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Black Seed – The Miracle herb that should be a store cupboard staple!

Nature is a wonderful thing. It works so hard to provide us with all the ingredients we need to sustain life, whether that is through the food and fresh produce that fuels us or the amazing diversity of plants and herbs that can help us to find balance when we are feeling out of sorts.

Every now and then I come across something that excites me for the potential it can have in supporting our health & wellbeing...naturally. Black seed is one of these things. If you enjoy Indian or Middle Eastern cooking then you may be familiar with these little black seeds as an ingredient in some of your favourite dishes. The seed is pungent and bitter to the taste with a mild aromatic aroma. You may actually be more familiar with some of the other names this herb is known as; Black Cumin, Black Caraway, Black Sesame and Onion Seed to name a few. Black seed is actually more of a description than a name and this label helps to distinguish it from the popular Caraway & Cumin seeds. Originating from Western Asia, the plant’s botanical name is Nigella Sativa and it belongs to the Ranunculaecae family. It grows 20 – 90cm tall with a display of delicate flowers that are usually white, yellow, pink, pale blue or pale purple. It is the fruit of the plant that contains what has long been referred to as the ‘miracle’ seeds.

So why such a bold claim for such a tiny little seed, and can this ‘miracle’ be backed by scientific research? Black seed is not a new health craze. It is has long historical use as a food and also as a medicinal plant within traditional medicinal systems such as Ayurveda and has been utilised in the treatment of various ailments worldwide. In Islamic literature it has been described as one of the greatest forms of healing medicine being referred as

the remedy for all diseases except death’ (Prophetic Hadith)

Avicenna (the great Persian thinker & physician) refers to the seeds in his writings ‘The Canon of Medicine’ as seeds that ‘stimulate the body’s energy and help recovery from fatigue and dispiritedness.

Traditional herbal medicine has throughout the centuries, used medicinal plants to treat many diseases. According to a review on The therapeutic potential of Nigella Sativa: A miracle herb, by Ahmed et al, many researchers are now focusing on medicinal herbs and thoroughly investigating them for their medicinal properties, mechanism of action, safety evaluation and toxicological studies. Black Seed with its rich historical and religious background is now emerging as a ‘miracle herb’ and extensive research is bringing to the fore its diverse biological activities & therapeutic potential.

What makes black seed so unique?

It seems that this can be attributed to the unique chemical make- up of the plant. A number of key ingredients have been identified, each having their own important individual roles to play, but more importantly, in unison, they have a synergistic action, that is, they work in unison to create a greater combined effect. Some of the many compounds identified are Thymol, Thymoquinone, Thymohydroquinone and Dithymoquinone and are considered to be responsible for the seeds various medicinal properties.

In addition to these chemical constituents, black seeds also contain protein, fat, Carbohydrate and fibre whilst being a source of various vitamins and minerals such as copper, potassium, Zinc, Iron and beta carotene. They also contain a fatty oil rich in ‘unsaturated fatty acids and sterols.

Black seed and its constituents have been traditionally used for the treatment of various disorders, diseases and conditions that relate to the respiratory system, digestive tract, kidney and lung function, cardiovascular system, immune system support as well as for general health & well being.

To date, the findings from numerous research studies are affirming these traditional uses and have shown that Black Seed and its oil may exert a multitude of health benefits ranging from antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti allergenic and anti Cancer benefits to supporting and protecting respiratory, gastrointestinal function and immune function. There is also evidence (Yousefi et al) of skin support with reported decreasing severity of hand eczema and improvement of life quality when compared to conventional Betamethasone and Eucerin creams.

The findings from research focusing on the anti bacterial and anti fungal effects are particularly noteworthy in light of the concerning issue of multi drug resistance bacteria and the rise of the ‘superbugs’ such as MRSA which are becoming a significant public health risk. According to the National Institute for Health (NIH) other diseases including TB, gonorrhoea, malaria and childhood infections are increasingly difficult to treat due to the emergence of ‘resisitance’. The NIH goes on to say that approximately 1.7 million patients in the United States will get an infection in hospital each year, about 99,000 of whom will die as a result. 70% of the bacteria causing these infections are resistant to at least one drug commonly used to treat them. It’s not just a problem isolated to the US either, it is a worldwide problem with many cases reported of Staphlycoccus aureus developing resistance to vancomycin, a very powerful antibiotic prescribed for the most intractable infections.

