I haven’t mentioned much about the role of medicinal plants in my integrative medical practice, but I use them quite a bit. Frankly, I think botanicals do a much better job with less toxicity than conventional drugs or surgery for the treatment of conditions that are mild to moderate in severity.

Plants contain a wide array of chemical compounds working on a multitude of systems in the body. Their effects are not related to just one ingredient, even though one compound might trump the others in concentration or effects.Take coca leaves, for instance. Interestingly, the Andes Indians who use coca leaves do so to treat both diarrhea and constipation. How can it treat both?

Coca leaves possess 14 bioactive alkaloids (of which one is cocaine); some stimulate the gut while others inhibit its activity. If you present the whole mixture to the body—as opposed to a single, highly purified version of one compound, which is what you typically find in conventional drugs—the thought is that receptors in gut tissue can bind to only the alkaloids they need for returning the gut back to balance. Because they’re absorbed selectively, medicinal plants may offer more treatment options with fewer side effects.

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Of all the medicinal plants I use, one of my favorites is known as holy basil.I was first introduced to this green, leafy plant more than 10 years ago, during my fellowship training at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine.  At the time, I was studying botanical remedies in Costa Rica with Dr. Weil and holy basil (or tulsi) was growing there.Holy basil, long used for religious and medicinal purposes, is revered as sacred in India. It is one of the prized botanicals used in the ancient traditional Indian medical system known as Ayurveda.

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Through my research, I discovered that holy basil has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, but what fascinated me more was its use by mystics and meditators as a rasayana—an herb used to foster personal growth and enlightenment.Living tulsi plants are kept in many Indian homes where it is believed to provide a sacred aura and endow divine protection to one’s household; rosaries are made from its cut stems and used for prayer beads. 

It was obvious to me that there was more to this plant than its medicinal properties alone.In reviewing the literature about holy basil, I was most fascinated by its ability to lower cortisol, the long-acting stress-hormone produced by the adrenal glands.  High levels of cortisol can damage the cardiovascular system, retard immunity, create hormonal imbalances, kill memory cells in the brain, promote bone loss, increase carbohydrate cravings, raise blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose, and accelerate the aging process. In other words, lowering them is good.

In my clinical experience (as well as my personal life), most of my clients have stress-related conditions. Holy basil is at the top of my list of plant-based strategies to target such issues.

QUIZ: How Stressed Are You?

On a personal level, I have found holy basil to lengthen my emotional “fuse”my reactive fight or flight response to stress is much less intense when I am taking this plant. It gives me greater patience, more opportunities to be mindful and more measured reactions (being Italian and Irish doesn’t help!).I often share this experience with my clients, and they share my feelings.  They are looking for a way to take the edge off their emotional intensity without dulling their moods or making them sleepy.  I have used Holy basil for over seven years now, and most of my clients swear by its health promoting effects. It has become my desert-island plant!

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Who should take it:

I recommend holy basil for individuals who are dealing with high intensity, chronic stress that interferes with health and causes stress-related illness. Or, I suggest it as an alternative to mood-stabilizing drugs when bad moods are minor (it’s not appropriate for clinical depression or incapacitating anxiety/panic disorder).

How to take it:

Holy basil is considered effective in a single dose of 300mg to 600mg of dried leaves daily for preventive therapy, and in 600mg to 1800mg in divided doses daily for curative therapy.  I usually look for products standardized to at least two percent ursolic acid. Holy basil can also be taken as tea. A cup of tulsi tea from an infused tea bag is an excellent way to try out this fascinating plant.

Where to find it:

Good quality health stores will carry supplemental holy basil.  I prefer the plant-based extract, meaning the plant material cut up and placed into capsules. I’d recommend a brand called New Chapter. Tulsi tea can usually be found in health food stores, Asian or Indian grocery stores as well as online.  I like a company called Organic India.