Basil is a common herb in most of our kitchens, but did you know that, besides tasting good in our chicken and pasta dishes, it can be of use toward having more healthy bodies? It is an excellent alternative health treatment for many minor ailments.
Grown originally in Asia and the Middle East, basil traveled the world along the spice trail. It has been grown and used for 5000 years and has hundreds of varieties and is now cultivated in many countries. All of its varieties have unique and individual chemical make-ups; and yet the base medicinal properties remain consistent from one strain to another.
The volatile oils of dried basil are weak, so fresh basil is usually better in both our cooking and our healing treatments.
The main use of basil medicinally is as a natural anti-inflammatory. It is similar to the compounds found in oregano and medical marijuana – and may be used as a substitute for the later because it offers the same relief without the “high.” The same compound that makes it useful as an anti-inflammatory is also believed to help combat bowel inflammation and rheumatoid arthritis.
Many naturopathic doctors prescribe basil in treatment of diabetes, respiratory disorders, allergies, impotence, and infertility. This may be because basil contains cinnamanic acid, which has been found to enhance circulation, stabilize blood sugar, and improve breathing in those with respiratory disorders.
It is also know that basil is very high in antioxidants, especially when it is used as an extract or oil. These antioxidants can protect your body against free radical damage associated with aging, some skin ailments, and most forms of cancer. Antioxidants have become an important part of keeping our bodies healthy, and basil may be among the safest and most effective sources of these life-giving compounds.
Additional scientific research has shown that the volatile oils in basil, combined with their antioxidant effects, make it a great health boost for our immune systems.
Fresh basil leaves and basil oil have antibacterial properties. They can be used to disinfect surfaces.
Leaves, applied to wounds, may eliminate infections. Basil used in your cooking or taken as a nutritional supplement can assist in combating common viruses like colds, flu, and the herpes family of viruses – in a manner similar to that of Echinacea.
Treatments Using Basil
- Healing: Sharpen memory, use as a nerve tonic, and remove phlegm from your bronchial tubes. Repeat up to once an hour. Leaves can strengthen the stomach and induce perfuse sweating. The seeds can be used to rid the body of excess mucus.
- Fevers: Basil leaves are used for quenching fevers, especially those related to malaria and other infectious, eruptive fevers common to tropical areas. Boiling leaves with some cardamom in about two quarts of water, then mixed with sugar and milk, brings down temperature. An extract of basil leaves in fresh water should be given every 2 to 3 hours; between doses you can give sips of cold water. This method is especially effective for reducing fevers in children.
- Coughs: Basil is an important ingredient in cough syrups and expectorants. It can also relieve mucus in asthma and bronchitis. Chewing on basil leaves can relieve colds and flu symptoms.
- Sore Throat: Water boiled with basil leaves can be taken as a tonic or used as a gargle when you have a sore throat.
- Respiratory Disorders: Boiling basil leaves with honey and ginger is useful for treating asthma, bronchitis, cough, cold, and influenza. Boiling the leaves, cloves, and sea salt in some water will give rapid relief of influenza. These combinations should be boiled in about two quarts of water until only half the water remains before they are taken.
- Kidney Stones: Basil can be used to strengthen your kidneys. In cases of stones in your kidney, the juice of basil leaves mixed with honey and taken daily for 6 months will expel them through the urinary tract.
- Heart Problems: Basil can be used to strengthen those weakened by heart disease. It can also reduce your cholesterol.
- Children’s Illnesses: Pediatric complaints like colds, coughs, fever, diarrhea, and vomiting have been known to respond to treatment with the juice of basil leaves. Also if the rash associated with chicken pox is delayed, basil leaves with saffron will bring them to the surface more quickly.
- Stress: Basil leaves can be used as an anti-stress agent. Chewing 12 basil leaves twice a day can prevent stress. It will purify the blood and help prevent many other common ailments.
- Mouth Infections: Chewing a few leaves twice daily can cure infections and ulcerations of the mouth.
- Insect Bites: Basil can be used preventatively and as a curative. A teaspoonful of the basil leaf juice taken every few hours is preventative. Rubbing the bites with juice can relieve the itching and swelling. Also a paste of the root is effective for treating the bites of insects and leeches.
