Basil is a common culinary herb in the mint family that can be sweet or savory. There are several varieties and their scents and tastes vary, as well. The most common include sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) which is the one with which most people are familiar, Thai basil (O. basilicum or thyrsiflora), holy basil (O. tenuiflorum), and lemon basil (O. citriodorum). Other varieties include licorice basil, cinnamon basil, dark opal basil, lettuce leaf basil, purple basil, rubin basil, globe basil, and the hybrids African blue basil and spice basil. 

Health Benefits and Side Effects

Some studies have been done to determine the benefits of sweet basil. Some of the things that basil appears to be helpful with include: 

  • Improving memory retention in later years,
  • Relieving common effects of stress, including depression and memory loss,
  • Aiding recovery from strokes and reduce damage, when taken before or soon after a stroke,
  • Reducing hypertension,
  • Reducing inflammation,
  • Preventing some cancers,
  • Preventing dental cavities by inhibiting bacteria growth,
  • Acting as an antibacterial, to many, including such strains as Staphylococcus, Pseudomonas, and Enterococcus, even the ones that are resistant to standard treatments,
  • Repelling insects,
  • Reducing bad cholesterol and fasting blood sugar levels.

It contains antioxidants and has all the benefits that are provided by those, including blood vessel and heart health, and can aid in improving asthma and arthritis (both osteo and rheumatoid). 

Because it can lower blood glucose levels, those who take diabetic medications should stick with culinary use rather than tea and supplements to keep from dangerously low levels.

Pregnant women should also not take supplements or use the tea regularly as it could be unsafe; it has been known to help with starting menstruation in some women. This especially applies to holy basil. 

Basil contains large amounts of vitamin K, so people who take blood thinners need to be careful to use the same amount of vitamin-K-rich foods daily to prevent issues with the blood thinners.

Food and Nutrition

A tablespoon of fresh sweet basil – about 2g – contains just over half a calorie. The same amount of dried contains about 5 calories. Basil provides vitamin K in a significant amount, and lower quantities of vitamin A, calcium, iron, copper, potassium, folate, omega-3 fatty acids, and manganese. It also contains antioxidants and essential oils that have useful qualities.

Basil is a primary herb used in pesto, and is an excellent flavor addition to green salads, pasta salads, orzo, steak marinades, soups, chicken parmesan, grilled shrimp, and many others. It is also a pretty and delicious garnish. 

When adding to a dish, it is best to add near the end of cooking to preserve the flavor and nutrients. 

Basil seeds (also known as sabja seeds) can be used in place of chia seed for the same purposes. 

Other Uses

Some have used basil tea for washing their face, which helps to lessen acne.

The spasm relief built into basil can relieve some headaches. Some use a steamy fresh-basil footbath to ease the headache, while laying a cool cloth that has been dipped in cold water or basil tea on the forehead.

Fresh basil can have a settling effect on a nauseated stomach, whether it is from general nausea, morning sickness, or motion sickness. Limit use in pregnancy, however, as it has not been shown to be safe in large doses, though use in food or tea is not enough to cause issues. 

Basil helps to keep bugs away when a quart of overnight-steeped basil tea is added to a teaspoon of castile soap and put into a spray bottle. 

Remove odors and sanitize surfaces with a combination of about six drops of basil essential oil, six or seven drops of tea tree oil, and about twice as much grapefruit oil to a half-cup spray bottle, then fill with water and shake well. Spray wherever desired.

Growing Basil

Basil is originally a tropical plant and therefore prefers warmth and full sun. It needs plenty of water, so mulching can aid in keeping the soil moist. They grow well in containers in a sunny windowsill and it is a good idea even for those who plant outdoors to have a few that can be brought indoors over winter. 

Basil can be grown from seeds or cuttings

Because the leaves are the part that is used in cooking, removing any flower starts will allow the plant to put its energy into producing more leaves. Pick leaves for use as soon as the plant is big enough. The best way to do this is to cut the stem above the lowest 2-4 leaves. 

Basil can be air-dried in bunches, but it retains more flavor if frozen. This is best done by pureeing the leaves with a bit of water, then freezing in ice-cube trays. 

Basil can be affected by mold and other fungal infections, but this can be avoided by allowing enough room between plants. Beetles that attack the plant can be picked off by hand to limit the damage.