Black Seed - why all the fuss?
Black Seed - why all the fuss?Black Seed - why all the fuss?

The saying ‘the beloved child has many names’ can be applied to the black, boat-shaped seed – Nigella sativa – as it goes by many monikers worldwide. It is most commonly called black seed, black cumin, or black caraway in English, and it has also been called Roman coriander or love-in-a-mist. It is known as ‘ketzahk’ in Hebrew, ‘chernuschka’ in Russian, and ‘kalonji’ in Hindi.

Black seed is indigenous to the Mediterranean but is now grown in the Arabian Peninsula, northern Africa and parts of Asia. It has been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs; it is mentioned in the Old Testament and written about by the Greek physician Dioscorides in the 1st century. It is obviously much loved!

In fact, black cumin seeds in the Middle East and South-East Asia are so valued that they’ve garnered the Arabic name Habbatul barakah – ‘seed of blessing’. This is a pretty impressive resumé for these seemingly insignificant, but highly fragrant, small seeds, isn’t it?


Traditionally, black seed has been used for digestive upsets; chest complaints such as bronchitis, coughs and asthma; aches and pains; period problems; kidney and liver complaints; and even to help boost breast milk supply. The oil is also used on wounds and abscesses to encourage healing and as a local anaesthetic for other painful external conditions. And that’s just for starters…

Black seeds are packed with a host of chemical constituents, particularly fixed and volatile oils. Thirty five to 40 % of black cumin seeds is fixed oil, particularly fatty acids; up to 20% proteins and amino acids; around 30% carbohydrates; 5% fibre; and they also contain trace minerals and vitamins, including calcium, phosphorous and iron. They also boast an impressively long list of chemical constituents, many of which have known medicinal properties. Here thymoquinone is the main active constituent – and the most researched one – and shows anti-bacterial, -parasitic, -oxidant, -inflammatory, immune supportive, analgesic, organ protective, and possible anti-cancer properties.


Several studies on black seed indicate an immune supportive action, which is important in an era plagued by diseases such as HIV/AIDS and TB and antibiotic-resistant superbugs. According to an early study in Florida1, one gram of black seed oil taken twice daily improved the ratio of ‘helper-to-suppressor T-cells’ and increased natural killer cell activity compared to a placebo – in a nutshell, the dosage stimulated immune function.

A report2 published in the International Journal of Biochemistry and Cell Biology explained that, ‘[Thymoquinone]… acts on the immune system by modulating the levels of inflammatory mediators’.

Black seed oil also helps to combat free radical damage as it’s a powerful antioxidant – another reason for its beneficial effect on the immune system.


Remember the movie ‘Erin Brockovitch’? In it, the heroine fought against water contamination by the carcinogenic heavy metal, hexavalent chromium, Cr(VI). In many countries today, particularly Egypt, this compound poses an increasing concern due to industrial run-off: the quality of drinking water is compromised and aquatic life is threatened. An Egyptian research team conducted a large-scale study3 of Nile tilapia and zebra fish (indigenous fish species). They compared two groups of fish, both exposed to the toxin but with only one group receiving Nigella sativa. They discovered that, ‘N. sativa essential oil was… more effective against Cr(VI) hazards and may be a promising candidate against different environmental pollutants’. Essential black seed oil has a host of other potential toxicity-combating uses, including reducing and/or protecting against lead toxicity-induced liver damage; blood, liver, kidney, and heart damage from organophsphate pesticides; and overall tissue toxicity caused by other toxins such as hepatotoxic solvent carbon tertrachloride.


Nigella sativa isn’t the first species to be called black seed. The original black seeds were a species called Bunium persicum or Carum bulbocastanum. However, these reached highly-endangered status, and so the species we now call black seed was adopted. Both are in the same plant family, and appear to have similar properties.


One of the most popular uses of black seed oil, both traditionally and in modern times, is for its cancer-fighting potential. This still requires much more investigation, but preliminary evidence looks promising. According to a 1997 study4 in South Carolina, black seed oil could assist in tumour therapy by increasing bone marrow cell growth and inhibiting tumour growth. Researchers theorised that its ability to stimulate immune function and combat inflammation was at the root of these effects.

Furthermore, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two patents on using the extract to help prevent chemotherapy side effects and support immune system function.

Tests have been carried out on various cancer cells in vitro, including colon and breast cancer, using black seed oil and thymoquinone. Thymoquinone appears to inhibit the growth of cancer cells by affecting the cellular cycle. According to a Lebanese study5 published in the International Journal of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, ‘The combination of [thymoquinone] with clinically used anti-cancer drugs has led to improvements in their therapeutic index and prevents non-tumor tissues from sustaining chemotherapy-induced damage’. This, combined with its anti-inflammatory properties, could make it a helpful addition to conventional therapy and, who knows, one day might even end up as a standard treatment, as many other herbal treatments have.

Black Seed - why all the fuss?


Nigella sativa essential oil also demonstrates considerable anti-parasitic activity, particularly against schistosomiasis (bilharzia), as well as pinworms, dwarf tapeworm and roundworms. Promisingly, in vitro tests have shown that the oil could kill malaria parasites. It also demonstrates antifungal activity against Candida albicans (thrush), aspergillus, and, topically, ringworm (all traditional uses).

