Basil, botanical name Ocimum basilicum, features prominently in Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Italian cuisine. This long history of use across the globe only makes sense, given that there are powerful basil nutrition benefits. This fresh, green herb from the mint family also has a long history of use in traditional Tamil and Ayurvedic medicine practices to treat inflammatory ailments like arthritis. Let’s get to know basil a bit better, and then…let’s enjoy it!
Basil Nutrition Facts
Laboratory analysis reveals that basil contains rich stores of antioxidants like beta-carotene that keep your cells healthy and the number of free radicals circulating in your body in check. Basil also contains significant quantities of vitamin K—20% of your daily recommended intake per 2 tablespoons—as well as other essential minerals and vitamins. The USDA’s National Nutrient Database provides the following information for 2 tablespoons of fresh basil leaves:
- Vitamin A: 98 micrograms
- Vitamin K: 22 micrograms
- Vitamin C: 1 milligrams
- Potassium: 16 milligrams
- Calcium: 9 milligrams
- Magnesium: 3 milligrams
- Iron: 0.17 milligrams
With all the different basil varieties, it’s impossible to get bored of this culinary herb. Let’s take a look at 5 of our favorite basils!
- Sweet basil: Perhaps the most popular type of basil (and the most well-stocked on grocery store produce shelves), sweet basil satisfies with a sweet, flora flavor of mint, clove, and anise undertones. If you’re cooking up a Mediterranean dish, make sure you have sweet basil on hand!
- Genovese basil: If you’re looking to go classic Italian, then Genovese basil is your best bet. The leaves are flatter and more pointed than those of sweet basil, and carry a more pronounced aroma, but the taste is quite similar.
- Thai basil: If hints of licorice and a sizzle of spice is what you’re after, Thai basil is your best bet. It plays well with Asian dishes and can withstand higher cooking temperatures.
- Holy basil: Otherwise known as tulsi (Ocimum sanctum), holy basil is prized for its medicinal benefits. It’s slightly bitter and best when cooked or brewed as a tea to help soothe tummy troubles and boost circulation and immunity.
- Lemon basil: The lemon scent and flavor is perfect infused in ice tea on hot summer days, but also makes a welcome addition to fish, marinades, and grilled vegetables. Combine it with lime basil for added zest!
7 Exciting Health Benefits of Basil
The most beneficial basil properties have to do with the potent concentrations of natural compounds it contains, such as flavonoids, anthocyanins, and other polyphenols, all of which contribute to its potent anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Multiple types of basil leaves have demonstrated strong antioxidant activity. According to the latest scientific research, basil appears to be an extremely promising treatment option for the following seven health issues.
Findings presented at the British Pharmaceutical Conference by Dr. Vaibhav Shinde of the Poona College of Pharmacy in Pune, India, showed that basil extracts could reduce swelling by as much as 73% in just 24 hours. These results match those of diclofenac, a drug commonly prescribed to treat arthritis.
“Our results supported the use of these traditional treatments in inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis, and we will now carry out more detailed evaluation of the plants for active compounds which could be developed into new medicines,” Shinde said.
The work of a separate group of Indian researchers also supports the use of basil to treat arthritis and other diseases caused or aggravated by inflammation. After dosing arthritic rats with beta-caryophyllene, a powerful antioxidant found in basil, the researchers concluded that it has “prominent anti-arthritic activity.”
2. Oxidative Stress
A study published in Methods and Findings in Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology found that basil protected rabbits from the adverse effects of induced oxidative stress. Measurements taken over the course of a month showed that a daily dose of 2 grams of fresh basil leaves lead to a decrease in blood sugar levels and an increase in antioxidant levels. Overall, researchers noted that basil demonstrated strong anti-stressor activity.
3. Food-Borne Illnesses
Basil oil, which is extracted from the leaves of the plant, has natural antimicrobial properties. Scientists at the University of Tennessee tested a number of plant extracts to see whether they could prevent the growth of pathogenic microorganisms such as Listeria monocytogenes. They found that basil had a “highly inhibitory” effect and showed promise as an additive that could help prevent food-borne illnesses.
Findings published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry also indicated that basil has strong antimicrobial properties and especially significant antifungal activity.
A 2010 study highlighted basil’s effectiveness against V. cholera contamination, noting that it was able to disrupt cell membranes, among other effects.
4. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Research published by the National Academy of Sciences found that the beta-caryophyllene contained in basil can reduce inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, indicating it could potentially be a valuable treatment option for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), among other digestive disorders.
