Nigella sativa, also known as black cumin or black seeds, is a medicinal herb native to the eastern Mediterranean, northern Africa, southwest Asia, and the Indian subcontinent (
While you can use it in cooking, it’s perhaps better known for its centuries-long use in traditional medicine. It’s touted as offering so many health benefits that some consider it a panacea, or universal healer.
For example, it’s said to benefit the immune system, enhance brain function, and protect the body from various chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease (
This article reviews everything you need to know about Nigella sativa, including its nutrients, its common forms, and whether science backs its purported health benefits.
Nigella sativa is a medicinal plant that’s part of the Ranunculaceae family. It’s also referred to as black cumin because its seeds resemble the spice cumin (
While it can be used in the kitchen, Nigella sativa may be better known for the wide range of health benefits it’s believed to provide.
Nigella sativa has such a wide range of uses that some herbalists refer to it as “the herb from heaven” (
It has a rich history of use in traditional medicine systems such as Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha, and Tibb. It has been found in Egyptian pharaoh tombs, suggesting that it was used as far back as ancient Egypt (
Experts believe that back then, Nigella sativa’s antibacterial propertiesmay have led to its use as a preservative in the mummification process (
Nowadays, this medicinal herb is used across many Arab nations, Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe to prevent or treat a variety of ailments (
These range from swollen joints to respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis. Nigella sativa is also said to offer some protection against chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease (
Forms of Nigella sativa
You can purchase Nigella sativa as seeds or a paste, either of which can be used to add flavor to meals.
You can also purchase it in the form of essential oil, extract, powder, or capsules, all of which are popular options for those wishing to use the herb for its medicinal properties (
The best form to take generally depends on which health benefit you wish to reap. For instance, oils and pastes can be applied topically to treat skin conditions or provide relief from inflammation or pain.
Meanwhile, powders, pills, and extracts are typically recommended for those who wish to prevent or treat internal inflammation or chronic disease (
Nigella sativa is an herb commonly used in traditional medicine. It is available in essential oil, paste, powder, capsule, or extract form. Today, it’s used around the world to prevent or treat a wide range of ailments.
So far, there’s been little research into the exact nutrient composition of Nigella sativa.
Moreover, its nutrient content appears to vary depending on where it’s grown, the plant’s maturity at harvest, and the methods used to harvest it (
One study suggests that N. sativa seeds from Bangladesh are made up of around 45% fat, 20% carbs, and 20% protein. They also appear to provide some potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium, although specific amounts aren’t described (2).
Another study suggests that Nigella sativa may also provide small amounts of vitamins A, C, and E, as well as certain B vitamins. However, the precise types and amounts it contains aren’t well described (
In contrast, more is known about the plant’s antioxidants and other beneficial compounds.
Antioxidants are beneficial plant compounds that help protect your body from cell damage and disease. Nigella sativa appears to be especially rich in antioxidants from the polyphenol, tocopherol, terpenoid, and terpene families.
Of all these antioxidants, thymoquinone — an antioxidant of the terpene and terpenoid family — is by far the most abundant. Experts suggest that this active compound is likely behind most of Nigella sativa’s purported health benefits (
Nigella sativa also appears to contain alkaloids and phytosterols, two types of beneficial plant compounds with natural cholesterol-lowering properties (
Nigella sativa contains a good amount of protein and fat, as well as smaller amounts of vitamins and minerals. It’s also rich in thymoquinone, alkaloids, and phytosterols.
Nigella sativa is thought to offer such a wide range of health benefits that it’s often referred to as a panacea, or universal healer (
That said, not all of its purported benefits have been proven scientifically. Below, you’ll find the ones that have the most research to back them.
Rich in antioxidants
Antioxidants are plant compounds that help protect your cells from damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals.
As mentioned, Nigella sativa is particularly rich in the potent antioxidant thymoquinone, which boasts anti-inflammatory properties. Experts believe that most of the health benefits linked to this medicinal plant have to do with this compound (
One review of five studies suggests that Nigella sativa has a strong antioxidant effect in humans. However, more research is needed to explore which exact health benefits this may contribute to (
Helps reduce inflammation
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to injury or infection. It’s generally short-lived and helps protect the body from disease or further damage.
Inflammation that lasts for longer periods is referred to chronic inflammation. This condition is believed to be the cause of various diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease (
Animal research suggests that Nigella sativa may reduce markers of inflammation in the body after an injury (
Similar results have been reported in women with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the joints.
In one small study, women with RA who took 1 gram of Nigella sativa oil per day for 2 months had lower blood markers of inflammation and reported fewer swollen joints than those who took a placebo (
Experts believe that thymoquinone is the key compound responsible for the herb’s anti-inflammatory effects (
Although this seems promising, keep in mind that studies on this topic are limited. More research, especially in humans, is needed before strong conclusions can be made.
May strengthen your immunity
Nigella sativa may also help strengthen your immune system.
Test-tube and animal studies suggest that extracts made from this herb may stimulate the activity of white blood cells, the type that fights infections and disease (
One small study in children with an inherited blood disorder found similar results. Mixing 2 grams of Nigella sativa powder with the children’s meals daily for 3 months significantly improved white blood cell counts and reduced markers of oxidative stress (10).
However, this study had no control placebo group, which makes it difficult to confirm whether these effects were truly a result of the supplement.