- Skin Disorders: Basil juice applied directly to the affected area is good for ringworm and other common skin ailments. Some naturopaths have used it successfully in the treatment of leucoderma (patches of white or light-colored skin).
- Tooth Problems: Dry basil leaves in the sun and grind into powder for a tooth cleansing powder. You can also mix with mustard oil to make herbal toothpaste. Both of these methods will counter bad breath and can be used to massage the gums, treat pyorrhea, and other dental health problems.
- Headaches: Basil is a good headache remedy. Boil leaves in half a quart of water, cooking until half the liquid remains. Take a couple of teaspoons an hour with water to relieve your pain and swelling. You can also make a paste of basil leaves pounded with sandalwood to apply to your forehead to relieve headache and provide coolness in general.
- Eye Disorders: Basil juice is a good for night-blindness and sore eyes. Two drops of black basil juice in each eye at bedtimes each day is soothing.
The unique array of active constituents called flavonoids found in basil provide protection at the cellular level. Orientin and vicenin are two water-soluble flavonoids that have been of particular interest in basil, and in studies on human white blood cells; these components of basil protect cell structures as well as chromosomes from radiation and oxygen-based damage.
In addition, basil has been shown to provide protection against unwanted bacterial growth. These anti-bacterial properties of basil are not associated with its unique flavonoids, but instead with its volatile oils, which contain estragole, linalool, cineole, eugenol, sabinene, myrcene, and limonene.
Lab studies show the effectiveness of basil in restricting growth of numerous bacteria, including :Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli O:157:H7, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Essential oil of basil, obtained from its leaves, has demonstrated the ability to inhibit several species of pathogenic bacteria that have become resistant to commonly used antibiotic drugs. In a study published in the July 2003 issue of the Journal of Microbiology Methods, essential oil of basil was even found to inhibit strains of bacteria from the genera Staphylococcus, Enterococcus and Pseudomonas, all of which are not only widespread, but now pose serious treatment difficulties because they have developed a high level of resistance to treatment with antibiotic drugs.
Studies published in the February 2004 issue of Food Microbiology, have shown that washing produce in solution containing either basil or thyme essential oil at the very low concentration of just 1% resulted in dropping the number of Shigella, an infectious bacteria that triggers diarrhea and may cause significant intestinal damage, below the point at which it could be detected. While scientists use this research to try to develop natural food preservatives, it makes good sense to include basil and thyme in more of your recipes, particularly for foods that are not cooked such as salads. Adding fresh thyme and/or basil to your next vinaigrette will not only enhance the flavor of your fresh greens, but will help ensure that the fresh produce you consume is safe to eat.
The eugenol component of basil’s volatile oils has been the subject of extensive study, since this substance can block the activity of an enzyme in the body called cyclooxygenase (COX). Many non-steriodal over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS), including aspirin and ibuprofen, as well as the commonly used medicine acetaminophen, work by inhibiting this same enzyme. (In the case of acetaminophen, this effect is somewhat controversial, and probably occurs to a much lesser degree than is the case with aspirin and ibuprofen). This enzyme-inhibiting effect of the eugenol in basil qualifies basil as an “anti-inflammatory” food that can provide important healing benefits along with symptomatic relief for individuals with inflammatory health problems like rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel conditions.
Nutrients Essential for Cardiovascular Health
Want to enrich the taste and cardiovascular health benefits of your pasta sauce? Add a good helping of basil. Basil is a very good source of vitamin A (through its concentration of carotenoids such as beta-carotene). Called “pro-vitamin A,” since it can be converted into vitamin A, beta-carotene is a more powerful anti-oxidant than vitamin A and not only protects epithelial cells (the cells that form the lining of numerous body structures including the blood vessels) from free radical damage, but also helps prevent free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol in the blood stream. Only after it has been oxidized does cholesterol build up in blood vessel walls, initiating the development of atherosclerosis, whose end result can be a heart attack or stroke.
Free radical damage is a contributing factor in many other conditions as well, including asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. The beta-carotene found in basil may help to lessen the progression of these conditions while protecting cells from further damage.
Basil is also a good source of magnesium, which promotes cardiovascular health by prompting muscles and blood vessels to relax, thus improving blood flow and lessening the risk of irregular heart rhythms or a spasming of the heart muscle or a blood vessel.
