The field of modern medical science has witnessed novel advancements over the years.
The area of research has been one of the principal beneficiaries of these improvements with evidence based research ongoing in virtually all areas of medicine.
Such research has led to the demystification of some concepts and remedies in traditional medicine.
The resultant effect is that traditional remedies are receiving wider appreciation as scientific explanations can be offered about their effects.
Their relative safety and affordability, among other advantages, render them better options than conventional drugs with the same efficacy profile.
Nigella sativa is one of the traditional remedies that have been extensively researched, and this article provides a comprehensive review of this ‘magical’ plant.
Nigella Sativa Overview
Often called Black cumin, Nigella sativa is an annual flowering plant that is widely available in various traditional medicine systems all over the world.
Historical accounts point to the extensive use of Nigella sativa seeds and oil in various medicinal preparations and as a spice for foods.
The plant is native to South and Southwest Asia and belongs to the Ranunculaceae family.
Its black color identifies the seed, and almost all the names given to the plant has etymology traceable to the dark color of the seeds.
It is commonly defined in English as Black caraway and the word Nigella is diminutive of the Latin word ‘Niger’ which means ‘black.’
Black caraway use has a rich historical and religious backing.
Records of traditional healers show extensive use of the plant for the treatment of various ailments such as bronchitis, asthma, diarrhea, rheumatism, skin disorders, appetite stimulant, emmenagogue, liver tonic, etc.
Ayurveda and Islamic systems of medicine highly regard this plant.
Nigella is said to be a miracle plant and a tradition attributed to the
Holy Prophet of Islam states that Black seed is capable of curing all diseases, except death.
Black cumin was also mentioned in the Bible, the Holy book of Christians although opinions, whether the plant being referred to is Nigella sativa, differ from translator to translator.
Avicenna, the great physician, and author of medical remedies also held Nigella in very high regard.
He referred to Nigella as the seed that stimulates the body’s energy and facilitates recovery from unexplained fatigue and dispiritedness.
Anatomically, the plant has an average height ranging from 7.9-11.8in, and its leaves are linear and finely divided although not threadlike.
The flowers expectedly do not take the color of the seeds, appearing pale blue and white and possessive six to ten petals.
The fruit is a large and inflated capsule and is usually composed of three to seven follicles that are bound together.
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The follicles house numerous seeds which are seen as the pharmacologically relevant parts of this plant.
Flowering and fruiting occur in the plant from January to April.
The plant performs better on dry soil, and the seeds have about ten to the fifteen-day window between planting and germination.
Scientific advancements have made it possible to cultivate the plant through other means asides seed planting.
The plant is also propagated from the callus culture in vitro from leaf, stem and root explants from aseptically growing seedlings.
The best seeds are said to come from Nigella sativa that grow under the almost perfect condition in the oases in Egypt.
The seeds remain watered until the seed pods form.
The widespread belief that Nigella sativa has the property of curing all makes it arguably the most revered plant in history.
Though it is not uncommon for a particular plant to have many applications, investigations into this particular plant present an almost peculiar case.
Records show that Nigella has been used in traditional medicine systems to treat over fifty different ailments.
The use of a particular plant to treat multiple diseases have been explained by the diverse range of compounds that are obtainable in the various parts of the plant.
Phytochemical analyses have shown that plant extracts are a complex mixture of many compounds, with some extracts containing well over one thousand distinguishable compounds.
This would account for the ability of Nigella to possess activity when used in the treatment or management of diverse disease states.
Concluded and ongoing research serve to corroborate this proposition, as many published articles investigating the pharmacologic properties of Nigella have shown rather impressive results, or in some other cases, just good results.
Scientists are however of the opinion that through some form of activity can be detected during investigative research, it is unlikely that such activity becomes therapeutically significant when the whole plant extract is used as the compound or group of compounds responsible for eliciting the activity may not be present in significant concentrations.
Research is, therefore, focusing on concentration and isolation of Nigella sativa extracts to produce therapeutically suitable formulations.
Nowadays, Nigella sativa has an extensive geographical distribution.
The plant occurs naturally in many places, ranging from the East Mediterranean to Northeast India.
It is also cultivated in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Sudan, Afghanistan, Europe and many other countries and continents.
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History of Nigella Sativa
Black seed is one of the most revered plants in history. Its medical applications were so diverse that one could be tempted to dismiss the fact that a single plant may be used to cure so many illnesses as folkloric.
This would, however, be untrue as verified historical accounts confirm many of the medical uses.
Its use for so many diseases can be attributed to its use in diverse cultures.
Although the plant is native to the Asian continent, records of its use abound in North America, Africa and Europe and the Use may vary from continent to continent.
The earliest discovery of Black seeds was in Tutankhamen’s tomb (about 1325BC), where it was embedded with entombed kings.