A review published in Nutrition and Cancer in 2013 looked at the chemopreventive and radioprotective properties of basil and concluded that it shows promise for both cancer prevention and treatment, although more research needs to be done.
The authors noted that evidence supports that specific phytochemicals found in basil—eugenol, rosmarinic acid, apigenin, myretenal, linalool, luteolin, estragole, limonene, β-sitosterol, and carnosic acid—have the ability to prevent certain kinds of skin, liver, oral, and lung cancers. It appears they do this by increasing antioxidant activity, altering gene expression, triggering apoptosis (cell death), and reducing the rate of cell division. The phytochemicals also appeared to protect against radiation sickness and to protect healthy cells from radiation damage.
6. Cellular Damage
Dr. Vaibhav Shinde, whose work on how basil can prevent oxidative stress was mentioned earlier, has also studied how the herb can mitigate the cellular damage that often accompanies aging. Shinde found that basil extract eliminated harmful molecules that could cause damage to the liver, brain, and heart. “The study validates the traditional use of the herb as a youth-promoting substance in the Ayurvedic system of medicine,” Shinde said. “It also helps describe how the herb acts at a cellular level.”
7. Anxiety and Depression
An overview of numerous studies on the properties of holy basil published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine found that the herb can relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety as effectively as the popular anti-anxiety drug diazepam and equally popular pharmaceutical antidepressants. Basil can help you feel less anxious, stressed, and depressed. It can also help you feel more social.
The overview highlights a specific 6-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study that found holy basil not only improves general stress, but also specific manifestations like sexual and sleep problems, forgetfulness, and exhaustion.
Basil Delivery Methods
There are many ways to add a health-promoting dose of basil to your diet. Here are five of our favorites to inspire you. Basil’s flavor blends beautifully with so many ingredients, from cantaloupe to bacon, so if you decide to spontaneously add it to a recipe, the odds are in favor of that being a delicious choice.
Add Basil to Your Smoothie
You’ll definitely want to use fresh basil leaves for smoothies. Combinations we love include:
- Basil, mango, cucumber, and lemon
- Kale, apricot, chia seeds, almond milk, and basil
- Watermelon, basil, pink salt, and coconut oil
- Mint, kale, flaxseed, basil, and mango
Brew Your Own Basil Tea
You could buy basil tea, or you could brew your own using fresh or dried basil. Basil tea health benefits target stress and anxiety particularly well, since the ritualized act of preparing and drinking tea can increase feelings of calmness, relaxation, and well-being.
Ayurvedic practitioners recommend making tea from holy basil leaves. Basil tea does have a strong, spicy, somewhat bitter flavor, though, so it may not suit everyone’s palate.
Punch Up Your Salad Dressing with Basil Oil
If you have fresh leaves on hand, you can blend them into delicious salad dressing creations. Or simply add a few drops of basil oil—just 1-3 drops will add a delicious, fresh basil flavor and bring with them a concentrated dose of basil health benefits.
Make Your Own Pesto Sauce
Pesto pasta sauce is typically a mix of basil, olive oil, and pine nuts. But what if we lighten it up by removing olive oil and adding in some avocado for our healthy fat and a creamy base? That’s what Monique at Ambitious Kitchen did. Check out her Creamy Avocado Basil Pesto for a go-to homemade pesto sauce to slather on pastas, sandwiches…you name it!
Add Fresh Basil Leaves to Your Sandwich
The results you get from adding fresh basil leaves to pasta, salad, pizza, and, yes, sandwiches will delight you. We find this recipe for an eggplant, mozzarella, and basil sandwich to be particularly tasty. While this method won’t get you the most basil bang for your buck, every leaf adds up.
Give Your Cocktails a Savory Basil Twist
If you grow your own basil, you may find yourself with more than you know what to do with! Luckily, there are almost endless options, and one you may not have tried yet is to make cocktails with a basil twist. You can add fresh basil leaves to your mojito or gin and tonic, or you can try one of these basil cocktail recipes specifically designed to showcase the herb’s flavor.
Breathe in Basil Essential Oils
Compounds in basil essential oil, like linalool, can help you relax and destress when breathed in through an aromatherapy diffuser. Aromatherapy can have a beneficial impact not only on stress, but also on blood pressure, heart rate, and immunity.
Whatever way you benefit, basil has earned its stellar reputation as a culinary and medicinal spice. It’s also easy to grow indoors, so use that green thumb to make sure you have basil available for teas and sauces every day of the week!