Have you heard of ‘Black seed oil?’ Once upon a time, I didn’t know what it was. When someone first asked me if I use black seed oil; I responded, “No, I prefer shea butter.”
What can I say? I didn’t know it was a natural supplement with possible health benefits—it sounded like a hair care product. In my defense, there aren’t any classes in medical school that focus on natural supplements.
Natural supplements are becoming increasingly popular. Black seed oil is one of the latest examples even though it’s not new.
The ancient Egyptians revered black seeds for their health benefits to the point King Tutankhamen had black seeds buried in his tomb. According to Islamic literature, even the Prophet Muhammad declared that black seeds are the cure for all illnesses except for death and aging (look up Hadith for you arm-chair religious scholars like myself).
Fast forward to today, if you search for black seed oil on YouTube, you’ll find plenty of people who claim it cures everything. Some people look at black seed oil the same way Chris Rock looks at Robitussin. As I mentioned above, despite the popularity of black seeds, I didn’t know about black seed oil until recently.
As a doctor, especially as a gastroenterologist trained in nutrition, people frequently ask me health-related questions in social settings. These conversations tend to come up in the most awkward moments—like when I was playing a game of pick up basketball and the dude defending me asked me about foods that soften stools as I was trying to post him up—c’mon fam!
My initial exposure to black seed oil occurred during one of these awkward moments. As I cut my kid’s cake at his birthday, one of the other parents sneaked up behind me, asked about black seed oil, and then mentioned that it cures everything. He then tried to sell me some incense and a mix cd. Ultimately, I had no idea what he was talking about, but that mix cd was pretty good. Thus, I decided to research the health benefits and side effects of black seed oil. In this post, I share those findings.
What is black seed oil?
Black seed oil is derived from black cumin seeds, the seeds of the plant Nigella sativa. Nigella sativa is a flowering plant that grows in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. The plant has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, but it’s not commonly used or even discussed in Western medicine. Various studies have demonstrated that consuming black seeds or black seed oil may have health benefits. Most of these studies were small or based on mice/rats. The studies suggest that the essential oils from black seeds, particularly thymoquinone, are responsible for their health effects. Let’s review a few of these studies and health effects.
What are the proven health benefits of black seed oil?
YouTubers claim that black seed oil can prevent cancer, decrease inflammation, treat bacterial infections, lead to weight loss, etc. Whenever I see any medication that’s purported to have hundreds of health benefits, I always have a healthy amount of skepticism. In the case of black seed oil, studies in mice and rats suggest that the YouTubers may be right. The biggest issue is that there are few studies evaluating the role of black seed oil in humans.
Health benefits of black seed oil based on animal and laboratory studies (the highlights)
- Increased Testosterone levels
- Anti-microbial and anti-fungal effects
- Anti-inflammatory effects
- Anti-diabetes effects
- Anti-cancer properties
A few health benefits of black seed oil based on human studies
A study from Saudi Arabia showed 66% eradication rate of H pylori, the bacteria responsible for stomach ulcers. The authors compared black seed oil to the standard triple antibiotic therapy used in conventional medicine— standard therapy had an 88% eradication rate.
Black seed oil significantly decreased the viral load from hepatitis C in patients ineligible for interferon therapy.
One study in 66 patients demonstrated that black seed oil improved symptoms associated with allergic rhinitis.
A meta-analysis of 11 studies showed that black seed oil consumption may have a modest effect on weight loss efforts, but there was a lot of variation in the results of the studies.
A study done in 40 women with rheumatoid arthritis demonstrated that black seed oil reduced joint pain and inflammatory symptoms. The study involved treating the women with one month of placebo and one month of black seed oil. During each month the researchers documented disease activity scores and symptoms. They found that the participants had significantly less morning stiffness while taking black seed oil.
A review of 7 clinical trials revealed that supplementation with black seed oil improved fasting blood glucose levels, hemoglobin A1C, cholesterol, and LDL levels.
What are the side effects of black seed oil?
The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved black seed oil as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). Mice studies have not demonstrated any significant adverse effects of black seed oil, even at relatively high doses. However, the side effects of black seed oil in humans are somewhat unclear due to a lack of large clinical trials. In the smaller clinical trials that I reviewed, there were no significant adverse reactions mentioned. I also could not find any case reports of substantial complications from black seed oil.
Before and after you try black seed oil…What’s the bottom line?
- Most of the studies demonstrating the health benefits of black seed oil were done in mice or in a laboratory setting
- There are small clinical trials in humans that show possible health benefits of black seed oil. Black seed oil appears to have few side effects, but further studies are studies are needed to better clarify the risk and benefits of using black seed oil.
- If you consider using black seed oil, keep in mind that it is just a supplement—it won’t overcome the effects of an unhealthy diet or a sedentary lifestyle. (Check out our posts about a unhealthy diet and sitting).
- Black seed oil definitely has promise as a supplement, but we need to conduct more clinical trials in people to fully understand its role in the treatment and prevention of disease.
Interested in any other supplements? You may like our Kombucha post.
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I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.