Whether because of its excellent taste or its health benefits: there are plenty of reasons why basil should be on the menu.
“Basil contains nutrients and compounds that can help ward off chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis,” explains nutritionist Gillian Culbertson in a recent article from the Cleveland Clinic (USA). “In addition, basil has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. And it can even improve your mental health, depending on what strain and form you use.”
Basil is an herb commonly used in both Italian and Southeast Asian cuisines, such as Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. There are many varieties with different flavors, colors and leaf shapes, so there are no limits when it comes to preparation and consumption.
In addition to Genovese basil, which is often used in this country, Thai basil or so-called holy basil (tulsi) are also available.
You can buy basil leaves fresh, frozen, or dried. Basil is also an easy DIY herb – all you need is a pot, soil, and plenty of sunlight. And remember to water it.
For medicinal use, you can purchase basil as an essential oil, extract, or powder.
Is basil good for you?
The answer is a resounding yes, says Culbertson – in more ways than one. “Basil is a great source of vitamin K, especially dried basil leaves. Vitamin K helps strengthen your bones. It also plays a big role in your blood’s ability to clot. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
A review of 24 human studies found that all reported results favored the health benefits of basil, including positive effects on blood sugar health, heart and vascular (blood vessels) health, and immunity. Culbertson reports five important health benefits of basil:
Protection against cell damage
Basil leaves are full of antioxidants, natural compounds that protect your body’s cells. Your cells are damaged by oxidative stress when they have too many free radicals.
“Your body produces free radicals in response to stress and inflammation. Free radicals are also created by environmental influences such as cigarette smoke and ultraviolet (UV) radiation,” explains Culbertson. “But antioxidants act as a protective shield against free radicals – and the health problems they cause.”
If left uncontrolled, oxidative stress can lead to health problems such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, cataracts and inflammatory diseases such as arthritis.
Reduces the risk of cancer
Several studies have shown that basil essential oil has the potential to ward off certain types of cancer. In a laboratory study, sweet basil prevented the growth of human colon cancer cells in test tubes.
In another study, scientists found that leaf extracts from six different types of basil all had anti-cancer properties. Basil hindered the growth and division of cancer cells and eventually destroyed them.
“There is increasing evidence that basil may be an effective cancer prevention agent,” Culbertson said. “But researchers need to conduct further human studies to confirm these promising results and understand how much basil people should consume.”
Helps control blood pressure and cholesterol
Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have been treating cardiovascular disease with basil for centuries – and for good reason. Laboratory studies have shown that it can reduce high blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels.
“Plus, holy basil contains eugenol, an oil that can help lower blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels,” notes Culbertson. “Studies have tested various forms of basil, including extracts, leaves and leaf powder.”
Improving blood sugar levels
Both human and laboratory studies have shown that basil has a special ability to control blood sugar levels. Among other things, it was observed that basil extract contributed to a significant reduction in blood sugar levels in laboratory models of diabetes. Another laboratory study showed similar effects with holy basil extract.
“Human studies are still in their early stages, but have shown some exciting potential benefits for blood sugar control and type 2 diabetes,” says Culbertson. “But we need more research to fully understand the effects of different types of basil on blood sugar health.”
Promotes mental health
Research shows that consuming basil daily can impact many aspects of your mental health. In four different human studies, holy basil has been shown to improve cognitive functions, including short-term memory and attention, improve mood, and reduce stress and anxiety.
Another laboratory study showed that basil essential oils have the potential to reduce depression and stress- and age-related memory loss.
“The results were so positive that researchers concluded it was time to see whether basil could alleviate the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease,” Culbertson explains. “It will be interesting to better understand the potential of basil after further research is conducted.”
How to incorporate basil into a healthy diet
“If you want to add basil to your diet to relieve a specific illness, you should first look for food sources, not supplements, and you should also talk to your doctor,” says the nutritionist.
“A doctor can help you make sure that eating too much basil will not interact with the medications you are taking. For example, basil combined with blood-thinning medications could thin your blood too much. There is also a risk of your blood sugar or blood pressure dropping too low if you take both basil and medications for these problems.”
Most grocery stores carry both fresh and dried basil leaves. You can also find rarer varieties at farmers markets and ethnic grocery stores.
“The flavor of dried basil tends to be stronger. “So if you only have dried basil on hand, use half to a third the amount of fresh basil you need,” recommends Culbertson.
“Stick to the leaves and pay close attention to the type you have. Some types of basil, such as sweet basil and Italian basil, are best served fresh as a garnish. But other types, such as Thai basil, tolerate heat and can be cooked.”
However you choose to eat it, you can feel good knowing that you’re not only pleasing your taste buds, but also improving your health. (ad)