Native to India and Asia where it has been cultivated for at least five thousand years, basil is a highly fragrant plant used for seasoning throughout the world, from Vietnam to India and Italy. The name "basil" comes from the ancient Greek word basilikohn, meaning "royal," revealing the nobility the ancients saw in the herb. There are many varieties of basil, all a bit different in appearance and taste. Whereas sweet basil is bright and pungent, other varieties offer flavours of their own: lemon basil, anise basil and cinnamon basil all have tastes befitting their names.
Basil is rich in carotenoids such as beta-carotene, which can be converted into vitamin A. Beta-carotene is an even more potent antioxidant than regular vitamin A, as it not only protects cells from free radical damage, but also aids in keeping free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol in the bloodstream. By not oxidizing, cholesterol does not build up on blood vessel walls, avoiding atherosclerosis and a heart attack. Basil is also a good source of magnesium, which promotes cardiovascular health by relaxing muscles and blood vessels, improving blood flow and lowering the risk of irregular heart rhythms and cardiovascular spasms.
Basil is known to have powerful antioxidant properties. The natural antioxidants found in basil can protect the body against damage from free radicals, thereby combating most forms of cancer. Basil also contains flavonoids, which protect cell structures from radiation and oxygen-based damage. Basil is a rich source of beta-carotene, which helps protect cells from free radical damage.
Skin and Hair Health
When used as a skin and hair moisturizer, the essential oils of basil enhance the luster of dull looking skin and hair. Basil is also effective in treating acne and psoriasis.
Bone and Connective Tissue
The essential oil of basil contains a liquid called eugenol, which can inhibit the activity of cyclooxygenase, an enzyme which causes swelling in joints and bones among other places. Aspirin and ibuprofen work by blocking the same enzyme. This enzyme-inhibiting power makes basil an anti-inflammatory food that can heal and give relief for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Digestive Tract Health
The enzyme-inhibiting effect of the eugenol in basil certifies basil as an anti-inflammatory food providing important healing benefits as well as relief from inflammatory bowel conditions. It can also provide immediate relief from the gas in your stomach and intestines, treat constipation, stomach cramps, indigestion and flatulence.
The essential oil of basil has been shown to provide impressive protection against unwanted bacterial growth of many types, including the ability to inhibit several species that have become resistant to commonly used antibiotic drugs. Studies have shown that washing produce in a solution containing just 1% essential oil of basil resulted in killing such bacteria, so it makes good sense to include basil in salads.
Evidence shows that the antioxidants and volatile oils in basil make it of great assistance to the immune system. The leaves and oil both have antibacterial properties, and can even be used to eliminate infectious diseases from surfaces. Applied topically to wounds, basil leaves may eliminate bacterial infections, while enjoying basil in food can help combat viral infections, including colds, flu, and herpes.