Basil: Current Views

Looking for references to basil in more current texts, the herbals which do not mention it are far greater in number than those which do. Bairacli Levy (1966) is fascinated by the herb and recommends it for culinary use, as an insecticide and as a powerful tonic stimulant and nerve remedy. It is advised for nausea, severe vomiting and indigestion, as well as topically for snake and spider bites and scorpion stings. Schauenberg & Paris (1977) list the infusion of the entire dried plant as a gastric antispasmodic, carminative and galactogogue.

Ody (1993) has a more extensive monograph, listing the actions of basil as antidepressant, antiseptic and tonic, stimulating the adrenal cortex and preventing vomiting, while acting as a carminative, febrifuge and expectorant. She proposes several combinations: as a tincture with wood betony and skullcap for nervous conditions, or with elecampane Inula helenium and hyssop Hyssopus officinalis for coughs and bronchitis; as a juice mixed with honey in a syrup for coughs, or the juice in a decoction of cinnamon Cinnamomum zeylanicum and cloves Syzygium aromaticum for chills. Topically, it can be mixed with honey for ringworm and itching skin or the fresh herb can be rubbed on to insect bites to stop itching and reduce inflammation. In combination with motherwort Leonurus cardiaca as an infusion it may be given after childbirth to prevent retention of the placenta. The essential oil of basil is also recommended as an inhalant for nervous exhaustion, mental fatigue, melancholy or fear, or, diluted with a carrier oil, it can be massaged in for nervous weakness, or rubbed onto the chest for asthma and bronchitis. The essential oil must not be used in pregnancy.

In the Unani Tibb tradition, basil is still used to raise the vital spirits in depression and grief, and acts as a stimulant nervine for mental clarity (Chishti 1988). Called Shahfaram in Arabic, it is classed as hot and dry in first degree, with cordial, cephalic, diuretic and nervine actions for use in flatulence, bad eyesight, melancholy, rheumatism and influenza. The physiomedicalist Menzies-Trull categorizes basil’s primary action as an adaptogenic tonic to the auto-nomic nervous and cardiovascular systems. He gives a large list of actions and indications, including most from the tradition, whilst adding anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, stimulant, hypotensive, diaphoretic, antifungal and immunomodulatory actions. Additional indications include sexual dysfunction and fertility problems (by increasing sperm count), exhaustion, motion sickness, withdrawal from cannabis and fungal infections of the skin. The herb influences tissue conditions by relaxing smooth muscle spasm and relieving irritable intestinal conditions. The dried herb can be given in doses of 3 g, or as 30 mL of the infusion or 4 mL of the tincture.

Pelikan emphasizes the warming, stimulating qualities of the mint family, but basil comes from the hotter and damper Hindustan, rather than from the Mediterranean. Nevertheless its stimulation of metabolism in various organs and systems are shared with other members of the family. In the case of basil, its warmth works on the digestive system, relieving spasms and generally calming, while also cleansing the womb to promote sexuality, fertility and lactation, and treating inflammations of the genitourinary system.

Among the phytotherapeutic texts, Schulz et al (1998) limit basil to digestive disorders such as bloating, presumably owing to the volatile oil which exerts a carminative action on the gut wall. Williamson references its actions as aromatic and carminative, with vermicidal activity substantiated in research, antibacterial in human trials on acne sufferers in India, in vitro evidence as an antiviral, and possibly a role in chemoprevention by increasing levels of enzymes responsible for detoxifying carcinogens. She also mentions an analgesic action and a use for diseases of the kidneys but no source is given.

There is newer evidence for an antibacterial action too. A sample of volatile oil (methyl chavicol 86%) was amongst volatile oils which showed antibacterial activity against 25 bacteria in vitro. A sample of volatile oil (linalool 32%, methyl chavicol 34%, 1,8-cineole 8.7%) showed antibacterial activity and the authors argue that this reflects the proportions of linalool and methyl chavicol rather than the 1,8-cineole as the other volatile oils in the experiment were less active yet had substantially higher concentrations of 1,8-cineole. A sample of volatile oil (linalool 55%, methyl chavicol 12%, methyl cinnamate 7.2%) was found to have a significant in vitro antibacterial action against three multidrug resistant isolates of Staphylococcus aureus and against Staphylococcus epidermidis, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Enterococcus faecalis. Significant antioxidant activity was shown in six test systems and the authors argue that this may underlie the antibacterial action. In a study of the separate components of the oil, eugenol was found to have the highest antioxidant activity whereas antioxidant activity was found to significantly correlate with total phenols. A high linalool sample of the oil showed an action in vitro against Giardia lamblia, which is a common parasite associated with diarrhoeal infections. These experiments are in vitro and their clinical relevance is therefore limited, but they do support the use of basil as an antibacterial in the digestive tract. It may be that the apparently contradictory laxative and astringent actions on the bowel that basil was evidenced as having among the ancient Greek and Arabic writers can be explained by an antibacterial as well as a carminative action on the gut, which would correct the cause of diarrhoea or remedy the underlying condition supporting constipation.

To sum up, the aromatic basil clearly possesses a carminative action and is a remedy for the digestion. It may correct flatulence and colic, nausea and vomiting, soften stools for easier passing in costiveness but also have a role in treating diarrhoea. There is some evidence that it is a vermifuge, according to Williamson. Furthermore, there is a history of topical use, from the pustules of acne and the irritation and inflammation of insect bites to eye-washes and mouthwashes for oral ulceration. As a diuretic, basil may be useful to disinfect and flush through the urinary tract in conditions giving rise to difficult or painful micturition.

In the Arab tradition basil is valued among the cordial remedies. No mean store is placed on the aroma of a plant and its ability to ‘cheer the heart and mind’ troubled by worry, grief or painful life circumstances, although Parkinson saw no medical uses in this sweet-smelling herb. This may reflect its foreign origin, the reaction against Arabic medicine of the century preceding Parkinson and the polarized views from the classical tradition. Basil can be regarded as a nerve tonic to calm the system, lift the mood, help sleep and treat functional symptoms such as palpitations. It may have a place in chronic fatigue syndrome and similar deficiency states, especially where gastrointestinal symptoms or a depressed mood are evident, or where chronic pain is experienced, recalling Fuch’s comment on the plant’s ability to reduce the intensity of symptoms.

As a gynaecological remedy, basil is a gentle cleanser and strengthener of the womb, and may have a role in both facilitating conception and in managing labour. It may encourage breast milk in the nursing mother. It is also a herb to be used with caution, if at all, in pregnancy. Usefulness will depend on achievement of effects through oral doses, which will be more acceptable today than some of the topical applications of the past.

Basil should be considered for catarrh of the respiratory tract, to be used in combination with other herbs in conditions such as sinus congestion and head catarrh, earache, asthma and bronchitis and simple cough.