Basil is an herb in the mint family. It adds flavor to meals, and its nutrients may provide health benefits.
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) plays a role in many Mediterranean, and particularly Italian, cuisines. It forms the basis of pesto and adds a distinctive flavor to salads, pasta, pizza, and other dishes. Indonesian, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines also feature this herb.
Sweet basil is available in many grocery stores, while other varieties have different tastes and fragrances.
Another type of basil is tulsi, or holy basil (Ocimum santum). This plant plays a therapeutic role in Tamil and Ayurvedic medicines, which are predominantly practiced in Southeast Asia. This is different from sweet basil.
In this article, learn more about the health benefits and nutritional contents of basil, and find some tips on how to include it in the diet.
Basil may provide health benefits in the diet, as herbal medicine, and as an essential oil.
Basil provides some macronutrients, such as calcium and vitamin K, as well as a range of antioxidants.
Sweet basil, for example, has a high concentration of the chemical agent eugenol. This gives it a clove-like scent. Lime and lemon basils have high concentrations of limonene, which give them a citrusy scent. Both eugenol and limonene have antioxidant properties.
Reducing oxidative stress
Antioxidants are essential for eliminating free radicals from the body.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that develop as a result of metabolism and other natural processes. They can also form as a result of smoking and some dietary choices.
Antioxidants are compounds that help remove these molecules from the body. If they build up instead, oxidative stress can occur, resulting in cell damage and, possibly, disease.
Which foods are good sources of antioxidants? Find out here.
Supporting liver health
A 2015 study in rats concluded that antioxidants in a powdered preparation that included tulsi, or holy basil, had a positive impact on liver health. The scientists applied the powder after using a toxin to induce liver injury.
Tulsi — a plant that is very different from the basil in the average Western supermarket — plays a role in Indian traditional medicine.
A review published in 2013 looked at whether tulsi, or holy basil, could prevent cancer.
The authors concluded that the phytochemicals in holy basil may help prevent certain types of skin, liver, oral, and lung cancers.
They appeared to do this by increasing antioxidant activity, changing gene expression, triggering cell death, and slowing cell division.
However, the studies in this review were preclinical or performed in animals. Confirming the effects will require further research.
Is there a link between cancer and the diet? Find out here.
Protecting against skin aging
According to research published in 2011, sweet basil has properties that might help protect the skin from some effects of aging.
In the study, the scientists applied a basil extract to laboratory models of skin. The results suggested that including basil extracts in topical skin creams might improve skin hydration and reduce roughness and wrinkling.
While extracts of basil at certain doses may have this effect, consuming basil will not necessarily benefit the skin.
However, the antioxidants in basil and other plant-based foods may have a protective effect if a person consumes them as part of a varied diet.
Learn about foods that can help boost skin health.
Reducing high blood sugar
Some practitioners of traditional medicine commonly recommend basil to help manage blood sugar levels.
A 2019 study in rats found that an extract of sweet basil leaves helped reduce high blood sugar levels. The results also suggested that basil leaves may help treat long-term effects of high blood sugar.
If further investigations confirm these findings, basil extracts could prove useful for people with diabetes.
Which foods are good for people with diabetes? Find out here.
Supporting cardiovascular health
A 2011 review reported on findings that a sweet basil extract briefly reduced high blood pressure, possibly due to the extract’s eugenol content. Eugenol can block calcium channels in the body, lowering high blood pressure.
However, 2 minutes after the researchers used the extract, the blood pressure returned to its high levels.
After 4 weeks, those who took the tulsi extract had lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides than those who did not. The authors concluded that the extract could help reduce some risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Find foods that may help lower blood pressure here.
Boosting mental health
Mental stress can trigger the production of free radicals in the body.
According to a 2014 review that looked at the role of tulsi in Ayurvedic medicine, the plant contains properties that may help:
- alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression
- increase the ability to think and reason
- prevent age-related memory loss
- improve stress-related sleep and sex issues
Some studies, the authors report, produced results comparable to those of diazepam and antidepressant drugs.
