Essential oil of the month - Basil

Basil is one of the world’s oldest aromatic herbs. It belongs to the large mint, or Lamiaceae family, and is native to tropical Asia and Africa. It is now cultivated in many areas worldwide including the Mediterranean and other parts of Europe, where it is commonly used as a culinary herb in French, Greek and Italian cuisine.

Traditional uses of Basil

Basil has been used medicinally since antiquity and is a popular herb in Far Eastern medicine – especially Ayurveda. The name ‘basil’ is thought to come from the Greek word ‘basileus’ which means ‘king or emperor’, indicating it was considered a ‘King’ amongst plants, and that it may have been used in anointing oils and medicines for royalty. 

It was traditionally used for a range of respiratory and digestive problems, to protect against epidemics, fever, and as antidote to snake and insect bites. Some writers, including Pliny, also considered it to be an aphrodisiac. 

In the 16th century Basil was made into a powder and used as snuff to help with headaches and head-colds.

In the 1600’s Gerard wrote in his famous Herbal that the smell of basil was “good for the heart and for the head.” The seeds “cureth the infirmities of the heart and taketh away the sorrow which commeth with melancholy and maketh a man merry and glad.” Gerard also advised that the juice of the plant was good against headaches, if it were drunk with wine.

Basil essential oil 

Basil essential oil is steam distilled from the leaves and flowering tops of the herb. It is colourless to pale yellow/green in colour and has a sweet, warm, herbal aroma with liquorice/aniseed undertones.

Essential oil can be obtained from several cultivars of basil and different chemotypes are available.

The most common chemotypes found in aromatherapy are Ocimum basilicum ct linalol, otherwise known as Sweet Basil, European Basil or French Basil; and Ocimum basilicum ct methyl chavicol, which is known as Exotic or Comoran Basil. Although these oils are derived from the same botanical species, geographical influences and growing conditions give rise to significant differences in chemical composition.

Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum ct linalol) is considered the safest chemotype for use in aromatherapy as it contains high amounts of linalol and less methyl chavicol. Exotic basil can contain up to 88% methyl chavicol (estragole) which, in high doses, is thought to be potentially toxic when metabolised by the body. Although methyl chavicol isn’t toxic itself, it is converted during its metabolism into a chemical, 1’-hydroxyestragol, which is carcinogenic and hepatoxic.  

As well as being safer, Sweet Basil has a fresher scent due to its higher linalol and lower estragole levels.

Ocimum sanctum or Holy Basil is also used in aromatherapy but not stocked by Base Formula. Holy Basil is a sacred herb in India and is used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine where it is known as Tulsi or Tulasi. Holy Basil essential oil smells like a mix of basil and clove – with the characteristic clove scent being derived from high levels of the chemical constituent, eugenol.

Therapeutic properties of Basil essential oil

Antidepressant, antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, cephalic, digestive, emmenagogue, expectorant, febrifuge, galactagogue, nervine, prophylactic, restorative, stimulant (adrenal cortex), stomachic, tonic.

Main uses of Basil essential oil

Nervous system

Basil is an excellent tonic for the mind and nerves. Tisserand describes it as “an excellent, indeed perhaps the best, aromatic nerve tonic. It clears the head, relieves intellectual fatigue, and gives the mind strength and clarity”. It is a good choice when feeling emotionally fragile – helping with issues such as anxiety, stress, depression, nervous tension, insomnia, fatigue, lack of concentration, courage, strength and clarity of thought, migraine, and headaches. 

Digestive system

As a digestive aid and tonic Basil can help with problems such as indigestion, IBS, nausea, and stomach upsets – especially when stress-related.

Muscles and joints

Basil can assist with muscular aches, pains and tension, gout, and rheumatism. It is especially good for relieving tired, tight, overworked muscles following sport or other strenuous activities.

Respiratory system

Basil can help with a range of respiratory problems including bronchitis, sinusitis, coughs, colds, flu, and asthma.

Other uses

Menstrual cramps, scanty periods, fever, insect repellent. 

Safety notes

Do not use during pregnancy. Basil should also be avoided with sensitive skin as it can cause sensitisation in some individuals. Use in only small amounts at a maximum 2% dilution and for short periods of time only. Although the oil generally acts as a tonic and stimulant it can have the opposite effect if used in excess.

Aromatherapy blends with Basil essential oil

Massage oil for muscular pain (back and neck)

30ml Sweet Almond Oil, 6 drops Lavender essential oil, 3 drops Marjoram, 3 Rosemary, 2 Basil and 2 Clary Sage.

Massage oil for high stress and PMT

30ml Sweet Almond Oil, 5 drops Lavender, 4 Geranium, 3 Rosemary, 2 Basil and 2 Clary Sage.

Bath blend for high stress (not for sensitive skin)

15ml Bath & Shower Gel, 6 drops Lavender essential oil, 2 Neroli, 2 Basil and 1 Eucalyptus.

Stress headache balm

20ml Aloe Vera & Rose Gel, 5 drops Lavender, 3 Neroli, 2 Basil and 1 Peppermint.

Massage oil for pre-exam stress and confidence booster

30ml Grapeseed Oil, 6 drops Lavender essential oil, 3 Rosemary, 2 Lemon, 2 Basil and 2 Neroli.

Massage oil for IBS tendencies

Regular massage into the tummy in a clockwise direction with 30ml Sweet Almond Oil, 4 drops Sweet Orange, 4 Lavender, 2 Spearmint, 2 Neroli and 2 Basil. 

Joannah Metcalfe
Consultant Aromatherapist

Disclaimer & Safety Advice

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