With astounding statistics such as these could Black seed be an alternative solution in the fight against the ‘Superbugs’? The research findings certainly suggest so. In 2008 Hannan et al tested the antibacterial activity of Nigella Sativa against clinical resistant strains of MRSA (methicillin resistant staphyloccus aureus). All tested strains of MRSA were sensitive to an ethanolic extract of Nigella Sativa. In another study, the antibacterial activity of Nigella Sativa against Triple Therapy in the eradication of Helicobacter Pylori in non-ulcer dyspepsia patients was carried out. The study revealed that Nigella Sativa seeds possess ‘clinically useful’ anti H.Pylori activity comparable to triple therapy.

In addition to its strong anti bacterial activity, Black Seeds also possess powerful ‘Anti Fungal’ properties against different strains of Candida Albicans and against fungal infections of the skin and nails. A 2010 study, published in the Egyptian Journal of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology highlighted how human pathogenic fungi can acquire resistance to available anti fungal compounds and tested the constituents of the black seed to discover if they would have an effect on 30 human pathogens including yeasts, dermaphytes and molds. The study found that the Black seed compounds inhibited 100% of the pathogens tested.

Like the resistant superbugs, Diabetes is also rising at an alarming rate and placing the NHS under a huge financial burden. It is a worldwide chronic disease and according to Diabetes UK there are around 700 people diagnosed daily in the UK with the NHS spending a shocking £10 billion on Diabetes! This equates to £1million/hour! These figures are disturbing when prevention could be playing a key role, especially in delaying the onset of Type 2 Diabetes which accounts for 90% of those diagnosed. Diabetes, is another example of where Black Seed could potentially play a preventative and therapeutic role in the management of this chronic condition. A 2011 study in the Journal of Endocrinology & Metabolism reported that N. sativa may be beneficial in diabetic individuals and those with glucose intolerance as it reduces appetite, glucose absorption in intestine, hepatic gluconeogenesis, blood glucose level, cholesterol, triglycerides, body weight and simulates glucose induced secretion of insulin from beta-cells in pancreas; improves glucose tolerance as efficiently as metformin; yet it has not shown significant adverse effects and has very low toxicity. whilst a 2010 study by Bamosa et al concluded that a 2 gram daily dose of Nigella sativa maybe a beneficial adjuvant (add on) to oral hypoglycaemic agents in Type 2 diabetic patients.

Recently (2016), a research review in the Journal ‘Advancement in Medical Plant Research’ wrote that Black Cumin Seeds are from one of the earliest cultivated plants in human history and one of the earliest providers of life. It goes on to say that they have been used to successfully keep super healthy for over 3300 years. Today, the research available on Black Seed is indeed extensive and with further research the plant poses great potential as a natural herbal medicine, supporting health and well being on a number of levels with few reported side effects or toxicity. Many health experts and researchers suggest that it is a true ‘Panacea’ (cure all) and may help everything from allergies to hypertension. Bearing all the evidence and its benefits in this a natural remedy that should be among your store cupboard staples?

Black Seed is currently available from your local health store as capsules and oil. However, a word of caution, due to the varying qualities of Black Seed Oil available when purchasing Black Seed products please bear the following point in mind: Opt for Egyptian Black Cumin which is considered to have the highest therapeutic value and that is also organically produced.

The content of this article is intended for information purposes only. Always seek the advice of your GP or healthcare professional if taking prescribed medication or undergoing treatment of any kind.

Useful References Pancreatic cancer Effectiveness of Nigella sativa oil in the management of rheumatoid arthritis patients: a placebo controlled study. Review - Black seed oil & Glycemic control Gastrointestinal effects of Nigella Sativa

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