One such supplement: black seed oil. It isn't new by any means—people have been using it for thousands of years—but it's been making a splash on health blogs lately as a remedy for everything from weight loss to asthma to arthritis, and it was recently named a top 10 natural food trend for 2018 (along with collagen and the keto diet) by Natural Grocers.
But is black seed oil too good to be true? Or does it really deserve a spot in your well-curated supplement lineup alongside molecularly distilled fish oil and turmeric? Here, we'll talk all about black seed oil, what it can realistically do for you, and how to get your hands on a quality version of it.
Black seed oil (aka black cumin seed oil, kalonji oil, or nigella sativa oil) is an amber-hued oil extracted from tiny black seeds of the flowering Nigella sativa plant that originated in Southwest Asia and has been used throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe.
"People have used black cumin seeds and their oil to treat a wide range of conditions including digestive problems and high blood pressure for thousands of years," says Vincent Pedre, M.D., mbg Collective member and board-certified internist and integrative medicine specialist in New York City. Black cumin seeds were even found in King Tut's tomb, and apparently they got a mention in the Old Testament as being able to cure anything but death.
But what makes the oil of these small, unassuming black cumin seeds so great? When you scan the label, you'll notice a variety of beneficial compounds listed, including things like omega-3, -6, and -9 essential fatty acids and cholesterol-lowering plant compounds called phytosterols. But the majority of its therapeutic perks probably have to do with a particularly potent active compound called thymoquinone (TQ), says Pedre, which is "an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory, anti-allergy, anti-cancer, and immune-supporting abilities."
Today, black cumin seed oil is sold in health food stores, grocery stores, and online as a liquid oil or as gel capsules. To reap its varied benefits, you can ingest it or apply it topically to the skin.
Research on black seed oil, or Nigella sativa, is somewhat limited. More large-scale clinical trials are needed before it can be recommended to treat any health conditions, but preliminary studies do suggest that it may benefit your health in a variety of ways. Here are some of the most promising findings to date:
With a quick "black seed oil + weight loss" search, you'll find a number of bloggers and vloggers raving about this oil's ability to melt away the pounds. While this may (rightly) induce some eye-rolling, some research suggests black cumin seed oil could somewhat aid in weight loss, or at least reduce risk factors for obesity. In one eight-week study, women took black seed oil or a placebo while following a low-calorie diet. By the end, the black seed oil group experienced greater reductions in weight, waist circumference, and triglyceride levels.
That said, it's not a magic bullet. "Most of its weight loss benefits would likely be indirect," says Pedre. "Inflammation is a key driver in obesity, for instance, so the anti-inflammatory properties of thymoquinone could normalize inflammation and therefore aid weight loss. I would say combined with a gut-healing diet and other lifestyle modifications, black cumin might nudge the needle a little in your favor, but I wouldn't consider it a primary weight loss aid."
Legend has it that Cleopatra's secret to radiant skin was actually black seed oil! While we can't officially confirm, one study did find that applying a lotion of 10 percent black seed oil significantly reduced acne after two months, thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Other research has found that topical application of black seed oil speeds wound healing, which may help reduce blemishes and scarring.
Black seed oil can also be diluted with a carrier oil (or added to shampoos) and applied to the scalp to soothe inflammation and reduce flakiness. Some say it can even prevent hair loss caused by alopecia due to thymoquinone's antihistamine properties, but research has yet to confirm this.
Black seed oil may help reduce symptoms of seasonal allergies. In one study, patients with allergic rhinitis (aka hay fever) who were given black seed oil daily experienced a reduction in nasal congestion, nasal itching, runny nose, and sneezing attacks within the first two weeks of treatment. These results are likely due to a reduction in inflammation and the fact that thymoquinone acts as an antihistamine, says Pedre.
One study found that asthma patients taking a daily black cumin seed extract experienced a significant reduction in their asthma symptom scores, asthma severity, frequency of symptoms, and wheezing compared to a placebo group. Researchers believe this is in part due to antispasmodic and bronchodilatory effects (i.e., the ability to reduce muscle spasms and open the airways) of thymoquinone and other active compounds in black seed oil.
A review of 19 studies examining the effect of black cumin seed (in its various forms) on diabetes found that it helps lower blood sugar and cholesterol (both of which contribute to type 2 diabetes) by influencing insulin secretion and glucose absorption. However, most research has been done on Nigella sativa seed powder, not necessarily the oil, so it's not clear just how beneficial it would be for managing or reducing risk of diabetes.
