Fragrant and aromatic, basil is an herb that is popular and widely used all over the world. Among others, it is essential to Italian, Indian and Thai cuisines, imparting its distinctive aroma to many beloved dishes. But there is more to basil than just a pleasant aroma; it is packed with essential oils and phytochemicals that have a number of beneficial effects for your health as well.
Not only this but if you are growing your own veggies, adding a basil plant to your garden will enhance your meals and keep pests at bay.
There are several different varieties of basil, which differ not only in their aroma, but can also have different healing properties. The most common of these is the sweet basil, which is used in Mediterranean cuisines, particularly in Italian dishes.
Then, there are three other species: Thai basil, lemon basil and Holy basil, all of which are more commonly used in Asia. And each of these species of basil comes in several cultivars differing in leaf shape, size and color, as well as in fragrance.
The history of the use of basil as a medicinal herb is long. Holy basil is highly valued in ayurvedic medicine and prescribed for many different conditions ranging from respiratory problems, fever, kidney stones, heart disorders, to mouth and dental problems. Basil is also used in traditional Chinese medicine.
These health benefits are increasingly being confirmed by modern science as well. Research into the beneficial effects of basil and the active substances found within its leaves, stems, flowers and seeds has shown that basil has anti-oxidant, anti-cancer and antimicrobial effects, making it a valuable herbal remedy in many diseases and conditions.
Basil contains essential oils which give it its characteristic aroma. Of course, the composition of essential oils from different varieties of basil is also different. But in general, these volatile substances help the plant to fight against insects and microorganisms.
Thus, it is only logical that they possess anti-microbial properties. Indeed, basil extracts have indeed been shown to have antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral activity in several scientific studies, making them effective against a large number of various pathogens. This also explains the traditional use of basil for conditions such as bad breath or dental problems.
Basil has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Recently, a trial on arthritic patients showed that those who took holy basil extracts had significantly less joint swelling and pain. In this respect, the basil extracts were even comparable to some of the commonly used anti-inflammatory drugs, such as diclofenac. The substance responsible for this effect is thought to be eugenol, which is a component of basil essential oil.
Basil contains a number of phenolic antioxidants, such as the flavonoids orientin and vicenin. These are thought to protect from cancer by reducing the damage done by free radicals. Indeed, in a study on rats, those that were fed basil leaves had a smaller number of pre-cancerous lesions on their colons after being exposed to a chemical carcinogen.
Yet another study, performed in mice, showed that basil extracts reduced the number of tumors that arose in the animals, and also increased the organism’s defences against carcinogenesis. Finally, basil is rich in vitamins A and C, which also offer protection from cancer.
In a clinical trial on patients with Type 2 diabetes, those who were given holy basil had lower blood glucose levels, with the reduction of over 15% in some cases. And, in a more recent study on rats, sweet basil was shown to significantly reduce blood sugar. These results mean that basil can be valuable to diabetics in helping them keep their blood glucose under control.
Basil may have beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system as well. Studies have shown that extracts of sweet basil can inhibit platelet aggregation, an effect that can prevent blood clot formation. They were also found to have a vasorelaxant effect, meaning that they acted against the constriction of blood vessels.
In another study, it was demonstrated that basil can lower the levels of cholesterol and other lipids in the blood. These effects, together with its antioxidant properties, make basil beneficial in protecting the health of the heart and blood vessels.
In the end, we can only agree with those ancient cultures that held basil and its healing powers in high regard. With its many various health benefits increasingly confirmed scientifically, basil is a very valuable medicinal herb, the value of which certainly goes much beyond its use in cooking.
So next time you enjoy your pesto, you can do so knowing that you are doing something good for your health, too.