What Is Tulsi?

The Proposed Benefits of Tulsi Tea

Tulsi plant- holy basil
plant. Anand purohit / Getty Images

Also known as "tulasi," "Holy Basil," "The Incomparable One" and "Elixir of Life," tulsi is an herb used in Ayurveda, and in some herbal tea/tisane and true tea blends.

Types of Tulsi

The tulsi plant (Ocimum sanctum L. or Ocimum tenuiflorum L.) is a close relative of culinary basil (Ocimum basilicum), but it is differentiated by its medicinal properties and some physical characteristics. There are three main types of tulsi plants:

  • Rama Tulsi (also known as Green Leaf Tulsi): A green tulsi with light purple flowers and an aromatic, clove-like scent (thanks to its chemical component of eugenol, which is the main aroma in cloves) and mellower flavor.
  • Krishna Tulsi (also known as Shyama Tulsi or Purple Leaf Tulsi): A purple plant with a clove-like aroma and peppery flavor.
  • Vana Tulsi (or Wild Leaf Tulsi): A bright, light green tulsi plant that grows wild and is indigenous to many areas of Asian and North/East Africa; it has a more lemony aroma and flavor.

Proposed Health Benefits of Tulsi

Of the three types of tulsi, Krishna Tulsi is often considered to be the most beneficial to health, followed closely by Rama Tulsi. Vana Tulsi has less potency, but it is sometimes blended with other types of tulsi for a more pleasing flavor. In Ayurvedic practice, common uses of tulsi include treatments for:

  • Asthma, bronchitis, colds, congestion, coughs, flu, sinusitis, sore throat and similar ailments
  • High blood pressure and high cholesterol
  • Headaches, earaches, and eye disorders
  • Skin diseases and insect bites
  • Cramping, gastric disorders, indigestion, intestinal parasites, mouth diseases, ulcers, and vomiting
  • Diabetes and blood sugar imbalances
  • Joint pain and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Kidney stones
  • Malaria
  • Cancer

Medical research conducted by institutions favorable to alternative medicine confirms that tulsi is:

  • A powerful adaptogenic herb (an herb that reduces stress and increases energy)
  • Able to reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • High in antioxidants
  • Immuno-modulating (able to increase or decrease the immune system's activity to the optimal level)
  • Protective of the liver, and more generally protective against certain chemical toxins and radiation, but not contraindicated by chemotherapy (so it's safe to use while receiving chemo)

Tulsi is also sometimes used to decrease fertility in men and women, so it is not recommended that those who are trying to conceive to drink large amounts of tulsi.

Tulsi "Tea"

One easy way to consume tulsi is to make it into an herbal "tea," or an herbal infusion. To make tulsi "tea," boil one cup of filtered water and pour it over one teaspoon of fresh tulsi leaves, one-half teaspoon of dried tulsi leaves or one-third teaspoon of tulsi powder. Cover the water in a pot or mug and let it steep for 20 minutes (or longer, if you want to maximize the health benefits). Then, strain out the leaves, add honey if desired, and enjoy.

Tulsi "tea" is caffeine-free and can be safely consumed up to six times a day.

A Caution About Medical Benefits of Tulsi

There have been several medical research studies that confirm the benefits of Tulsi, but the institutions involved are proponents of alternative medicine. No U.S. government-funded study exists. None of the larger medical research institutions have done double-blind studies confirming (or disputing) these benefits. 

This doesn't mean that tulsi doesn't have the wide range of benefits its proponents allege. The available medical literature is uniformly positive. It does mean, however, that some uncertainty remains. One attitude to take about this is that since the herb has been consumed for centuries, especially in India, is apparently harmless and the benefits, although not completely certain, are widespread, why not take it and see if your results make it worthwhile to continue?

In general, determining the benefits or dangers of many of the things we ingest is difficult. Since the 1980s, prestigious medical research institutions have determined that egg and whole milk consumption is dangerous for heart health, then later determined that either they are not or that the dangers were exaggerated. A 2013 article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted that independent studies of most of the ingredients in common cookbook recipes have been found to cure cancer—and to cause cancer. The authors conclude that no one study or group of studies can provide definitive answers to the health benefits or dangers of the foods and herbs we ingest. Gradually and over time as more and more studies are conducted, something close to consensus may be reached. ​