Basil (Ocimum basilicum), an aromatic herb belonging to the mint family, is perhaps best known as the key ingredient in pesto – that savoury Italian sauce made from olive oil, garlic, crushed pine nuts and loads of fresh basil leaves.
The type of basil used in Mediterranean cooking – Italian large-leaf – pairs well with tomato flavours and consequently appears in a wide range of dishes from Caprese salad to marinara sauce. Other common basil varieties like sweet, lemon, Thai and holy basil are used judiciously in Thai, Vietnamese and Indian cuisine.
There are more than 40 cultivars of this pungent plant, each with its own characteristic colour and aroma. Depending on the variety, basil can be green, white or purple with a scent reminiscent of lemon, cloves, cinnamon, anise, camphor or thyme. Some non-edible kinds are cultivated for ornamental purposes or to ward off garden pests.
But it is basil’s medicinal properties, rather than its culinary value, that extend the herb’s uses far beyond the humble pesto. Like other aromatic plants, basil contains essential oils and phytochemicals in the leaves, stem, flowers, roots and seeds that have biological activity in the body.
Throughout history, ancient cultures have used herbal remedies to prevent and treat illness and disease. Basil is just one example of the wide range of medicinal flora historically used in plant-based tinctures, compresses, syrups and ointments.
For instance, holy basil (known as tulsi in Hindi) has been used for centuries in Ayurveda, a traditional Indian system of medicine, as a treatment for gastric, hepatic, respiratory and inflammatory disorders as well as a remedy for headache, fever, anxiety, convulsions, nausea and hypertension. (See Kyra de Vreeze’s article “Holy… Tulsi!”, elsewhere in this issue.)
Fresh roots and leaves of holy basil were prepared as a tea, or sometimes as a topical treatment to speed wound healing. There is also evidence that traditional Chinese medicine used basil. (See Paul O’Brien’s article on TCM and basil, elsewhere in this issue.)
Even though basil has been used therapeutically for many years, are its healing properties simply hearsay or have the herb’s health effects been substantiated by modern science?
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From garden to medicine chest
In recent years increased scientific interest in plant phytochemicals (plant chemicals) has brought numerous vegetables, herbs and spices – including basil – to the forefront of nutritional research. Although the study of plant compounds is not new, scientists are only now beginning to characterize the wide range of biologically active components in our food plants and investigate their impact on human health and disease.
In cell culture and animal studies basil has been found to exhibit antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, antioxidant and anti-cancer activity. But how does basil – which nowadays is used as little more than a cooking herb – defend our bodies against chronic disease and illness?
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Precision Nutrition - What’s So Healthy About Basil?
With cold and flu season upon us, having another all natural supplement in our arsenal can only be a good thing. Enter Basil.