You Asked: Is “black cumin seed” really a “cure for all things,” as one newsletter purports?

black cumin seedUmm….no. But this “miracle” cure is making the rounds. It is the “foundation for a longer life,” according to one ad. This time it is an extract from the seeds of the nigella sativa plant, also sometimes called black cumin, black sesame, black caraway, black onion or fennel flower seed. The seeds, we are told, have a history of use as a spice and medicine in Africa, India and the Middle East and were even found in the tomb of King Tut. They are reputed to treat skin conditions, respiratory infections, intestinal disorders and parasites, headaches and toothaches. Nigella is also supposed to promote lactation in nursing mothers and uterine contractions during labor. As if that weren’t enough, it is also said to work as an insect repellent and to have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antioxidant properties. And of course there is the usual claim that adorns almost all such wonder products, it boosts the immune system and inhibits cancer cell progression.

There are two points to note right off the bat here. The more claims made, the more our suspicions should be aroused. The body is a very complex system and different problems require different types of intervention. Asthma is not treated with the same drugs that are used to treat headaches. Then there is the reference to antiquity. Just because some substance has been used for a long time does not mean it has been used effectively. After all, bloodletting went on for a couple of thousand years before we figured out that it really wasn’t very effective. And homeopathic “medicines” have been hoodwinking people for over two hundred years. So the ancient Egyptians supplying a departed King Tut with “black seeds” to use in the afterlife (assuming that the claim they were found in the tomb is true) means absolutely nothing in terms of justifying its use as a medicine. The same goes for stories about Queen Nefertiti supposedly using black seed oil to improve the health of her nails and hair.

Of course the unreasonable reliance on ancient “wisdom” and the plethora of questionable claims do not mean that the seeds do not have therapeutic potential. But the only way that can be ascertained is by proper scientific study. And there have been studies. As any such natural product, “black seeds” contain a large number of compounds, but the one that has intrigued researchers is nigellone and its derivative, thymoquinone.  In laboratory studies thymoquinone has antioxidant effects and anti-cancer effects but there is nothing breathtaking about this, thousands of compounds that have such effects in the test tube. But the human body is not a giant test tube. Neither are we giant rats, so that effects seen in rodents are not directly applicable to humans. There have been a couple of small studies in people that have shown benefit for asthma and high blood pressure, but it takes properly controlled, randomized, double-blind trials before treatment recommendations can be made. Safety has to be ascertained, products have to be standardized and dosages have to be determined. Unfortunately while these are legal requirements for prescription drugs, such is not the case for natural remedies. Wild, unsubstantiated claims abound and money from people desperate for simple solutions to complex problems flows freely into the coffers of marketers.

So what is the bottom line here? Many currently used pharmaceuticals have their origin in plant extracts so it is certainly possible that black cumin seeds contain compounds that may eventually prove to be useful. But when someone is in pain, they are not told to graze in a field of poppies, they are given the right dose of properly purified morphine that is indeed extracted from poppies. Maybe at some time we will have a properly standardized evidence-based extract of black cumin seeds that can be recommended for some condition. But that time is not now.

Joe Schwarcz

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