Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Spices as Medicine: Part 1: Nigella (Black Cumin)
Variously known as nigella, black cumin and kalonji, these aromatic black seeds are used in curries and sprinkled on breads before baking. They are also revered as a medicine in the Middle East. My friend Mohamed, an Egyptian perfume merchant, tells me there is an Arabic belief that ‘in the black seed is the medicine for every disease except death’. He tells me the traditional way of using the seeds as medicine is to take some in a teaspoon in honey every morning. I have tried this, and can report they have a bitter astringency that I find challenging.
Since nigella is recommended as a medicine for every disease, there are countless claims to its therapeutic use, including indigestion, fatigue, chest congestion, diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis and asthma.
As a practicing herbalist, I like to look at the scientific research to see whether it validates traditional uses of herbal medicines. A controlled study published in 2006 showed effectiveness in reducing symptoms of allergic rhinitis (hay fever). It showed similar benefit to a pharmaceutical anti-histamine. A further study showed significant improvement in immune function as measured in white cell activity.
Another study showed a 39% reduction in blood sugar levels in Type 2 Diabetics, with improvement in insulin levels. In addition, research showed a significantly decreased body weight and waist circumference in men with central obesity. Preliminary research also showed improvement in cholesterol and triglycerides with a tiny dose of .7 g of powdered seed per day (less than ¼ teaspoon). Anti-tumour activity has been found in one of the constituents of the seeds, but further research is needed.
In the clinic I have found wonderful results with nigella in a herbal mix when treating chronic and acute sinus problems. I combine it with other herbs to obtain the best results. I also include it in weight loss mixtures. Nigella has only recently been manufactured in a liquid tincture form. This is a non-traditional form of an ancient medicine. Tinctures are extracted in alcohol and water to get the maximum active ingredients from the plant. Alcohol is not used in the Middle East, even in perfumes, because of cultural beliefs. However I love the benefit of the liquid tincture in combining it with herbs of my choice to get the best therapeutic outcome. Having said that, nigella is a safe general tonic taken traditionally in a teaspoon of honey every day.