Black seed oil is the perfect example of a medicinal whole food. It’s the cold pressed oil of the black cumin seed nigella sativa, which grows widely across Southern Europe, Western Asia and South Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. In the majority of those regions, black seed oil has extensive traditional use as a medicine or “cure-all.”
In ancient Egypt, the black cumin seed was a primary first-line medicine against an entire host of maladies. When archaeologists unearthed King Tut’s tomb, they found traces of black seed and black seed oil—ostensibly placed there to protect him as he made his way to the underworld. The Prophet Muhammad was reported to have said that “the black seed can heal every disease, except death.”1 For thousands of years, Indian Ayurvedic medicine prescribed black seed oil to treat hypertension, high blood sugar, eczema, asthma, and general diseases of inflammation.
I’m not saying these are fully accurate statements or beliefs, but they do show the reverence these cultures had for black seed oil and indicate its prowess as a medicine. Luckily, we don’t have to rely on ancient texts as the only evidence we have. There are hundreds of studies showing the efficacy of black seed oil in humans against a wide range of health conditions. Taken as a whole, it’s an impressive body of literature.
This is the Primal way: taking heed of traditional wisdom and confirming its accuracy with modern science.
Around here, we generally prefer medicinal whole foods—herbs, seeds, spices, and the like—to isolated or synthetic pharmacological compounds for several reasons:
The synergistic compounds that exist in the whole food medicine are more likely to enhance the effects and be missing from the synthetic version.
The synthetic compound will be geared toward a specific task, a one-trick pony, while the whole food medicine will be more likely to encompass other effects both up and down the line of causality.
Whole food medicines are also foods—they contain vitamins and minerals and macronutrients that nourish us. They aren’t just medicine; they’re much more. If nothing else, this is a more efficient way to obtain medicinal effects.
Health Benefits of Black Seed Oil
Let’s explore the health effects of black seed oil. To begin with, let’s dispel some notions and prejudices we have about “seed oils.” Industrial seed oils, like corn or canola oil, are stripped of nutrients that prevent lipid degradation, undergo high-heat and chemical processing, and have no redeeming qualities to make up for the high level of omega-6 linoleic acid present in the fat. In the Primal eating plan, we eliminate these industrial seed oils.
Black seed oil is a different kind of seed oil.
It’s unrefined, so that it contains all the protective components that help the fragile fatty acids resist oxidation and prevent rancidity. 2
It’s a medical oil, not a food, so we’re not using it to make salad dressings, fry potatoes, or incorporate in processed junk food. We aren’t eating enough of it to worry about it as a major source of omega-6 fatty acids in our diet.
Unlike the industrial seed oils, black seed oil has proven benefits that justify its inclusion in our diet.
Black Seed Oil for Diabetes
In patients with pre-diabetes—bad blood glucose numbers that don’t yet qualify for full-blown diabetes—black seed oil performed as well as or better than metformin, the “gold standard” pharmaceutical for diabetes. While both metformin and black seed oil groups saw improved glucose parameters, only black seed oil patients who took 450 mg of black seed oil twice a day (less than a teaspoon) saw better lipids and lower inflammation.3
In patients with newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes (full blown), 1350 mg/day of black seed oil helped against but wasn’t as effective as metformin in improving fasting blood glucose or HbA1c. However, once again black seed oil patients enjoyed uniquely improved lipid numbers, lower fasting insulin, and lower inflammatory markers. Furthermore, metformin patients had higher liver enzymes and slightly elevated creatinine levels, while black seed oil patients did not.4 Both groups saw better body composition, including the all-important and extremely revealing waist circumference.
Seeing as how metformin has growing prominence as an all-around health-promoting prophylactic medicine for otherwise healthy people who want to live longer, black seed oil might be a more effective alternative with added benefits.
Black Seed Oil for Oxidative Stress
One of the main avenues through which black seed oil works is a reduction in oxidative stress. This general amelioration of oxidative stress and inflammation has multiple beneficial downstream effects, since inflammation is so central to so many health conditions. It inhibits the secretion of IL-6, an inflammatory cytokine implicated in heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and many types of cancer.5
Black seed oil significantly reduces HS-CRP (highly sensitive c-reactive protein) levels, perhaps the premier marker of inflammatory status.6 HS-CRP is elevated in pretty much every disease you can imagine. A recent review of the anti-inflammatory effects of black seed oil also found that it improved a broad range of inflammatory biomarkers, including HS-CRP, TNF, and MDA. Plus, it boosted the endogenous antioxidant superoxide dismutase 7
Hell, black seed oil is so littered with antioxidant compounds that you can even add it to refined corn oil—possibly the worst seed oil of all time—and make it incredibly stable in the presence of light, heat, and the passage of time.8
Black Seed Oil for Allergic Diseases
In the 13th century, the Islamic scholar Imam Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya wrote of healers using the black seed to treat “gasping and hard breathing”—a likely description of asthma.9 This continues today in Saudi Arabia, where black seed is a common treatment for asthma.
Sure enough, asthmatic patients taking black seed oil every day reduced their symptoms and their reliance on asthma medications.10 Another study found that asthmatic patients who took black seed oil improved their asthma control score and reduced their symptoms, positive changes that were accompanied by a drop in eosinophils (a white blood cell involved in fighting disease states, including asthma).11
Nasal application of black seed oil in hay fever patients has also been shown to reduce or—in milder cases—even eliminate symptoms.12
Black Seed Oil for COVID
A number of studies have shown that black seed oil helps against COVID. In one, COVID patients with mild symptoms who took black seed oil recovered faster than patients who took nothing.13 In another, a combination of honey and black seeds (the actual seeds, not the oil this time) had a remarkable effect on COVID patients:14
50% of severe patients in the black seed group were discharged from hospital by study’s end; only 2.8% of severe patients in the placebo groups were.
4% of severe patients in the black seed group died; 18.9% of severe patients in the placebo group died.
By day 6, 63% of moderate patients in the black seed group had normalized compared to just 10.9% in the placebo group.
Both moderate and severe patients in the black seed group recovered much faster than their placebo counterparts.
How to Choose the Best Black Seed Oil
This is quite simple, actually: look for a high thymoquinone content. Researchers have concluded that thymoquinone, the most prominent phenolic compound found in black seed oil, is responsible for most of its therapeutic effects. Anything above 2% thymoquinone is a good quality oil. Ideally, you want 3-4% or more. Do understand that the more thymoquinone it contains, the bitterer it tastes.
As you can see, black seed oil shows great promise as a medicinal food. I wouldn’t say you should take it all the time, especially if you’re healthy, nor should you treat it like a food and consume it for the calories, but it’s probably smart to have a good quality black seed oil on hand for when you might need it.
Take care, everyone, and let me know down below if you have experience using black seed oil.