The vasorelaxant effect (i.e., the ability to reduce the tension of the blood vessel walls) of black cumin seed oil helps lower blood pressure naturally. In one study, taking 5 mL, or about 1 teaspoon, of black seed oil for eight weeks significantly lowered systolic and diastolic blood pressure with no adverse effects, suggesting that incorporating even small amounts into your diet may benefit heart health.
Black cumin seed oil may help relieve achy joints associated with rheumatoid arthritis pain. In one study, women with RA who were given a 500-mg dose of black seed oil capsules twice a day experienced a decrease in swollen joints and morning joint stiffness. Another more recent study found that women with mild to moderate RA who took the oil had lower blood levels of certain inflammatory markers associated with the disease, including C-reactive protein.
Research on the cancer-fighting properties of black seed oil is quite preliminary but still promising. Several lab studies have found its main active compound, thymoquinone, can induce apoptosis (die-off) among cancer cells and slow the metastasis (or spread) of a variety of cancers, including breast cancer and melanoma. That said, much more research is needed to determine its cancer-fighting potential in humans.
One of the oldest traditional uses of black cumin seeds was to promote overall digestive health, with tinctures of the seeds frequently being used to treat indigestion and bloating, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. Thymoquinone also has anti-yeast and antifungal properties that researchers say could make it useful in fighting candida and other fungal infections in the digestive tract. Additionally, studies have found that a black cumin seed solution helped prevent the formation of gastric ulcers in rats. Researchers speculate that this is due to the gastroprotective effects of thymoquinone, which has been shown to inhibit acid secretion and help maintain the layer of mucus that lines and protects the gut.
The endocannabinoid system (the body's "master regulatory system" that mbg is predicting will be receiving tons of attention in 2019), might benefit from black cumin seed's antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
"Black cumin seed oil contains a key phytocannabinoid called beta-caryophyllene (BCP). BCP bind exclusively to the CB2 cannabinoid receptor. This receptor dominates in the peripheral nervous system, immune system, gut, liver, skin and bone—so supporting it is important to maintaining health in these systems," explains Robert Rountree, M.D., a Functional Medicine pioneer.
As mentioned above, black seed oil is available in liquid form and in gel caps; however, liquid options are usually more affordable, versatile, and easier to find organic. So, more often than not, liquid is the way to go.
Here are a few specific things to look for in a black seed oil to ensure you're getting the best possible product:
No official black seed oil dosage has been established for treating specific conditions (again, large clinical trials must be done before this can happen), so it's best to follow the recommended dose on the label, which is typically between 1 and 3 teaspoons per day. If you're trying it for the first time, start with ½ teaspoon per day and gradually work your way up. Keep in mind, potency and serving size may vary depending on the brand, so always read your labels carefully.
If you're going to consume it, black seed oil can be eaten straight-up by the teaspoonful or taken in convenient capsule form. If you're a cook, you can also use it in dressings, ad it to smoothies, drizzle it over grain dishes, or add to anything you'd normally top with an aromatic oil (think of it as a flavoring or finishing oil, not a cooking oil). Just be sure you're not drizzling on more than the recommended daily serving, and don't add it to anything too hot or you'll degrade its delicate nutrients.
Black seed oil does have a pretty pungent, bitter, somewhat peppery flavor, though, so proceed with caution before you potentially ruin a perfectly good meal! If you're not a fan of its natural flavor, consider trying it in a healthy homemade dressing:
Whisk together ingredients until well-combined. Drizzle onto salads or grain-based sides, or use it as a dip for veggies. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Topically, black seed oil can be combined with lotions, shampoos, or carrier oils (like jojoba, rosehip, argan, and avocado oil) and applied to the skin or scalp. Do a patch test first to make sure you're not allergic.
When consumed in appropriate amounts (hint: More is not better!), black seed oil is unlikely to cause any side effects. However, black seed oil can thin the blood, which makes it unsuitable for certain people. Consuming too much, for anyone, may cause damage to the liver and kidneys. Topically, black seed oil may cause a rash or hives, so it's always a good idea to do a small patch test before slathering it on.
"With certain health conditions, taking black cumin oil can potentially be harmful, including bleeding disorders and for pregnant women," says Pedre. "Always consult with your physician before taking black cumin oil or any other supplements, especially if you have an underlying chronic condition or are currently taking medication."
The bottom line? Black seed oil shows true promise in preliminary studies and is likely safe (both orally and topically) for most people, suggesting that it may be an easy way to help promote overall health—as long as you don't exceed a few teaspoons a day. That said, it shouldn't be considered a miracle cure for any one thing. Larger human clinical trials must be done before black seed oil can be used to actually treat any health condition.
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