Throughout the Middle East and Asia, the plant known as nigella is cultivated for its tiny black seeds. These seeds, which are known by many names, are used in spices, pepper-like condiments and an essential oil called black seed oil. Black seed oil has been used for more than just cooking; it is also known as a beauty aid and a natural remedy for a number of ailments.
It is believed that the nigella plant has been commercially cultivated for more than 3,000 years. The plant is mentioned in the bible, in which the seeds were used as an ingredient in bread. Images on temple walls show that Egyptian queen Nefertiti anointed her skin with the oil to promote beauty. A bottle of it has been found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, where it was thought to have been placed for the Pharaoh's use in the afterlife. In more recent history, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have claimed that derivatives from the seeds would cure everything except death, and Pliny the Elder is recorded as having treated snake bites and scorpion stings with a poultice that included the seeds. Today, black seed oil is known by many names, which indicates its wide use throughout the world.
The seeds contain a number of ingredients that are beneficial to the body, including essential oils, alkaloids, proteins and saponin. Pharmacological and toxicological tests indicate that the seeds contain anti-inflammatory, antipyretic (anti-fever), analgesic, antimicrobial and antineoplastic (anti-malignancy) qualities. Testing on mice has shown that the seeds can increase respiration and lower blood pressure. Mice and rats who have been given the oil also show increased resistance to cancer.
The primary use of black seed oil has been in cooking, where its bitter flavour has led to its use as a substitute for pepper or a spice when cooked with lamb or vegetable dishes. When taken internally, black seed oil has been known to aid digestion and reduce internal gas. It has also been used as a stimulant.
In addition to cooking, the seeds that are used in black seed oil have been used in home remedies for thousands of years. In Islamic countries, ancient physicians prescribed it for common colds, allergies and upper respiratory conditions, as a diuretic and a detoxifier. Additionally, the oil could be poured into the ears to cure earache. In India, black seeds are given to women who have just given birth to induce postnatal contractions and promote lactation.
Although black seed oil contains many beneficial properties, it also contains substances that can be harmful if taken in large amounts. Some of the substances include melanthin and niugelline. When taken in large doses, melanthin is toxic and niugelline can cause paralysis.