Sesame oil is derived from a plant species called Sesamum indicum, which is a herbaceous annual belonging to the Pedaliaceae family that reaches about 6 ft (1.8 m) in height. Sesame has been used for millennia in Chinese and Indian systems of medicine. Though often recommended as a laxative, the herb was used as early as the 4th century A.D. as a Chinese folk remedy for toothaches and gum disease. In modern times, sesame has been embraced by Western herbalists for a variety of therapeutic purposes. The oil is also used in cooking and as an ingredient in margarine and salad dressings as well as in certain cosmetics and skin softening products. Native to Asia and Africa, sesame is primarily cultivated in India, China, Africa, and Latin America. Only the seeds and oil of the sesame plant are used for medicinal purposes.
Sesame oil, which is also referred to as benne, gingili, or teel oil, is made from the black seeds of Sesamum indicum. The large round seeds are extracted by shaking the dried plant upside down after making an incision in the seed pods. The oil and seeds are believed by herbalists to have several important properties, including anticancer, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory effects. Some of these claims have been supported by cell culture and human studies. Sesame may also have some power as an analgesic. In The Green Pharmacy, the prominent herbalist James Duke states that sesame contains at least seven pain-relieving compounds and is a rich source of antioxidants and other therapeutic agents. Some authorities believe that sesame also has weak estrogen-like effects.
Sesame oil is high in polyunsaturated fat. When used in moderation, this type of fat can benefit the heart by helping the body to eliminate newly made cholesterol, according to the American Heart Association.
Nutrition and digestion
While not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a medication, sesame oil is reputed to have a number of therapeutic uses. Its centuries-old reputation as a laxative persists to this day. It is also used to treat blurred vision, dizziness, headaches, and to generally fortify the constitution during recuperation from severe or prolonged illness. When used in place of saturated fats, sesame oil may help to lower cholesterol levels and prevent atherosclerosis. The oil is taken internally for all the purposes mentioned above.
Due to its estrogen-like effects, sesame oil is sometimes recommended to alleviate the vaginal dryness associated with change of life. During menopause, women often experience this problem due to a decline in levels of female hormone. The vaginal lining becomes drier, thinner, and less elastic, which may lead to pain or irritation during intercourse. Some women insert cotton pads treated with sesame oil to increase lubrication and relieve symptoms associated with vaginal dryness.
Research suggests that sesame oil may have potential as a cancer fighter. One cell culture study, published in the journal Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes, and Essential Fatty Acids in 1992, found that sesame oil blocked the growth of malignant melanoma in human cells. The researchers speculated that the linoleic acid (an essential fatty acid) in sesame oil may be responsible for its anticancer properties. Another test tube study, published in Anticancer Research in 1991, investigated the effects of sesame oil on human colon cancer cells. The results suggest that the oil may inhibit the development of the disease.
Traditional Asian medicine
Sesame oil plays a prominent role in Indian Ayurvedic medicine. It is sometimes rubbed into the skin during abhyanga, a form of Indian massage that focuses on over 100 points on the body (called marma points). Abhyanga is believed to improve energy flow and help free the body of impurities. Some practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine recommend sesame oil as an antibacterial mouthwash. In one small study involving 25 subjects in general good health, sesame oil was shown to reduce the growth of oral bacteria. These results suggest that the oil may help to prevent tooth and gum disease. According to tradition, sesame oil may also be applied externally to the abdomen to relieve cramps and stomach pain associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Sesame oil also has a reputation as a sedative in Indian and Tibetan medicine. It can be used to relieve anxiety and insomnia by applying a few drops directly into the nostrils. Its calming effects are supposedly carried to the brain by way of blood vessels in the nose.
The optimum daily dosage of sesame oil has not been established with any certainty. People generally take 1 tsp of the oil at bedtime to relieve constipation.
Vaginal dryness associated with menopause may be relieved by following this procedure: Soak a quilted cotton cosmetic pad in sesame oil and then wring out the excess oil. A freshly treated cotton square may be inserted into the vagina overnight and removed each morning for seven days. After the first week, this treatment is typically used once a week (or as often as needed) as a form of maintenance therapy.
To relieve anxiety or insomnia, place one drop of pure raw sesame oil into each nostril.
Because sesame oil has been recommended for so many different purposes, and can be used internally and externally, consumers are advised to consult a doctor experienced in the use of alternative remedies or Chinese/Ayurvedic medicine to determine the proper dosage.
Sesame oil is not known to be harmful when taken in recommended dosages, though it is important to remember that the long-term effects of taking sesame-derived remedies (in any amount) have not been investigated. Due to lack of sufficient medical study, sesame oil should be used with caution in children, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, and people with liver or kidney disease.
Because of its laxative effects, sesame oil should not be used by people who have diarrhea.
Sesame oil is best kept refrigerated to protect it from oxidation. It should also be protected from light and heat. While the oil may be added to cooked food, it should not be employed during the cooking process because high temperatures can compromise its therapeutic effects. In other words, do not use it during frying, boiling, or baking. Sesame oil may be used in a low-temperature sauté without losing much of its medicinal value, according to some authorities.
No more than 10% of a person's total caloric intake should be derived from polyunsaturated fats such as those found in sesame oil, according to the American Heart Association.
While some body builders inject themselves with sesame oil to enhance muscles, this practice is not recommended and may be potentially dangerous. According to a report published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in 2000, injecting sesame or other plant-derived oils may lead to the development of cysts. Scarring, skin thickening, and scleroderma or other connective tissue diseases may also occur as a result of such injections.
When taken in recommended dosages, sesame oil is not associated with any bothersome or significant side effects.
Sesame oil is not known to interact adversely with any drug or dietary supplement. Sesame seeds have been combined with biota seeds, dong quai, and white mulberry leaf without apparent harm.
Collinge, William. The American Holistic Health Association Complete Guide to Alternative Medicine. New York: Warner Books, 1996.
American Botanical Council. PO Box 144345. Austin, TX 78714-4345.