However, confirming these findings will require more research. Also, consuming tulsi — in a tea, for example — is unlikely to have the same effect as receiving a dosage of an extract.
How may the diet impact depression? Learn more.
Reducing inflammation and swelling
Oxidative stress can lead to inflammation, a factor in various diseases, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis.
In 2017, researchers analyzed the anti-inflammatory properties of two preparations of sweet basil essential oil.
According to their results, basil oil may help treat various diseases that involve inflammation resulting from oxidative stress.
It is not clear whether eating basil, however, could have the same effect.
Which foods may help manage inflammation? Find out here.
Various practitioners of traditional medicine have used basil as an antimicrobial agent, and some scientific research supports this use.
In 2013, researchers applied sweet basil oil to various strains of Escherichia coli , or E. coli. The bacteria came from people with respiratory, abdominal, urinary, or skin infections, as well as from hospital equipment. The results showed that the oil was active against these bacteria.
The researchers concluded that certain preparations of basil oil could help treat or prevent some types of infection.
Oregano is another herb that may have health benefits. Learn more here.
The table below shows some of the nutrients in 1 tablespoon of fresh basil weighing around 2.6 g, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
It also shows how much of each nutrient an adult needs, according to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Keep in mind, however, that needs vary according to sex and age.
In this table, some nutrients are given in micrograms (mcg).
|Nutrient||Amount in one 2.6-gram tablespoon of basil||Daily adult requirement|
|Vitamin A (mcg, RAE)||6.9||700–900|
|Beta carotene (mcg)||81.7||No data|
|Beta cryptoxanthin (mcg)||1.2||No data|
|Lutein and zeaxanthin (mcg)||147.0||No data|
|Vitamin K (mcg)||10.8||75–120|
Beyond these nutrients, basil contains various B vitamins, traces of iron and other minerals, and a range of additional antioxidants.
Basil is a fragrant herb with a distinctive flavor that many people enjoy. The various types have different flavors.
In cooking, sweet basil is the most popular variety in the U.S., but people also use lemon basil, clove basil, cinnamon basil, and other types.
A person could:
- Sprinkle fresh, chopped basil over a pizza or into a wrap.
- Arrange some basil leaves over slices of tomato and mozzarella, then drizzle the dish with olive oil.
- Add basil to soups, tomato sauces, and stir-fries.
- Make a marinade with basil, olive oil, and chopped garlic.
- Add whole, chopped, or torn fresh leaves to a salad.
Or, try these recipes:
Many herbs are easy to grow indoors, allowing people who do not have gardens to enjoy freshly picked ingredients in their cooking. Here, find out more about growing basil indoors.
Some people should take care when eating basil.
High levels of vitamin K can affect the action of some drugs, including warfarin (Coumadin). Anyone who uses blood thinners should speak to a doctor before increasing their intake of basil.
Some people have allergic reactions if they consume or otherwise come into contact with herbs in the mint family.
Anyone with this type of allergy should avoid basil and check premade foods to ensure that it is not an ingredient.
If an individual experiences hives, swelling, or difficulty breathing after eating basil, they should receive urgent medical attention.
A severe allergic reaction can become anaphylaxis, a life threatening emergency.
Including basil in a varied and healthful diet may provide benefits.
However, research into the medicinal benefits of basil focuses mainly on extracts rather than adding the herb to the diet.
Also, many of the available studies have investigated the properties of holy basil, or tulsi, a different plant from that usually used in cooking.
Moreover, there is not currently enough scientific evidence to confirm many of these uses.
Could basil benefit my health if I add it to my diet?
Basil is an herb that has shown positive impacts on health. Using various herbs and spices can provide flavor to meals, and these ingredients often contain antioxidants, which fight free radicals.
People with high blood pressure should limit their sodium intake, and including more herbs, like basil, is a way to provide flavor to meals without adding salt.
Unless there is an allergy or a concern about blood clotting medications, basil can be a very safe and healthful herb to add to anyone’s diet.
Natalie Olsen, R.D., L.D., ACSM EP-C Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.