Herbalism and traditional medicine spotlight series: Black seed (Nigella sativa)

Some herbs and spices have managed to transcend culinary and traditional medicine traditions quite successfully and are have a attained a high level of global recognition such as pepper, cinnamon and cardamon. Other herbs and spices, for whatever reason, have failed to make that leap to the international stage. This spotlight series will take the opportunity to highlight some herbs and spices less popular in the west and other places but can be a useful additional to herbalism/traditional medicine treatments and a healthy lifestyle.

Black seed (Nigella sativa) is common in Arabic and South Asian foods and traditional medicine. The seeds are harvested from pods attached to flowering plans. They are matte black in color with an irregular shape and rough edges. The seeds are porous and seem light for their size. They have a slightly chewy consistency with a mildly bitter taste. It’s also known as black cumin and kalonji.

This is probably one of the two most important natural medicines in the Islamic Prophetic medicine tradition. That’s because the Prophet Mohammed (SAS) said “You should use this black seed because it contains a cure for all things except death.” Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya says “It’s beneficial (for treatment of) all cold diseases and it can also be used for hot-dry diseases transversely” where it can be ground and mixed with honey and drunken with hot water, boiled or cooked with vinegar, pressed for oil, ground and mixed with oil, and ground and made into a paste with macerated Colocynth to treat different ailments including fever, constipation, flatulence, diarrhea, worms, kidney stones, runny nose, difficulty breathing and cold headaches.

Likewise, in the Ayurvedic tradition it’s classified as a hot-pungent medicine for directly treating ailments with the stomach, lungs, uterus and skin and indirectly affecting the liver, kidneys and hair. In addition to what Ibn Qayyim mentioned, it’s also used to treat bad breath, anorexia, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome and low breast milk supply as well as being used externally for hair loss. Black seed is generally used as an oil in Ayurvedic medicine where it’s called kalonji oil.

Modern research has shown that “The medicinal benefits of black seed are mainly due to its main active compound called thymoquinone, which has shown antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and other therapeutic properties that protect the body from cell damage and chronic diseases” (Nourish by WebMD) and may aid inflammation, asthma, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune disorders and diabetes. A peer reviewed study published in the Journal of Pharmacopuncture has also “confirmed that N.sativa has antiviral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, bronchodilatory, antihistaminic, antitussive activities related to causative oraganism and signs and symptoms of COVID-19. N. sativa could be used as an adjuvant therapy along with repurposed conventional drugs to manage the patients with COVID-19.”

There are some potential health risks with use of the oil/extract or prolonged high consumption especially during pregnancy “When used orally in amounts exceeding those found in food, black seed may decrease or inhibit uterine contractions and may have contraceptive action.” As such, any medicinally use, particularly that of the oil or extract, should be done in consultation with the health professional or qualified herbalist.

There are several ways black seed can be incorporated into your diet or simple medicinal treatments including:

  • Adding crushed-powdered black seed to curry mix (if you’re buying store bought it may already be there!)
  • Putting black seed on top of savory and sweet baked goods. It’s sometimes put on naan bread or Arabic flat bread and is well paired with sesame seeds. Arabs also put them on cookies, biscuits and layered pastry with honey.
  • Adding some to soup especially thick, creamy soup.
  • Mix with honey and hot water and drink to improve circulation and flow of body fluids (including kidney stones, urine and menstrual blood), indigestion, reduce cold-headaches and ease difficulty breathing.
  • Grind 5-7 black seeds into a fine powder and mix with olive oil as mentioned by the Prophet Mohammed (SAS) and then put 3-4 drops in the nose to treat runny nose.

Perhaps once you try using black seed, you’ll be inspired to make new culinary creations! Please share in the comments if you have any new recipes. Once again, while taking normal amounts of black seed in food and home treatments is safe, the use of extract and oils, especially for pregnant women and children, should be consulted with your health care provider and/or herbalists.

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