The Definitive Guide
Black cumin seed deserves to join the ranks of “superfoods” like blueberries, kale and acai. It’s a food (sometimes considered a spice), as safe as chia seeds or oregano, to which it bears shape and taste similarities, respectively. But black cumin seed, either in its original seed form or as an oil, offers an astounding array of unique health benefits in a tiny package.
The nutrients in black cumin seed include:
- Folic acid
- Healthy oils
- Natural polyunsaturated and saturated fatty acids including linoleic, oleic, and palmitic
- Natural plant sterols
- Thymoquinone in particular is thought to provide many of black seed’s benefits
- Amino acids
- Glutamate, arginine and aspartate
- Cysteine and methionine, to a lesser extent
- Hundreds of phytoconstituents not yet identified
Few foods are associated with as many varied health advantages as black cumin seed. It has been found to be anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anti-cancer, and that’s just for starters. Details further down.
You can’t get bigger endorsements than this
Black cumin seed has been used as a food and health treatment from time immemorial. Hippocrates mentioned it as melanthion, and Pliny called it gith. It gets a mention in the Old Testament (Isaiah 28:25,27). And in Islam’s Prophetic tradition, it is said to cure “anything but death” (Authentic book of Al-Bukhari; 810-870 AD). If that isn’t enough, Egyptian Queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra, both famously beautiful, used black cumin seed oil on their complexions.
Just a little botany
Black cumin seed, or Nigella Sativa, is a member of the buttercup family. It comes from an annual flowering shrub found throughout India, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
It goes by many names, reflecting its use in many countries and cultures, but they are all Nigella Sativa:
- nigella seeds
- black seed
- black onion seed
- black sesame seed
- black caraway seed
- fennel flower, small fennel
- Roman coriander
- nutmeg flower
- kalonji, kalongi, calonji
- kala jeera
- charnushka, chernushka
- Habbatul Baraka – “the seed of blessing”
Few foods are associated with as many varied health benefits as black seed—which I’ll call it from now on— and why the “blessed” tag seems deserving.
Health benefits when taken internally
- Cancer—Animal studies have shown that black seed can stop the growth of tumor cells.
- Hypertension—Several studies suggest black seed can lower hypertension.
- Asthma—Some studies show that black seed may help prevent asthmatic symptoms.
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)—One study shows that black seed oil, taken orally, can help reduce rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
- Diabetes—Small studies show the benefits of black seed in patients with diabetes.
- COPD—One well-controlled study showed significant improvements in lung function.
- Antihistamine—Several studies show that black seed reduces the release of histamine from mast cells.
- Anticonvulsant—One study showed significant benefit in treatment-resistant children.
- Digestion—Gastroprotective effects that improve diarrhea, bloating and indigestion.
- Dislipidemia—A meta-analysis of 17 randomized clinical trials found a significant association between black seed supplementation and a reduction in total cholesterol.
- Protection against nephrotoxicity and hepatotoxicity—Several studies show kidney and liver protection from damage caused by disease or chemicals.
- Pain relief—One well-controlled trial showed significant benefit against cyclic mastalgia.
- Antimicrobial—multiple studies support the antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and antiparasitic effects of black seed.
- Obesity—a meta-analysis of 11 studies found a moderate reduction in weight, BMI and waist circumference.
- Infertility—A trial with men with abnormal sperm and infertility found improved sperm movement, count and volume.
- Neuroprotective—studies show that black seed may aid depression and improve memory.
There is also speculation that black seed could be helpful for COVID-19 patients based on its apparent ability to improve lung function. More studies are needed, and black seed is not a substitute for a vaccine or an antiviral. It should be considered only alongside established medical treatments.
How much black seed should
Health benefits when used topically
- Protection from radiation therapy—Topical application of black seed oil decreased the severity of acute radiation dermatitis in breast cancer patients.
- Osteoarthritis—At least one study showed that knee pain was reduced.
- Hair—Thymoquinone, found in high concentrations in black seed, is an antihistamine, and antihistamines have long been associated with hair growth. It may only help people who are suffering from an auto-immune disease.
