Kitchen Herbs: Basil

Good old basil – the kitchen wouldn’t be same without it… but did you know that it also has a long history of therapeutic uses?

Basil, a member of the mint family, was widely used by the Romans and Greeks, and has always been associated with the brain and mental health – especially as a remedy for depression. For instance, the Renaissance herbalist Gaspard Bauhin said of Basil: “with its fine scent it quickens the brain and heart, and restores the vital spirits” and writing at the same time, Wilhelm Ryff said that “it awakens joy and courage.”

It is thus used for depression, mental sluggishness, grief and other forms of low mood or emotions.

Looking at Basil from a Chinese perspective explains why this might be the case. Basil is a strongly Warming herb – a Yang tonic. This makes it suitable for people with a ‘cold’ type constitution or demeanor – those that feel the cold more often, have cold hands and feet, and especially in this case, feel sluggish, low on energy, and unmotivated – all symptoms of Yang deficiency.

Basil also has a Pungent flavour, and has the effect of moving and circulating Qi. This makes it effective for all cases of Qi stagnation, which is often linked with mood swings, pent-up emotions and irritability. As blockages or stagnation of Qi are responsible for many health conditions, this makes Basil an effective therapeutic herb for anyone with a tendency towards Coldness.

As if that wasn’t enough, Basil will also help to break up Phlegm, and can be used for this purpose during a cold.

From a Western perspective, Basil has high levels of antioxidants, magnesium and vitamins with useful anti-bacterial, anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties. Like most herbs, it is nutrient dense, and can be eaten as a regular part of the diet to keep nutrient levels high.

There’s probably no need to explain Basil’s culinary uses – it is a great partner to tomato dishes, and is used extensively in Italian cooking. You can also add the chopped or torn leaves to salads or sandwiches or as a garnish. The flavour of the fresh leaves is superior to dried basil, and it also freezes poorly, so is best used fresh.