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Common chemical mouthwashes, including those containing chlorhexidine, may disrupt the microbiome in your mouth and carry risks of side effects. Holy basil, also known as tulsi, is an Ayurvedic herb that may be just as effective for protecting oral health without the risks of conventional mouth rinses
Holy basil, also known as tulsi, is an aromatic herb native to India, which has been highly revered within the Ayurvedic medicine system for thousands of years. Ayurveda refers to holy basil as an "elixir of life" because it's useful for so many health conditions.
Modern research suggests its beneficial for metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, immunity and neurocognition,[i] but even your oral health may improve via holy basil.
This plant is now cultivated for its essential oil and for medicinal purposes, and it possesses a number of properties that make it ideal for support of healthy teeth and gums, including being anti-inflammatory and bacteriostatic, meaning it stops bacteria from reproducing or inhibits its growth.
"Among all the properties of holy basil described, its anti-inflammatory action, bacteriostatic effect, antioxidant and immune modulatory properties make its use as a therapeutic agent for gingival and periodontal disease an appealing proposition," researchers explained in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dentistry,[ii] which led them to conduct a study evaluating the herb's potential as a mouthwash.
Problems With Conventional Medicated Mouthwash
Chlorhexidine, an antimicrobial agent, is considered in conventional dentistry to be the gold-standard for reducing bacteria in the mouth. It may be prescribed as an antimicrobial mouthwash if you have the beginning stages of gum disease. While chlorhexidine doesn't prevent plaque and tartar formation, it does kill bacteria, helping to prevent gingivitis.
However, this drug is associated with side effects, including increased staining of teeth and altered taste sensation, which may occur after prolonged use.[iii] Long-term use of chlorhexidine is not recommended.
There is also increasing recognition that your mouth contains a microbiome of its own, one that must be balanced in order to achieve high levels of health -- similar to the way it's important to balance the microbiome in your gut. Chemical mouthwashes may cause more harm than good, as they kill off beneficial bacteria in your mouth, leading to a disruption in your oral and overall health.
Frequent over-the-counter mouthwash use (twice a day or more) is even linked to an increased risk of developing pre-diabetes and diabetes, likely because it impairs oral microbes that are critical for the formation of nitric oxide, thereby increasing the risk of metabolic disorders.[iv]
Holy Basil Works as Well as Disinfectant Mouthwash
Holy basil provides a natural alternative to chemical mouthwash, one that may inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria without necessarily killing beneficial varieties. In the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dentistry, 30 volunteers used holy basil mouthwash, chlorhexidine mouthwash or a sterile water rinse twice daily for four days.
Holy basil was effective against both Prevotella intermedia (P. intermedia) and Fusobacterium nucleatum (F.nucleatum), two periodontal pathogens known to contribute to periodontitis, or gum infection. It also had an antiplaque effect.
Both the holy basil mouthwash and the medicated mouthwash reduced plaque in the study participants similarly; no significant difference was found between the antiplaque effects of the chlorhexidine and holy basil rinse.[v]
A separate study, this one published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, also found holy basil mouth rinse to be equally effective in reducing plaque and gingivitis as chlorhexidine after one month of treatment.[vi] However, the holy basil had no side effects, unlike chlorhexidine, leading the researchers to suggest it's a preferable form of mouthwash:[vii]
"Ocimum sanctum mouthwash is much more cost effective than chlorhexidine and is easily available. Being an Ayurvedic product, it has no known side effects compared to chlorhexidine and hence is safe for use over a long period of time.
This is an encouraging result which clearly favors promotion of Ocimum sanctum as a mouth rinse among rural communities especially belonging to low socioeconomic strata as Ocimum sanctum is easily accessible and is cheap and safe alternative to chlorhexidine."
How to Use Holy Basil for Oral Health
To find out more about holy basil, including its effectiveness against dental caries and plaque, view our holy basil research database. There you'll find 69 diseases that have been researched for holy basil, including dental caries.
In addition to being used as a mouthwash, researchers have suggested holy basil be used as an agent against bacteria known to cause dental caries, including Streptococcus mutans.[viii] Holy basil mouthwash may also be effective in relieving bad breath.
Holy basil extract is available in supplement form, topical ointments and as an essential oil. If you want to try it out as an oral rinse, look for fresh or dried holy basil leaves. Holy basil leaves can be covered with boiling water and allowed to steep, similar to making tea, for 15 or 20 minutes. The leaves can then be strained from the solution. Once cooled, use the water as a daily mouth rinse.
The Herbal Academy suggests using about 1/2 cup fresh leaves or 2 tablespoons dried leaves with one cup of water as a basic mouthwash recipe.[ix] You can also chew on the leaves directly, which is said to help clear infections of the mouth. If you aren't ready to make your own, natural toothpastes and mouthwashes that feature holy basil and other herbs are available in many health food stores.