- Eczema—One study found that black seed oil can reduce the severity of hand eczema, comparable to betamethasone, a prescription treatment.
- Acne—Multiple studies show improvements.
- Psoriasis—An animal study showed antipsoriatic activity.
- Wound-healing—Animal and laboratory studies demonstrated faster wound-healing.
- Wrinkles—A U.S. skincare company called Nigella Therapy conducted a study that demonstrated significant improvements in fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots and hydration.
I know, how can all this be true? Especially when I wrote “hair loss,” even I thought to myself: “snake oil!” But there is at least some scientific evidence for each of these claims, supported by the references I’ve listed at the end of this article.
Although black seed is well-researched for a natural food, much more research needs to be done to substantiate these claims. But safety appears excellent and these seeds see to be uniquely valuable to human health.
Seed vs oil vs capsule
Most of the articles online about black seed’s health benefits refer to the oil form. For internal use, the oil would need to be mixed in a beverage like a smoothie because it is not very palatable taken straight. Or it can be taken in capsule form. I am a proponent of using the seed as food, in its natural form. We don’t have enough studies on the concentrated form of oil or capsules to be certain about dosing. If the ancients could find benefit from black seed in the seed form, so can we.
I would save the oil for topical use.
What do black seeds taste like?
Black seeds taste a bit like a cross between onion, garlic, pepper and oregano. They’ve also been compared to cumin and pepper, but I find them milder than those spices. They resemble slightly large poppy or chia seeds (though they do not create the gelling effect in liquid that chia does.) The black seed shells break easily when bitten and do not need to be ground before eating, as flax seeds do.
How to eat and cook with the seeds
Black seeds can be eaten raw or cooked. Toasting heightens the flavor. Use them on anything savory. Because of their onion/garlic-like flavor they do not work as well in sweet foods like fruit-based smoothies or cereals (unless you enjoy savory oatmeal).
- A traditional use of black seeds is to bake them into bread; they are often used in naan.
- They are terrific in rice or lentil dishes.
- Add them to dals and curries.
- Stir them into soups and stews.
- Sprinkle them on salads or sandwiches.
- They pair well with root vegetables and squashes.
- They are great in sauces.
- If you make your own pickles, this is also a traditional use.
- Try them as part of panch phoron, a traditional Bengali blend of five spices (not to be confused with Chinese five-spice powder). Panch phoron includes fenugreek, fennel, cumin and black mustard seeds. To use panch phoron, fry the spice blend in oil until the seeds pop and their aromas are released. Panch phoron is commonly added to stews, lentils, potatoes and fish.
- Black seed combines well with allspice, coriander and thyme.
- Use black cumin whenever you would use cumin, sesame or carraway seeds.
How much to take?
No studies have been conducted to determine optimal amounts or dosages of black seed. Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org recommends eating a teaspoon a day, every day.
Exception: do not use black seed if you are taking cytochrome P450 substrate drugs: Black seed may increase the risk of side effects of these drugs.
Allergic reactions are possible with topical use.
How much does black seed cost?
Black seed is not as expensive per ounce as other superfoods like goji berries or acai powder, but it’s more expensive than blueberries. Expect to pay between $13 and $16 for a 1-lb. bag. it will last you a long time though.
What should I look for? What brands are best?
For both seed oil, choose organic. You want to ensure you are not getting any pesticide residue to counteract the benefits.
There are many good brands to choose from, but I like TerraSoul. It’s organic, the quality is good, and the price is reasonable. I’ve been happy with other products from the brand. The reviews are good on amazon.
Again, choose organic, and make sure the oil is cold-pressed. This means that heat was not used in processing, and will help ensure that the valuable oils are not destroyed. Also look for a dark-colored bottle, again to ensure the freshness and integrity of the oil.
The brand I use is from Prime Natural. Again, it’s available on amazon, it has good reviews and worked well for me.
I hope you enjoy experimenting with the health and taste benefits of this newly popular, ancient seed!
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