measured, including forgetfulness, sexual problems of recent origin, frequent feeling of exhaustion, and frequent sleep problems of recent origin. Also, the overall stress-management scores were found to have improved by an additional 39% for the Holy Basil group over the placebo group—and this improvement was observed in just 6 weeks!53
Because multiple constituents of holy basil have been shown to combat stress, an effective supplement must provide each of these key active components at therapeutic dosages. In particular, the supplement should be standardized for eugenol, caryophyllene and triterpenoic acids, such as ursolic and oleanolic acids. As these constituents differ significantly in their chemical structure, alternate extraction methods are needed to obtain beneficial levels. It is important to look for a dietary supplement which utilizes multiple extracts of holy basil, such as alcohol extracts, supercritical (or CO2) extracts, and distillation extracts, to provide the most complete supplement.
I have tried several holy basil supplements and teas that were ineffective or not potent enough for me to notice an effect. I have noticed tremendous results from the supercritical extracts and found them to be the most potent.
Different botanical extraction methods allow for the separation, isolation, and concentration of key active components naturally found in the herb. Extraction is also useful for producing a consistent product; one that will deliver the same benefits with each dose. While there are many methods for extracting botanical compounds, each will affect the herb and the key component in different ways. Certain extraction methods will isolate lipophilic (“fat-loving” or insoluble in water) components, such as triterpenoic acids, whereas other methods yield the hydrophilic (“water-loving” or water soluble) components, eugenol and caryophyllene.18,19
When both lipophilic and hydrophilic components are required for support, as is the case for holy basil, a combination of extraction methods is necessary.
Anyone who takes stimulants, stresses out, or is a high anxiety type, runs the risk of burning out the adrenals to the point where they don’t produce enough pre-hormones to help regulate the body.
If you’re body is producing too much cortisol on a regular basis, it’s also putting a stress on the adrenal glands to produce the other hormones it needs to manufacture. Cortisol production also uses raw materials that are needed to produce other hormones, so you have more production of only one “product” and less raw materials to produce everything. It’s a losing battle.
Like I said before, the adrenals also produce pregnenolone which is a precursor to hormones like progesterone, estrogen, DHEA and testosterone.
If you adrenals are busy pumping out cortisol, the production of pregnenolone takes a back seat.
Because your “survival” is more important than your sex drive or if you feel good or not.
This is why people who have poor adrenal function tend to be irritable, have low sex drive, can’t get out bed and suffer from mild to severe depression.
Tulsi is the name for Sacred or Holy basil in India and translates to “incomparable one.”
Animal experiments have found that its leaves can reduce fasting and post meal glucose levels. An Indian study of 17 diabetics found that 1 gram of holy basil leaf reduced fasting glucose levels by 20.8 percent. In addition, cholesterol levels went down by 11 percent and triglyceride by 16 percent.