Though its exact role in the burial rights was not known, it is known that items that we placed in the king’s tomb were thought to assist his passage into the afterlife.
Possible medical applications by the ancient Egyptians cannot be ruled out.
The reference made to Black seed in the old testament is the earliest written reference to the plant.
Though opinions of some translators vary on whether it is Nigella that is being referred to here, Easton’s Bible Dictionary clarifies that the Hebrew word ‘Ketsah’ undoubtedly refers to Nigella sativa.
Black seed was often used in biblical times to spice bread, cakes and the biblical reference above made a distinction between Black seeds and wheat.
As far back as three thousand years ago, the Black seed has been used for the treatment of diseases and general maintenance of health and wellness.
The earliest medical usage of Nigella sativa is traceable to the Assyrians in ancient Egypt.
They referred to Nigella seeds as ‘tin tir’ in their local dialect, and the seeds were swallowed as a cure for stomach problems.
They also used the ground seeds topically to heal inflammations on the skin, bites, sores, redness of the eyes and runny nose.
The oil was believed to nourish the skin and was also extensively used as a digestive aid.
Dioscorides, a Greek physician dating back to the 1st Century, mentioned that Nigella sativa seeds were used in the treatment of headaches, intestinal worms, nasal congestion, and toothaches.
He also reported that the plant possesses diuretic properties and also had the ability to promote menstruation and increase milk production.
This serves as evidence for the use of the plant in ancient Greece.
Ibn Sina, the Persian physician, popularly known as Avicenna in the west offered much praise for Nigella sativa in his famous book ‘The Book of Healing’- a much-revered book in the history of medicine.
He stated in his book that Black seed is useful in persons who hope to recover from fatigue and dispiritedness as it stimulates the body’s energy.
He also recommended Black seed as the effective treatment for a headache, fever, tooth ache, common cold, and rash.
He also mentioned its effectiveness as a soothing agent for skin disorders, wounds, and external irritation.
Nigella sativa, according to Avicenna also possess antifungal properties and can be used as a vermicide.
In the East, the Black seed was used by Indians to treat digestive ailments and general gastrointestinal dysfunction.
In Ayurveda medicine the traditional medical system of the Indians, the Black seed was believed to have the ability to heal nervous conditions, anxiety, and gynecological problems.
It was also used to stimulate metabolism and provide the harmonizing benefits of an overall body tonic.
It’s uterus contracting effect made it useful in inducing labor in women at term.
Records also show that Cleopatra used Nigella for its health and beauty giving qualities.
Queen Nefertiti, historically famous for her exotic beauty and radiant skin was reported to be an avid user of Black seed oil.
Pliny the Elder, a famous physician of the first century, listed Nigella as a remedy for the treatment of snakebites, scorpion stings, callosities, abscesses and skin rashes. 5th Century physician,
Hippocrates referred to Nigella sativa as a valuable treatment for liver and stomach disorders.
In Islamic culture, the Black seed is regarded as a remedy for all diseases.
The Prophet of Islam was said to have encouraged his followers to take Black seed regularly.
This is supported by the immune boosting effect of long term consumption of Nigella, protecting the body against many diseases that could arise as a result of a weakened immune system.
The accounts above show that history is littered with applications of Nigella sativa, among various cultures, and for different ailments.
Modern medicine places more focus on identification of the principal responsible for therapeutic activities.
Such attempt was recorded in 1959 when a group of Egyptian doctors managed to extract the active principle of Black seed oil.
This compound (called ‘Nigellone’) was injected into test animals, and a prominent bronchodilatory effect was observed, justifying its use in asthma and some other respiratory disorders.
A much more advanced study of the properties of Nigella sativa was carried out in the mid-1980s by an America based Egyptian doctor, Ahmed al-Qadi.
The study involved experiments on volunteers who had deficient immune systems.
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The study proved that regular consumption of Black seed increased antibody production, significantly boosting the immune system.
The results were said to be approved by the American Institute of Biological Sciences.
Another study carried out in King’s college, London revealed the active principle of Black seed oil as thymoquinone.
This compound made up 0.45% of the volatile oil and 33% of the fatty oil and is responsible for many of the plant’s therapeutic uses.
The research confirmed the anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activity of the oil.
Another study proved that Nigella sativa enhanced the ability of macrophages to absorb ‘polymorphonuclear leukocyte parasites.’
This enhanced absorption served to increase the immune response against foreign bodies.
Today, Nigella sativa supplements are widely available in health food stores as well as some pharmacies.
They often come in capsules of grounded Black seeds, soft gels of the oil or the oil in its free flowing state and are commonly sold under the name ‘Black seed.’
