The leaves of basil and its many close relatives are used as medicine. The seeds are also used medicinally in India and Southeast Asia. Though it originates on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East, common basil now grows in gardens all over the world. Three important relatives with similar properties are Ocimum canum (hairy basil), O. gratissimum (basil), and O. sanctum (holy basil).
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For over a decade, our team has combed through thousands of research articles published in reputable journals. To help you make educated decisions, and to better understand controversial or confusing supplements, our medical experts have digested the science into these three easy-to-follow ratings. We hope this provides you with a helpful resource to make informed decisions towards your health and well-being.
3 Stars Reliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.
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1 Star For an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support.
Take as tea (2 tsp in 2 cups of water), or as a tincture or capsules (follow label instructions)
Basil seed has been found to relieve constipation by acting as a bulk-forming laxative in one preliminary study.
The laxatives most frequently used world-wide come from plants. Herbal laxatives are either bulk-forming or stimulating.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) seed has been found to relieve constipation by acting as a bulk-forming laxative in one preliminary study.4 A similar study showed the seeds to be useful following major surgery for elderly people with constipation.5Alginic acid, one of the major constituents in bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus), is a type of dietary fiber that may be used to relieve constipation. However, human studies have not been conducted on the effectiveness of bladderwrack for this condition.
Indigestion, Heartburn, and Low Stomach Acidity
Refer to label instructions
Basil is a gas-relieving herb that may be helpful in calming an upset stomach.
Carminatives (also called aromatic digestive tonics or aromatic bitters) may be used to relieve symptoms of indigestion, particularly when there is excessive gas. It is believed that carminative agents work, at least in part, by relieving spasms in the intestinal tract.6
There are numerous carminative herbs, including European angelica root (Angelica archangelica), anise, Basil, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, dill, ginger, oregano, rosemary, sage, lavender, and thyme.7 Many of these are common kitchen herbs and thus are readily available for making tea to calm an upset stomach. Rosemary is sometimes used to treat indigestion in the elderly by European herbal practitioners.8 The German Commission E monograph suggests a daily intake of 4–6 grams of sage leaf.9 Pennyroyal is no longer recommended for use in people with indigestion, however, due to potential side effects.
Basil has been a culinary herb in Europe and Central Asia since before the written word.1 In India the seeds were used for diarrhea, mucous discharges, constipation, and as a general demulcent (soothes mucous membranes);2 the leaves were used for indigestion and skin diseases. In traditional Thai herbalism, the plant is used for coughs, skin diseases, and intestinal problems. The seed is used as a bulk-forming laxative and diuretic.3
Basil contains a strong-scented volatile oil composed primarily of terpenoids, particularly eugenol, thymol, and estragole. Basil also has what are known as chemotypes, minor variations among plants that contain significantly different mixes of constituents. The exact components of basil oil vary widely, being affected not only by these chemotypes but also by factors such as the time of day of harvest.10 This may account for some of the variability in scientific research and reports of medicinal efficacy of basil from culture to culture.
Preliminary studies on holy basil and hairy basil have shown that the leaf and seed may help people with type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar levels.11 , 12 , 13 While the action-mechanism of the leaf is not understood, the seed may work by providing dietary fiber, which helps prevent rapid blood sugar elevations after meals. In addition, the seed has been found to relieve constipation by acting as a bulk-forming laxative in one uncontrolled human study.14 A similar study showed the seeds useful in elderly people who experienced constipation after undergoing major surgery.15
The volatile oil of basil has shown antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral activity in test tube studies.16 It is also believed to act as a carminative, relieving intestinal gas, and as a mild diuretic, though these actions have yet to be definitively proven.17
A tea can be made by steeping 1 teaspoon of basil leaves in one cup of water for ten minutes. Three cups of this tea can be drunk per day. Capsules of basil can be taken in the amount of 2.5 grams per day. The volatile oil can be taken internally in the amount of 2 to 5 drops three times per day.18
Although concerns have been raised about the possible cancer-causing effects of estragole, a component found in variable amounts in basil volatile oil, small amounts of basil would not seem to pose a significant threat.19 However, because some herbal books suggest that estragole may be potentially carcinogenic and has been thought to stimulate uterine contractions, some herbal experts feel it may be best for pregnant or breast-feeding women to avoid use of the herb, especially the volatile oil.20 People with serious kidney or liver damage should not use basil volatile oil internally, as they could theoretically have trouble eliminating it from their bodies. However, use of basil as a seasoning in food is unlikely to be of concern.
1. Grieve M. A Modern Herbal vol 1. New York: Hafner, 1967:86.
2. Nadkarni AK, Nadkarni KM. Indian Materia Medica vol 1. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1976:861–7.
3. Farnsworth NR, Bunyapraphatsara N (eds). Thai Medicinal Plants. Bangkok: Medicinal Plant Information Center, 1992:180–2.
4. Kocharatana P, et al. Clinical trial of maeng-lak seeds used as a bulk laxative. Maharaj Nakornratchasima Hosp Med Bull 1985;9:120–36.
5. Muangman V, Siripraiwan S, Ratanaolarn K, et al. A clinical trial of Ocimum canum Sims seeds as a bulk laxative in elderly post-operative patients. Ramathibodi Med J 1985;8:154–8.
6. Forster HB, Niklas H, Lutz S. Antispasmodic effects of some medicinal plants. Planta Med 1980;40:303–19.
7. Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, et al. (eds). The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin: American Botanical Council and Boston: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998, 425–6.
8. Weiss RF. Herbal Medicine. Beaconsfield, UK: Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd, 1988, 185–6.
9. Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, et al. (eds). The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin: American Botanical Council and Boston: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998, 198.
10. de Vasconcelos Silva MG, Craveiro AA, Abreu Matos FJ, et al. Chemical variation during daytime of constituents of the essential oil of Ocimum gratissimum leaves. Fitoterapia 1999;70:32–4.
11. Viseshakul D, Premvatana P, Chularojmontri V, et al. Improved glucose tolerance induced by long term dietary supplementation with hairy basal seeds (Ocimum canum Sim) in diabetics. J Med Assoc Thai 1985;68:408–11.
12. Agrawal P, Rai V, Singh RB. Randomized placebo-controlled, single blind trial of holy basil leaves in patients with noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. Int J Clin Pharmacol Ther 1996;34:406–9.
13. Rai V, Mani UV, Iyer UM. Effect of Ocimum sanctum leaf powder on blood lipoproteins, glycated protein and total amino acids in patients with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. J Nutr Environ Med 1997;7:113–8.
14. Kocharatana P, et al. Clinical trial of maeng-lak seeds used as a bulk laxative. Maharaj Nakornratchasima Hosp Med Bull 1985;9:120–36.
15. Muangman V, Siripraiwan S, Ratanaolarn K, et al. A clinical trial of Ocimum canum Sims seeds as a bulk laxative in elderly post-operative patients. Ramathibodi Med J 1985;8:154–8.
16. Farnsworth NR, Bunyapraphatsara N (eds). Thai Medicinal Plants. Bangkok: Medicinal Plant Information Center, 1992:180–2.
17. Farnsworth NR, Bunyapraphatsara N (eds). Thai Medicinal Plants. Bangkok: Medicinal Plant Information Center, 1992:180–2.
18. Valnet J. The Practice of Aromatherapy. New York: Destiny Books, trans. Campbell R, Houston L, 1982:97–8.
19. McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, Goldberg A (eds). American Herbal Products Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997:143–5.
20. Brinker F. Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions. Sandy, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1998, 33–4.
Last Review: 05-01-2013
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