Nigella sativa is a small black seed that comes from the Ranunculacea family. Native to southwest Asia and the Mediterranean, it now grows throughout India, the Middle East, and Europe. Nigella sativa has been used for centuries in herbal medicine to treat health conditions including asthma, bronchitis, and inflammation.
It is also known as black cumin or kalonji and belongs to the buttercup family of flowering plants. It grows up to 12 inches tall and produces a fruit with seeds.
Several compounds found in nigella seeds, such as thymoquinone, carvacrol, t-anethole and 4-terpineol, are responsible for its potent antioxidant properties. Thymoquinone has anti-inflammatory, anti-tussive, antihypertensive, antidiabetic, anti-bacterial, and anti-cancer properties.
According to a 2013 review investigating the therapeutic potential of Nigella sativa in boiled extract form, authors concluded that the natural substance has potential to alleviate the symptoms of asthma by widening the bronchioles to allow airflow to the lungs.
A month-long 2011 study looked at Nigella sativa‘s impact on allergic rhinitis. In a sample of 66 men and women who experienced nasal congestion, runny and itchy nose, and sneezing, nigella seeds reduced symptoms during the first two weeks.
Nigella seeds are widely reported to have anti-hypertensive properties, which aid in reducing blood pressure. A 2013 study found that Nigella sativa oil significantly decreased systolic and diastolic blood pressure among 70 participants.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found throughout your body. While you need some cholesterol, high amounts can build up in your blood and increase your risk of heart disease. Nigella seeds are effective at lowering cholesterol. One review of 17 studies found that supplementing with nigella seeds was associated with significant decreases in both total cholesterol, as well as blood triglycerides.
While most research has been done on animals, a 2019 review cited past studies on human breast, bladder, cervical, prostate, and renal cancer cells that found that Nigella sativa has the potential to fight cancer. Studies showed that thymoquinone inhibited cancer cell multiplication and in some cases, killed cancer cells. Another test-tube study showed that nigella extract helped inactivate breast cancer cells. A test-tube study showed that thymoquinone helped reduce inflammation in pancreatic cancer cells.
Disease-causing bacteria are responsible for a long list of dangerous infections, ranging from ear infections to pneumonia. Some test-tube studies have found that nigella seeds have antibacterial properties and can be effective at fighting off certain strains of bacteria. One study applied nigella seed extract topically to infants with a staphylococcal skin infection and found that it was as effective as a standard antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections.
Another study isolated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a strain of bacteria that is difficult to treat and resistant to antibiotics, from the wounds of diabetic patients. Nigella seed extract killed off the bacteria in a dose-dependent manner in over half of the samples. Several other test-tube studies have shown that nigella can help inhibit the growth of MRSA, as well as many other strains of bacteria.
Studies have observed that nigella seeds may have powerful anti-inflammatory effects in the body. In one study in 42 people with rheumatoid arthritis, taking 1,000 mg of nigella seed oil daily for eight weeks reduced markers of inflammation and oxidative stress.
High blood sugar can cause many negative symptoms, including increased thirst, unintentional weight loss, fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Left unchecked in the long term, high blood sugar can lead to even more serious consequences, such as nerve damage, vision changes and slow wound healing. Some evidence shows that nigella seeds could help keep blood sugar steady and prevent dangerous side effects.
One review of seven studies showed that supplementing with nigella seeds improved levels of fasting and average blood sugar. Similarly, another study in 94 people found that taking nigella seeds daily for three months significantly reduced fasting blood sugar, average blood sugar and insulin resistance.
Stomach ulcers are painful sores that form when stomach acids eat away at the layer of protective mucus that lines the stomach. Some research shows that nigella seeds could help preserve the lining of the stomach and prevent the formation of ulcers. In one animal study, 20 rats with stomach ulcers were treated using nigella seeds. Not only did it result in healing in about 83% of rats, but it was also nearly as effective as a common medication used to treat stomach ulcers.
Another animal study showed that nigella seed and its active components prevented ulcer development and protected the lining of the stomach against the effects of alcohol.
Some limited studies have suggested that Nigella sativa may have potential in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Other popular uses include:
- Digestive problems
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Improved mental performance
- Stomach ulcers
- Metabolic syndrome
- Hepatitis C
- Birth control
- Increasing breastmilk flow
- Menstrual disorders
Nigella seeds are associated with many health benefits and are generally safe when used as a spice or seasoning. There have been reports of contact dermatitis after applying nigella seed extract to the skin. If you plan on using it topically, be sure to do a patch test by applying a small amount first to make sure it does not cause an adverse reaction.
Some test-tube studies have found that nigella seed extract and its components may influence blood clotting. If you take medication for blood clotting, be sure to talk with your doctor before adding nigella seeds to your diet.
How to Buy
Nigella seeds can be purchased at many health food stores, whole food stores, and other specialty food stores, as well as from Indian and Middle-Eastern grocery stores. They’re also available from a number of online merchants.
How to Store
Nigella seeds can be stored along with your other dried spices, sealed tightly in glass jars or containers, and kept away from heat and moisture, both of which will accelerate the loss of flavor. Stored properly, nigella seeds will keep for up to six months.
How to Cook
Celery seed, cumin seed, poppy seed, black sesame seed, caraway seed, and fennel seed will all stand in adequately for nigella seed. Some, like celery seed and cumin, will impart some of the herbaceous nature of the nigella seed but not its color, while others, like poppy seeds and black sesame seeds, will provide the black color.
Another substitute is fresh or dried oregano. While not a seed, this herb will provide a similar flavor note to that of nigella seed. Likewise, onion powder will also provide some of the flavor of nigella seed, but not its essential seediness. Recipes that call for “onion seeds” are actually referring to nigella seeds.
Use nigella seeds in curries and lentil dishes. Nigella seeds also pair well with root vegetable dishes, as well as squashes such as spiced butternut squash. Many Southern Asia meals can be found with Nigella sativa garnished on top or incorporated into their stir-fry. It’s also used in making pilafs, curries, vegetable dishes, and pickles.
A popular Bengal spice called panch phoron also includes nigella seeds along with other spices like fenugreek, mustard seed, fennel seed, and cumin seeds. A common use of nigella is in bread and pastries. Often in India, they mix nigella seeds into their traditional naan bread. There are many other unique ways to use nigella seeds; for instance, garnish on a salad for an extra crunch.