Nigella Sativa Benefits
As stated earlier, Nigella sativa has been used historically for a variety of illnesses.
Some of these uses have been backed with scientific evidence while others are still being researched.
The extensive research of this plant has led to the isolation and identification of some of its active ingredients, and thus, the pharmacological properties of the plant can be explained with enough evidence.
Research into Black seed shows that the seed is composed of fixed oils.
The fixed oil is a complex mixture consisting of more than six unsaturated fatty acids while the essential oil is composed of saturated fatty acids including nigellone, thymoquinone, and thymohydroquinone.
The oil component is less abundant in the seed although its components are majorly responsible for the activity of the plant.
Thymoquinone, in particular, has been discovered to be the most active part.
The limited amount of the active compounds in the seed extract further backs up the prolonged usage of the seed which is recommended in most traditional medicine systems.
Extended usage at relatively large amounts ensures that the active constituent is made available to the body at concentrations needed to elicit a therapeutic effect.
Unlike most orthodox medicines, Nigella sativa has not been shown to have numerous or severe side effects.
Prolonged usage is therefore safe.
Some of the properties of Black seed are detailed below:
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Thymoquinone possesses broad spectrum antimicrobial activity, showing activity against a wide range of bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
The antimicrobial property is dependent on the administered dose, as demonstrated by studies carried out.
The effect also varies with the target organism, with some organisms showing more susceptibility than some others.
The large problem of microbial resistance necessitates jeering efforts towards alternative sources of antimicrobial agents.
Extensive study of the antimicrobial property of Black seed has been carried out, and encouraging results have been obtained.
Studies in animals showed comparable activity with existing agents such as gentamycin, streptomycin, and doxycycline.
Though the mechanism of antimicrobial activity of Black seed is yet to be adequately explained, the activity has been attributed to the presence of thymoquinone and melanin in the plant extract.
Investigations into the use of Black seed in diabetes have also been carried out and its anti-diabetic property has been scientifically established.
Nigella sativa has been proven to lower blood glucose levels in both animal and human studies.
The plant can, therefore, be recommended as a spice for foods and may also be ingested in other forms to lower blood glucose levels in diabetic patients.
This is particularly useful for persons who are at risk of diabetes but are yet to be diagnosed with the disease or patients who have been placed on diet alone in the management of Type 2 diabetes.
Studies investigating the use of Nigella sativa supplements concomitantly with other drugs in patients with Type 2 diabetes also showed encouraging results, with more control over blood glucose achieved in patients taking Nigella supplements.
The antitumor effect of Nigella sativa is another property that has been tested and proven.
Thymoquinone has been proven to have beneficial effects in various cancers, including but not limited to osteosarcoma, breast cancer, and cervical cancer.
The compound showed cytotoxic effects in many studies, thus proving its usefulness in disease.
More importantly, however, studies show that Nigella sativa extracts have the ability to enhance the immune response against cancerous cells.
Regular consumption of Nigella supplements may, therefore, be beneficial in preventing certain types of cancers.
Anti-inflammatory and analgesic property:
Nigella possesses anti-inflammatory and analgesic property, although it hasn’t been proven to be capable of eliciting a reduction in body temperature.
Studies also demonstrated that thymoquinone content is responsible for the anti-inflammatory and analgesic activity of the plant.
The inflammatory activity also supports their use in preventing cancers as inflammation has been identified as a significant factor in the development of solid tumors.
The anti-inflammatory and analgesic activity also comes without the gastrointestinal side effects associated with Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and diclofenac.
The plant also can reduce nasal congestion, nasal itching, runny nose and sneezing attacks.
This makes it a useful candidate in the management of allergic rhinitis.
Immune boosting property: this property of Nigella sativa has also been widely investigated and to good effect.
Nigella sativa tested alongside other plants, and it was proven to increase white blood cell counts significantly.
The increased white cell count was attributed to the ability of the plant extract to increase production of cells by the bone marrow.
This increase in white cell count translates to the greater capacity of the body to fight infections.
Black seed is also capable of reducing platelet counts in cases where the count is elevated, thereby reducing the risk of strokes, heart attacks, and other thromboembolic events.
This makes Nigella useful in hypertension and can also be recommended as a supplement for people who are at risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Nigella sativa benefits the effects of acid secreted by the stomach.
A controlled study has shown that the reduction of acid secretion by
Nigella is comparable to that elicited by omeprazole, a well-known drug for the treatment of gastric hypersecretion and similar disorders.
This rationalizes the use of the plant for the treatment of stomach discomforts in traditional medicine systems such as Unani and Ayurveda.
The study also proved the usefulness of Nigella in colonic inflammation resulting from bowel diseases.
Nigella sativa extract was also able to reduce the frequency of loose tooling in individuals exhibiting such symptoms.