In addition to the health benefits and nutrients described above, basil also emerged from our food ranking system as an excellent source of vitamin K and manganese, a very good source of copper and vitamin C, and a good source of calcium, iron, folate and omega-3 fatty acids.
Basil is a highly fragrant plant whose leaves are used as a seasoning herb for many different types of foods. Basil has become one of the most recognizable herbs ever since pesto, the mixture of basil, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese, has become popular. Note my dairy free pesto recipe below.
Basil has round leaves that are oftentimes pointed. They are green in color, although some varieties feature hints of red or purple. Basil looks a little like peppermint, which is not surprising since they belong to the same plant family.
There are more than 60 varieties of basil, all of which differ somewhat in appearance and taste. While the taste of sweet basil is bright and pungent, other varieties also offer unique tastes: lemon basil, anise basil and cinnamon basil all have flavors that subtly reflect their name. The scientific name for basil is Ocimum basilicum. Thai basil is a great addition to winter soups to add a bit of basil undertones and heat for cold ailments.
Basil now grows in many regions throughout the world, but it was first native to India, Asia and Africa. It is prominently featured in varied cuisines throughout the world including Italian, Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian.
The name “basil” is derived from the old Greek word basilikohn, which means “royal,” reflecting that ancient culture’s attitudes towards an herb that they held to be very noble and sacred. The tradition of reverence of basil has continued in other cultures. In India, basil was cherished as an icon of hospitality, while in Italy, it was a symbol of love. *GREAT kid trivia!*
How to Select and Store
Whenever possible, choose fresh basil over the dried form of the herb since it is superior in flavor. The leaves of fresh basil should look vibrant and be deep green in color. They should be free from darks spots or yellowing.
I always keep a bag of dried basil on hand for adding to soups and making an impromptu cup of basil tea.
Even through dried herbs and spices like basil are widely available in supermarkets, you may want to explore the local spice stores in your area. Oftentimes, these stores feature an expansive selection of dried herbs and spices that are of superior quality and freshness compared to those offered in regular markets. Just like with other dried herbs, when purchasing dried basil, try to select organically grown basil since this will give you more assurance that it has not been irradiated (among other potential adverse effects, irradiating basil may lead to a significant decrease in its vitamin C and carotenoid content.)
Fresh basil should be stored in the refrigerator wrapped in a slightly damp paper towel. It may also be frozen, either whole or chopped, in airtight containers. Alternatively, you can freeze the basil in ice cube trays covered with either water or stock that can be added when preparing soups or stews. Dried basil should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place where it will keep fresh for about six months.
Tips for Preparing and Cooking
The Healthiest Way of Cooking With Basil
Since the oils in basil are highly volatile, it is best to add the herb near the end of the cooking process, so it will retain its maximum essence and flavor. This is true for both fresh and dried basil.
How to Enjoy
A Few Quick Healing Ideas:
- Combine fresh chopped basil with garlic and olive oil to make a dairy-free variety of pesto that can top a variety of dishes including pasta, salmon and whole wheat brushetta.
- Enjoy a taste of Italy by layering fresh basil leaves over tomato slices and mozzarella cheese to create this traditional colorful and delicious salad.
- Adding basil to healthy stir-fries, especially those that include eggplant, cabbage, chili peppers, tofu and cashew nuts will give them a Thai flair.
- Purée basil, olive oil and onions in a food processor or blender and add to tomato soups.
- Enjoy a warm cup of invigorating basil tea by infusing chopped basil leaves in boiling water. I tear my basil leaves, put them in a cup and let hot water steep for around 5-8 minutes before drinking. (You can add chamomile, spearmint, and a squeeze of lemon, too!) Be creative!
- You can make a fresh basil oil infusion with olive oil for salad dressings, but it will not keep as long as if you used dried herbs. It will mold in time, so keep an eye on your oil and make small batches. (My son uses this for his canker sores.)
- With your oil infusion, you can make a salve with beeswax (back from lesson 1) and apply it to insect bites. I add basil essential oil after the beeswax melt to increase the healing properties.
22 Basil Recipes:
34 Basil Recipes: