Black Cumin: Tiny Seed, Big Potential
The kitchen spice rack sometimes proves as powerful as the bathroom medicine chest. From turmeric and ginger’s ability to modulate a healthy inflammatory response, to the antioxidant effects of rosemary and oregano, it’s a win-win when herbs and spices that enhance a meal’s flavor also bring with them beneficial effects for health. A new kid on the block to be added to the category of highly effective and evidence-based botanical medicine is black cumin seed.
Don’t confuse black cumin (Nigella sativa) with the cumin we use more commonly in the West, particularly in Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine (Cuminum cyminum). They come from different botanical families, and the seeds have distinct appearances and flavor profiles. However, like the cumin we are more familiar with, black cumin is used as a spice in Middle Eastern and Western Asian cooking. It is particularly favored for addition to pastries and breads (such as Indian naan), and is also part of panch phoron, a five-spice blend usually consisting of black cumin, fenugreek, fennel seed, black mustard seed, and the cumin we are more accustomed to.
Black cumin is native to Southern Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia, but it is now cultivated throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East, and India. This spice—little known in the West beyond practitioners of traditional and naturopathic medicine—has been valued in the East for centuries. It is considered a “miracle seed” in Ayurvedic (traditional Indian) medicine. Ancient prophets are said to have claimed it can cure “every ailment except death itself.” We certainly can’t bank on that, but modern scientific research has corroborated a surprising amount of benefit for black cumin across a wide array of health concerns.
The primary active compound in black cumin seed oil—called thymoquinone (TQ)—has been shown to support immune system function, and help the body mount a proper inflammatory response. TQ supports the immune system by augmenting the activity of the specialized white blood cells capable of targeting a number of pathogens. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to damage—whether from physical trauma (such as a sprain or a burn), exposure to environmental toxins, or as a result of chronic exposure to food allergens (such as wheat or soy, in susceptible individuals). And acute, short-term inflammation is usually a helpful thing. But chronic, long-term inflammation is associated with many health complications. TQ and whole black cumin seed oil have been shown to inhibit production of some of the body’s internal inflammatory compounds. (In fact, they reduce production of cyclooxygenase [COX], which is the same compound inhibited by aspirin—sometimes referred to as a “COX inhibitor.”) Here we have modern scientific knowledge backing up black cumin’s ancient use as a pain reliever.
Because of its inflammatory/immune-mediating effects, TQ may be beneficial in giving the body natural support with autoimmune conditions. In a study looking at rheumatoid arthritis, patients supplemented with black cumin seed oil reported significant improvement in symptoms compared to those given a placebo.
Another helpful aspect of black cumin is its ability to assist the body in replenishing its stores of antioxidants. Our bodies need a constant supply of antioxidants to help repair damage that happens at a cellular level from exposure to harmful substances, as well as completely normal byproducts of our own metabolism. Animal models have shown TQ to be helpful for recycling the enzymes involved in antioxidant activity and regeneration. Rampant oxidative stress is associated with numerous health complications, so black cumin’s efficacy across such a wide range of conditions might be due in part to this role in facilitating sufficient levels of antioxidants.
Not bad for such a small seed!
- David Brady