Organ protective property:
The antioxidant property of thymoquinone and some other compounds present in Nigella confers organ protective ability on the plant.
The free radicals generated by dangerous compounds such as drug metabolites are mopped up by the plant extract and damage to vital body structures is prevented.
This mechanism is similar to the mechanism by which Vitamin C carries out its organ protective function.
A study performed comparing the kidney protection effect of Vitamin C and N. Sativa oil against gentamycin induced toxicity on the kidney of rabbits.
The results proved that the organ protective effect of Vitamin C was enhanced with the administration of Black seed oil.
Black seed oil administered alone also showed nephron-protective ability, and the oil even aided the recovery of the kidneys in cisplatin-induced nephrotoxicity.
A side from the kidneys, studies have also proven that Black seed is capable of protecting the testicles from the effects of drugs such as methotrexate and the cardioprotective effect was additionally observed for Black seed extract.
Nigella sativa has been shown to possess CNS depressant property, making it a useful candidate for anticonvulsant drugs.
A study revealed that Nigella sativa extract exhibited effects similar to valproate and was capable of preventing episodes of convulsion in epileptic patients.
This confirms the historical usage of Nigella as an antiepileptic medication.
The constituents of the volatile oil, majorly thymoquinone, is thought to be responsible for Nigella’s anticonvulsant effect.
Benefits of Nigella Sativa
Nigella has been proven to be beneficial in many disease states, some of which have been mentioned earlier.
Many patients use Nigella supplements to good effect, and the need to take orthodox medicine may be eliminated for some.
The following are some of the diseases for which Nigella supplementation has been tested and proven effective in disease resolution or management and are even recommended by physicians in some cases.
Taking Black seed extract by mouth improves lung function and reduces episodes of wheezing and coughing in asthmatic patients.
Nigella extract taken by mouth daily in combination with Vitamin E, β-carotene and biotin improves allergy symptoms.
Black seed extract taken by mouth three times daily reduces the number of seizures in children with epilepsy.
1g of whole crushed Black seed taken twice daily reduces the low-density lipoprotein (or bad cholesterol) and blood fats in people with high cholesterol.
Taking Black seed extract twice daily improves blood pressure control in people suffering from hypertension.
Taking Black seed extract twice daily enhances blood sugar control by lowering blood glucose concentration and increases insulin sensitivity in patients who have Type-2 diabetes.
Relieving opioid withdrawal symptoms
Taking Black seed extract daily reduces symptoms relating to opioid withdrawal.
Black seed extract relieves pain and discomfort in people with a sore throat and swollen tonsils
Other Benefits include:
- Digestive problems
- Menstrual disorders
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Culinary uses of Nigella Sativa
Black seed has long been used as spices or condiments, and this method of use is also largely beneficial.
The unique and pleasant taste and aroma of Nigella is added to the food or drink, and the medicinal benefits of the herb are still derived.
Nigella seeds can be brewed to produce tea or added to tea or coffee.
The seeds could also be added to casseroles or bread, extracted in vinegar or wine, or used in canning.
Grounded seeds can be sprinkled on salads, or mixed with honey.
No matter the form in which Black seed is used as a condiment, you can be sure you are getting a pleasing aroma and taste, alongside numerous therapeutic benefits.
Cosmetic benefits of Nigella Sativa
Nigella possesses beauty enhancing capabilities when the oil is administered topically or ingested.
Taking Black seed oil in capsule form leads to the straightening of the hair and fingernails, alongside increasing the luster.
People suffering from skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema also benefit from applying the oil externally.
The oil can be used alone or mixed with cream. Many people also use homemade oil with Nigella oil and other carrier oils such as shea butter or Coconut Oil.
This mixture can also be applied to burns or skin infections. The oil is additionally effective in relieving joint pain, moisturizing the skin and preventing the appearance of wrinkles on the skin.
It is important to note that supplementation with Nigella does not require extensive processing.
The seed oil or the crushed powder can be consumed since the active ingredients are present in the seed and are absorbed by the body upon consumption.
Nigella sativa has long been famed for its miraculous healing powers.
Though many cases exist whereby the folkloric usage of a plant cannot be backed up with scientific evidence even after extensive research, Nigella sativa seems to stand out as a clear exception.
The seemingly ubiquitous healing power of this plant has been the subject of numerous scientific research.
It, however, seems like the more this plant is being studied, the more the traditional applications are confirmed, and even new potential applications are discovered.
Many within the scientific community have agreed that this is indeed a miracle herb.
Beyond the scientific researchers, individuals that are already using black seed supplements also have nothing but wonderful testimonies to give.
Without a doubt, taking Nigella supplement in any form is an efficient and cost effective way of improving overall health and wellness.