In the previously mentioned small study in women with RA, those who took 1 gram of Nigella sativa oil per day had significantly higher levels of white blood cells after 2 months than the placebo group. They also had lower markers of inflammation and fewer swollen joints (
Although these results seem promising, it remains unclear what real-life improvements in immunity, if any, would result from the higher white blood cell counts shown in these small studies. Therefore, more research is needed.
May protect your brain
Test-tube and animal research suggests that thymoquinone could help reduce inflammation in the brain (
Experts believe this may prevent or slow the progression of inflammation-related neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, encephalomyelitis, epilepsy, depression, and Parkinson’s disease (
One small, older study supports this idea. Older adults received either 500 mg of N. sativa or a placebo each day for 9 weeks. The N. sativa group tested significantly higher in measures of attention, memory, and overall cognition than the placebo group (
At first glance, this study could suggest that Nigella sativa may delay the progression of age-related memory loss. However, keep in mind that it’s small and dates from almost 10 years ago.
Thus, more research is needed to confirm these findings and to explore which possible effects the herb may have on other brain-inflammation-related neurological conditions.
May lower your cholesterol and blood pressure
Studies in women with obesity and adults with type 2 diabetes suggest that taking 2–3 grams of Nigella sativa each day for 8–12 weeks could significantly reduce total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels (
When it comes to blood pressure, a review of 11 randomized control studies — the gold standard in research — notes that Nigella sativa may also slightly reduce blood pressure levels.
Participants who took N. sativa for an average of 8 weeks saw their systolic blood pressure — the top number — drop by an additional 3.3 mmHg and their diastolic blood pressure — the bottom number — drop by an additional 2.8 mmHg compared with those given a placebo (
Nonetheless, other studies report no effect on blood pressure. Therefore, more research is needed before clear conclusions and recommendations can be made (
May improve blood sugar levels
Nigella sativa may also help regulate blood sugar levels.
In a recent study, adults with type 2 diabetes who took 1 gram of N. sativa per day for 8 weeks saw a significant drop in fasting blood sugar levels (
Experts believe that Nigella sativa may be able to increase the secretion of insulin, the hormone responsible for transporting sugar from your blood into your cells.
Moreover, they suggest that this medicinal herb may improve cells’ sensitivity to insulin and increase their sugar uptake (
Other potential benefits
Nigella sativa may offer the following additional benefits:
- May kill cancer cells. Older test-tube and animal studies suggest that Nigella sativa may help prevent cancerous cells from growing and spreading. However, human research is needed to confirm this (
- May enhance male fertility. Limited animal research suggests that N. sativa may be useful in cases of male infertility caused by obesity, though more research is needed (
- May improve asthma. A small review reports that N. sativa may help reduce symptoms of asthma, although more studies are needed to confirm this finding (
- Fights bacteria, viruses, fungi, and yeasts. N. sativa may have some antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties. It seems to be particularly effective against Candida albicans, the yeast that causes Candida infections (
27, 28, 29).
- May protect against liver damage. A few studies suggest that N. sativa may help protect your liver from damage. However, more research is needed (
- May enhance kidney function. N. sativa may enhance kidney function in people with chronic kidney disease. It may also help dissolve kidney stones. Still, more research is necessary (
- May treat stomach ulcers. Animal studies suggest that N. sativa may influence the stomach’s environment in a way that can help minimize or treat stomach ulcers. However, human studies are needed (
Although these studies appear promising, more research is needed on all of these purported benefits before strong conclusions can be made.
Nigella sativa may provide an array of health benefits. The most well-researched benefits include protection against cell damage and inflammation, improved blood sugar control, a stronger immune system, and a healthier heart and brain.
Nigella sativa has been used as part of traditional medicine systems for centuries, with minimal reports of adverse effects. Some cultures also commonly use it in cooking.
Based on this, N. sativa is likely safe, especially when ingested infrequently or in small amounts.
That said, only limited studies have looked into its overall safety and possible side effects, and these have been exclusively in animals.
For instance, in one study, mice that were given large oral doses of 0.9–1.4 grams per pound (2–3 grams per kg) of body weight experienced difficulty breathing and multi-organ failure (
What’s more, giving large doses to pregnant rats was shown to cause pregnancy loss or developmental problems in their offspring (
Intakes of such large amounts are arguably uncommon in humans, other than potentially in cases of supplement overdoses.
Nonetheless, more research is needed before evidence-based safety and dosage recommendations can be made.
Nigella sativa is likely safe if ingested infrequently or in small amounts. However, evidence-based safety and dosage recommendations are currently lacking, so more research is needed.
Nigella sativa is a medicinal herb popular for its culinary uses and its role as a traditional medicine remedy.
Of its many purported health benefits, only a few are currently backed by strong research.
These include its ability to fight cell damage and inflammation, improve blood sugar levels, strengthen the immune system, and reduce heart disease risk factors.
Keep in mind that there currently isn’t enough research available to make any evidence-based safety or dosage recommendations.
If you’re interested in trying Nigella sativa, you can start by incorporating its seeds or paste into your meals, taking care to use small amounts. This will minimize your risk of experiencing any potential unpleasant side effects.
Just one thing
Try this today: An easy way to add Nigella sativa to your meals is to simply add its seeds to recipes that call for cumin. Dishes to consider include roasted potatoes, red lentil dahl, and loaded tacos.