Black seed oil is the perfect example of a medicinal whole food. It’s the cold pressed oil of the black cumin seed nigella sativa, which grows widely across Southern Europe, Western Asia and South Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. In the majority of those regions, black seed oil has extensive traditional use as a medicine or “cure-all.”
In ancient Egypt, the black cumin seed was a primary first-line medicine against an entire host of maladies. When archaeologists unearthed King Tut’s tomb, they found traces of black seed and black seed oil—ostensibly placed there to protect him as he made his way to the underworld. The Prophet Muhammad was reported to have said that “the black seed can heal every disease, except death.”1 For thousands of years, Indian Ayurvedic medicine prescribed black seed oil to treat hypertension, high blood sugar, eczema, asthma, and general diseases of inflammation.
I’m not saying these are fully accurate statements or beliefs, but they do show the reverence these cultures had for black seed oil and indicate its prowess as a medicine. Luckily, we don’t have to rely on ancient texts as the only evidence we have. There are hundreds of studies showing the efficacy of black seed oil in humans against a wide range of health conditions. Taken as a whole, it’s an impressive body of literature.
This is the Primal way: taking heed of traditional wisdom and confirming its accuracy with modern science.
Around here, we generally prefer medicinal whole foods—herbs, seeds, spices, and the like—to isolated or synthetic pharmacological compounds for several reasons:
The synergistic compounds that exist in the whole food medicine are more likely to enhance the effects and be missing from the synthetic version.
The synthetic compound will be geared toward a specific task, a one-trick pony, while the whole food medicine will be more likely to encompass other effects both up and down the line of causality.
Whole food medicines are also foods—they contain vitamins and minerals and macronutrients that nourish us. They aren’t just medicine; they’re much more. If nothing else, this is a more efficient way to obtain medicinal effects.
Health Benefits of Black Seed Oil
Let’s explore the health effects of black seed oil. To begin with, let’s dispel some notions and prejudices we have about “seed oils.” Industrial seed oils, like corn or canola oil, are stripped of nutrients that prevent lipid degradation, undergo high-heat and chemical processing, and have no redeeming qualities to make up for the high level of omega-6 linoleic acid present in the fat. In the Primal eating plan, we eliminate these industrial seed oils.
Black seed oil is a different kind of seed oil.
It’s unrefined, so that it contains all the protective components that help the fragile fatty acids resist oxidation and prevent rancidity. 2
It’s a medical oil, not a food, so we’re not using it to make salad dressings, fry potatoes, or incorporate in processed junk food. We aren’t eating enough of it to worry about it as a major source of omega-6 fatty acids in our diet.
Unlike the industrial seed oils, black seed oil has proven benefits that justify its inclusion in our diet.
Black Seed Oil for Diabetes
In patients with pre-diabetes—bad blood glucose numbers that don’t yet qualify for full-blown diabetes—black seed oil performed as well as or better than metformin, the “gold standard” pharmaceutical for diabetes. While both metformin and black seed oil groups saw improved glucose parameters, only black seed oil patients who took 450 mg of black seed oil twice a day (less than a teaspoon) saw better lipids and lower inflammation.3
In patients with newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes (full blown), 1350 mg/day of black seed oil helped against but wasn’t as effective as metformin in improving fasting blood glucose or HbA1c. However, once again black seed oil patients enjoyed uniquely improved lipid numbers, lower fasting insulin, and lower inflammatory markers. Furthermore, metformin patients had higher liver enzymes and slightly elevated creatinine levels, while black seed oil patients did not.4 Both groups saw better body composition, including the all-important and extremely revealing waist circumference.
Seeing as how metformin has growing prominence as an all-around health-promoting prophylactic medicine for otherwise healthy people who want to live longer, black seed oil might be a more effective alternative with added benefits.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.