Nigella sativa is often referred to as the black cumin. This is an annually growing flowering plant and belongs to the family Ranunculaceae. Nigella or black cumin has its origin in south and southwest Asia.
This herb usually grows up to a height of anything between 20 cm and 30 cm (7.9 inches and 11.8 inches). Nigella sativa bears delicately divided, linear (unlike threads) leaves. The flowers of this herb are frail and generally appear in two colors - white and pale blue. Each flower is made up of about five to ten petals.
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The fruit of Nigella sativa is quite large, similar to a puffed up capsule. The fruit is made up of anything between three and seven follicles, each of them enclosing several seeds. The seeds of this herb are used in culinary as a spice.
The history related to Nigella sativa is quite interesting and it dates back to the ancient Egyptian dynasty. Archeologists discovered black cumin seeds in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. In fact, this discovery establishes the fact that these seeds were used by people way back in 1325 BC. As most of us are aware, ancient Egyptians had very strong convictions about the various items they placed inside the tombs of their dead pharaohs. They are said to have selected the items very carefully and believed that they would be essential for their pharaohs when they "awake" in their afterlife.
The seeds of Nigella sativa do not have much aroma, but they possess several therapeutic properties. These black seeds are carminative. In other words, they promote digestion and, at the same time, release gases formed in the stomach as well as the intestines. Consumption of black cumin is also said to be beneficial for peristalsis and elimination of feces. The essential oil extracted from black cumin possesses anti-microbial properties and also aids in eliminating worms from the intestines.
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Studies undertaken on animals have revealed that use of black cumin possesses the ability to halt tumour cell growth and also reduce the cases of tumours. However, owing to the absence of studies on humans in this regard, their effect on humans is unknown. Animal studies with Nigella sativa have also shown that injecting the oil extracted from its seeds may possibly protect from tissue damages due to radiation. In this case too, the effects of the seed extract on humans are unknown as far as protection from radiation is concerned.
Findings of one study undertaken on humans showed that using black cumin seed extract every day for a period of two months may help to reduce blood pressure in people enduring mild hypertension. Preliminary findings of another study indicated that the use of Nigella sativa seeds may also be useful in preventing the symptoms related to asthma. According to yet another study, oral use of black cumin seed oil may prove to be effective in alleviating the symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
It has been established that Nigella sativa possesses antioxidant, diuretic and hypotensive properties, in addition to working to blocking calcium channel. All these properties of the herb are beneficial for maintaining normal blood pressure. Hence, people with hypertension will find these black seeds beneficial.
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Studies have shown that use of Nigella sativa helped people struggling to get off opium addiction to do away with the withdrawal symptoms. According to researchers, the using of black cumin helped to quickly alleviate the signs and symptoms associated with severe opioid abstinence. At the same time, Nigella sativa also helped to prevent the craving for opiates and any possible relapse. As a result, researches have suggested that black cumin be included in all treatment programs for opiate withdrawal symptoms.
Chemical analysis of black cumin has shown that it contains reasonable amounts of phytosterols, which can prove to be effective in lowering the levels of bad cholesterol or LDL cholesterol in the blood stream. However, the amount of sterol contained by each Nigella sativa seed may vary greatly depending on where the herb was grown.
Findings of some studies undertaken with Nigella sativa have associated the herb's phytochemical called thymoquinone to help to reduce incidences of breast cancer. At the same time, it promotes apoptosis or cell death among breast cancer cells. As in the case of any other form of cancer, thymoquinone present in black cumin has also been found to promote apoptosis in leukemia (blood cancer) cells.
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It has been found that an extract obtained from Nigella sativa possesses heart-protective properties. This extract helps to reduce the damages that result in heart attacks, besides promoting the overall health of the heart.
Studies have found that Nigella sativa also has clinically helpful anti-H. pylori activity, equivalent to triple eradication therapy. In addition, use of black cumin makes chemotherapy and/ or radiation therapy more effectual, and reduces the damages caused by them.