Black seed extract also has powerful antibacterial and antiviral properties, which extend as far as helping to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, and the HI Virus. Preliminary research6 has

found that the extract also combats Escheridia

coli (the bacteria which can cause tummy bugs and stomach ulcers) and Pseudomonas aeru- ginosa (which causes pneumonia and cystitis).

Scientists explain that this is due to a three- pronged effect: immune support, protection against organ damage, and a destructive effect on the parasites and microbes themselves.


According to agricultural research7, adding Nigella sativa seed to buffalo and sheep feed actually improves their body weight, nutrient absorption and reproductive performance. Research8 published in the Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences states that a ‘Nigella sativa L. supplemented diet decreases [healthy] egg cholesterol content and suppresses harmful intestinal bacteria in laying hens’. It also raised their resistance to disease. The conclusion we can draw is that nutritional content is significant, both in animals and humans.

Arabica Ras el hanout spice blend recipe


• 1 tspn of ginger and coriander

• 3⁄4 tspn of cumin, cardamon, black pepper and nutmeg

• 1⁄2 tspn of turmeric, all spice, Spanish paprika and cinnamon

• 1 tspn cloves, mace, cayenne garlic and celery seeds

• A pinch of saffron threads

Optional ingredients include:

• 1 tspn dried, crushed rose petal

• 1 tspn nigella seeds (black seed)

• 1⁄2 tspn anise seed


Mix all the spices together and store in a tightly closed glass jar. Grind the seeds first and then add. This spice blend can be used in any soup, or with rice or meat; it is not necessarily just a South African or Arab dish.


Nigella sativa offers further proof that ancient remedies can very much still hold their own today. While more research is definitely needed, particularly in the fields of serious diseases such as cancer and HIV, it can’t hurt to incorporate black seeds into our daily diet, or investigate using the oil for its health properties.

Editor's note: Black seed looks very similar to black sesame seed, however they are not interchangeable. For an article on sesame seed, see Spotlight on Sesame.

Ras al Hanout Mix


  1. El Kadi M, et al. Nigella sativa and cell mediated immunity. Arch of Aids Res 1 1990; 232–35.
  2. Gali-Muhtasib H, et al. Thymoquinone: A promising anti-cancer drug from natural sources. The International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology 2006; 38 (8): 1249–53.
  3. Khalil WKB, et al. Protective Effects of Nigella sativa extract against Chromiumvi-Induced Genotoxicity in Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) and Zebrafish (Danio rerio).
  4. Medenica R, et al. Anti-angiogenic activity of Nigella sativa plant extract in cancer therapy (Meeting abstract). Proc Annu Meet Am Assoc Cancer Res 1997; 38: A1377
  5. Gali-Muhtasib H, et al. Thymoquinone: a promising anti-cancer drug from natural sources. Int J Biochem Cell Biol. 2006; 38(8): 1249-53.
  6. Zuridah H, et al. In vitro Antibacterial Activity of Nigella sativa Against Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Escherichia coli and Bacillus cereus. Asian Journal of Plant Sciences 2008; 7(3): 331–3.
  7. Youssef MM, et al. Effect of feeding Nigella sativa cake on productive and reproductive performance of buffalos. Egyptian Journal of Nutrition and Feeds 1998; 1(2):73–85.
  8. Islam T, et al. Nigella sativa L. supplemented diet decreases egg cholesterol content and suppresses harmful intestinal bacteria in laying hens. Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences 20: 587– 98.

Further reading:

  1. Burits M, et al. Bucar F. Antioxidant activity of Nigella sativa essential oil. Phytother Res 2000; 14 (5): 323–8.
  2. Mutabagani A, et al. A study of the antiinflammatory activity of Nigella sativa L. and thymoquinone. Saudi Pharm J 1997; 5(2):110–3.
  3. Al-Ghamdi MS. Anti-inflammatory, analgesic and anti-pyretic activity of Nigella sativa. Journal of Ethnopharmacol 2001; 76: 45–8.
  4. El-Said SM, et al. Adsorptive Removal of Arsenite as (III) and Arsenate as (V) Heavy Metals from Waste Water using Nigella sativa L . Asian Journal of Scientific Research, 2: 96–104.
  5. Al-Attar AM, et al. Preventive Effects of Black Seed (Nigella Sativa) Extract on Sprague Dawley Rats Exposed to Diazinon. Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences, 4(5): 957-968, 2010
  6. Salomi MJ, et al. Inhibitory effect of Nigella sativa and Saffron (Crocus sativus) on chemical carcinogenesis in mice. Nutr Cancer 1991; 16(1): 67–72.
  7. Nagi MN, et al. Thymoquinone protects against carbon tetracholide hepatotoxicity in mice via an antioxidant mechanism. Biochem Mol Biol Int 1999; 47(1): 153–9
  8. Mohamed H A, et al. Protective effect of Nigella sativa seeds against dimethylaminoazobenzene (DAB) induced liver carcinogenesis. Nature andScience 2010; 8: 80–87.
  9. Abdulilah SI. Effect of black seed alkaloids against some pathogenic bacteria. Raf. J. Sci 2011; 22 (4): 9–16.
  10. Salman MT, et al. Antimicrobial activity of Nigella sativa Linn. seed oil against multi-drug resistant bacteria from clinical isolates. Natural Product Radiance 2008; 7(1): 10–14.
  11. Morsi NM. Antimicrobial effect of crude extracts of Nigella sativa on multiple antibiotic resistant bacteria. Acta Microbiol Pol 2000; 49(1): 63–74.
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