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Basil, also known as Saint Joseph's Wort, is an herb belonging to the mint family. It is used as in cooking and may have some health benefits.

Basil's proposed benefits include reducing inflammation, and it is said to have anti-aging and antibacterial properties.

This article is part of a collection of articles about the health benefits of popular foods. It highlights the potential health benefits of consuming basil and provides a nutritional profile for the herb.

Fast facts on basil

Here are some key points about basil. More detail is in the main article.

  • The herb may have anti-inflammatory qualities.
  • Basil is a potent antibacterial.
  • Containing just 22 calories per 100 grams, basil is nutrient-heavy and calorie-light.
  • Basil may contain compounds that fight the effects of aging.

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Basil may have a range of health benefits.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is well known for its use in Italian cuisine. It is one of the primary ingredients in pesto sauce. Basil is also commonly included in Indonesian, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine.

Basil is used in traditional Tamil and Ayurvedic medicine, which is a form of traditional medicine popular on the Indian subcontinent.

There are a number of types of basil, which differ in taste and smell. Sweet basil (the most commercially available basil used in Italian food) has a strong clove scent because of its high concentration of the chemical agent eugenol.

Alternatively, lime and lemon basil have a strong citrus scent due to their high concentration of limonene.

Research indicates that there may be several health benefits associated with basil.

Studies have shown that basil "contains a wide range of essential oils, rich in phenolic compounds, and a wide array of other natural products including polyphenols such as flavonoids and anthocyanins."

According to research conducted at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, basil contains (E)-beta-caryophyllene (BCP), which may be useful in treating arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases.

Fighting cancer

A review, published in 2013, investigated the potential for holy basil to prevent cancer. They concluded that, thanks to the phytochemicals it contains, including eugenol, rosmarinic acid, apigenin, myretenal, luteolin, β-sitosterol, and carnosic acid, it may help prevent certain types of skin, liver, oral, and lung cancers.

It appears to do this by increasing antioxidant activity, changing gene expression, triggering cell death, and slowing cell division.

Although more research needs to be done, there is potential for basil extract to be used alongside current cancer treatments.

Reducing the effects of oxidative stress

An adaptogen is a herbal medicine that helps the body adapt to stress; ginseng is perhaps the most well known. Basil may also fall into this category.

In one study, rabbits were exposed to oxidative stress (an increase in damaging free radicals). The rabbits were given 2 grams of fresh basil leaves each day for 30 days, and cardiovascular and respiratory adaptation were monitored.

The researchers measured a significant decrease in blood sugar levels and an increase in antioxidant activity. The basil appeared to help the rabbits deal better with oxidative stress.

Anti-aging properties

According to research presented at the British Pharmaceutical Conference (BPC) in Manchester, basil also has properties that might help prevent some of the harmful effects of aging.

Holy basil extract was effective at killing off harmful molecules and preventing damage caused by some free radicals in the liver, brain, and heart.

The researchers, led by Dr. Vaibhav Shinde from Poona College of Pharmacy, Maharashtra, India, studied the herb for antioxidant and anti-aging properties.

Dr. Shinde said: "The study validates the traditional use of the herb as a youth-promoting substance in the Ayurvedic system of medicine. It also helps describe how the herb acts at a cellular level."

Reduce inflammation and swelling

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Basil extract may help reduce inflammation.

One study, presented at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's annual event, found:

"Extracts of O. tenuiflorum (Holy basil) were shown to reduce swelling by up to 73 percent, 24 hours after treatment."

These effects on swelling were similar in extent to those seen with the drug diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory medication that is widely used in the treatment of arthritis.

In their paper, the authors conclude:

"Our results supported the use of these traditional treatments in inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis."

A study published in the Journal of Bone Reports & Recommendations agreed that BCP might be useful in the treatment of certain diseases that involve inflammation.

The investigation was carried out on arthritic rats; the team of researchers concluded: "The present study is suggestive that beta-caryophyllene [in basil] has prominent anti-arthritic activity which may be attributed to its anti-inflammatory activity."

Rich in antioxidants

Results of a study published in the Journal of Advanced Pharmacy Education & Research showed that ethanol extract - Ocimum basilicum - had more antioxidant activity than standard antioxidants.

Antibacterial properties

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Basil may have an antibacterial effect.

Lab studies have demonstrated that basil has antibacterial properties; this may be because of the volatile oils it contains, which include estragole, linalool, cineole, eugenol, sabinene, myrcene, and limonene.

Basil restricts the growth of numerous bacteria, including Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

This could mean that adding fresh basil to a salad not only adds flavor, it also helps reduce the number of harmful bacteria on the plate.

Basil is rich in vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin C, magnesium, iron, potassium, and calcium.

Nutritional value of basil per 100 grams (3.5 ounces)

Energy - 94 kilojoules (22 kilocalorie)Carbohydrates - 2.65 grams
Dietary fiber - 1.6 gramsFat - 0.64 grams
Protein - 3.15 gramsWater - 92.06 grams
Vitamin A - 264 microgramsThiamine - 0.034 micrograms
Riboflavin - 0.076 milligramsNiacin - 0.902 milligrams
Vitamin B6 - 0.155 microgramsFolate - 68 micrograms
Choline - 11.4 milligramsVitamin C - 18.0 milligrams
Vitamin E - 0.80 milligramsVitamin K - 414.8 micrograms
Calcium - 177 milligramsIron - 3.17 milligrams
Magnesium - 64 milligramsManganese - 1.148 milligrams
Phosphorus - 56 milligramsPotassium - 295 milligrams
Sodium - 4 milligramsZinc - 0.81 milligrams

Source: USDA Nutrient Database

As with any foodstuff, basil should be eaten alongside the full range of components that make up a healthy diet.

Basil products are available for purchase online.