Many people consider Nigella sativa to be a panacea. However, some people do not take the therapeutic properties seriously and have an inclination to dismiss them as myths. Nevertheless, it is important to note that these unassuming black seeds are not only beneficial for our health, but it has been found that as far as treating immune disorders are concerned, they are superior to all other natural medications. Most people suffering from immune disorders have to endure a lot of miseries as their own systems are responsible for attacking their bodies. Nigella sativa is more effective in correcting various imbalances in our body when it is used together with garlic. It is worth mentioning here that when there is an imbalance in our body it provokes the immune cells to attack and eliminate the healthy cells.
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People who are interested in trying black cumin oil for its therapeutic benefits can take it in capsule form. Using Nigella sativa oil extract regularly for a few months will help to strengthen the hair and fingernails, while making them look shiny and healthy. A section of people also use Nigella sativa oil topically to enhance their beauty and also to treat various skin conditions, including eczema and psoriasis.
In several countries, including India and the Middle Eastern nations, people use Nigella sativa seeds in the form of a spice. The flavour of these black seeds is similar to a blend of black pepper, onions and oregano. Their taste as well as smell is somewhat pungent and bitter.
Dry-roasted seeds of Nigella sativa are used to flavour various dishes, including vegetables, curries and pulses. This spice can be used instead of "pepper" in recipes that also use vegetables, salads, pod fruit and even poultry. In a number of cultures, people use black cumin to flavour bread products. In addition, Nigella sativa also forms a constituent of a mixed spice called "panch phoron", which denotes a mixture of five different spices in Bengali cuisine. It is also used individually in several Bengali recipes and is generally found in naan bread. It is worth mentioning here that this spice is also used in Armenian braided string cheese, which is known as majdouli or majdouleh in the Middle East.
Some people also consume black cumin along with honey. These black seeds are also used to add essence to a number of food products like breads and cheese. This spice is believed to be therapeutic even when it is used in these food products.
Nigella sativa or black cumin can be grown easily in any good quality garden soil. This plant has a preference for a light soil and sunny locations. This species is widely cultivated in India and a number of countries in West Asia for its edible seeds, which are aromatic with a smell similar to nutmeg. Nigella sativa is an invasive plant that retards the growth of other plants in the vicinity, particularly legumes.
Researchers at the South Carolina-based Immuno-Biology Laboratory in Hilton Head Island were the first to undertake a major study to examine Nigella sativa's ability to prevent and treat cancer. These scientists came to the conclusion that people with a robust immune system possess the aptitude to detect as well as eliminate carcinogenic cells even before the disease endangers the life of a patient. This is achieved by the immune system by encouraging enhanced immune cell production, in addition to production of bone marrow cells and B-cells which are responsible for producing antibodies. Black cumin or Nigella sativa is effective in this situation, as this herb encourages the activity of neutrophils, which are basically immune cells. Neutrophils live for a short duration and are generally present in our bone marrow. However, they become active when we develop any bacterial infection. It has been found that nigella extracts are also effective in stimulating interleukin production. This property of black cumin is similar to those of some other more esteemed herbs, including astragalus, cat's claw, garlic, ginseng and mistletoe.
Chemical analysis of Nigella sativa has shown that these black seeds contain a number of active compounds like amino acids, carotene, essential fatty acids, thymoquinone, essential minerals and phytosterol.
Amino acids: Altogether 15 different amino acids are found in Nigella sativa. All these amino acids are essential for sustaining our bodily functions as well as to ensure an overall robust health.
Essential fatty acids: Black cumin or Nigella sativa is rich in essential fatty acid content, especially linoleic acid. This essential fatty acid is basically an omega-6 fatty acid, which possesses the aptitude to prevent development of cancer. In addition, it has been found that linoleic acid is effective in treating conditions like dermatitis and cystic fibrosis.
Carotene: This compound converts into vitamin A inside the human body. Vitamin A is essential for our body for a number of vital functions, including new cell growth, better vision during the night, and to ensure the health of our skin and hair. It is also needed to ensure several other bodily functions.
Phytosterol: It has been found that this plant compound is effective for lowering the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) in the blood stream.
Thymoquinone: This is another phytochemical which has shown to possess anti-inflammation and anti-cancer properties. In addition, this plant-based chemical is also said to be useful for boosting the immune system.
Minerals: Black cumin also contains several essential minerals that are essential for the normal functioning of many vital systems of our body. Some of the minerals contained by Nigella sativa include sodium, calcium, iron and potassium.