Although the small cumin seed looks rather unassuming, its nutty peppery flavor packs a punch when it comes to adding a nutty and peppery flavor to chili and other Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes as well playing an important role in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine where it is a key component of curry powder. Both whole and ground cumin are available year-round.
Cumin seeds resemble caraway seeds, being oblong in shape, longitudinally ridged, and yellow-brown in color. This is not surprising as both cumin and caraway, as well as parsley and dill, belong to the same plant family (Umbelliferae).
It is probably not just for taste alone that cumin has made it into the stellar ranks of Indian, Middle Eastern and Mexican cooking. This ordinary looking seed is anything but ordinary when it comes to health benefits.
Iron for Energy and Immune Function
Cumin seeds, whose scientific name is Cuminum cyminum, are an excellent source of iron, a mineral that plays many vital roles in the body. Iron is an integral component of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen from the lungs to all body cells, and is also part of key enzyme systems for energy production and metabolism. Additionally, iron is instrumental in keeping your immune system healthy. Iron is particularly important for menstruating women, who lose iron each month during menses. Additionally, growing children and adolescents have increased needs for iron, as do women who are pregnant or lactating.
Seeds of Good Digestion
Cumin seeds have traditionally been noted to be of benefit to the digestive system, and scientific research is beginning to bear out cumin’s age-old reputation. Research has shown that cumin may stimulate the secretion of pancreatic enzymes, compounds necessary for proper digestion and nutrient assimilation.
Cumin seeds may also have anti-carcinogenic properties. In one study, cumin was shown to protect laboratory animals from developing stomach or liver tumors. This cancer-protective effect may be due to cumin’s potent free radical scavenging abilities as well as the ability it has shown to enhance the liver’s detoxification enzymes. Yet, since free radical scavenging and detoxification are important considerations for the general maintenance of wellness, cumin’s contribution to wellness may be even more far reaching.
Nigella sativa is one the most revered medicinal seeds in history. The best seeds come from Egypt where they grow under almost perfect conditions in oases where they are watered until the seed pods form. Black cumin seeds were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Though black cumin seeds are mentioned in the Bible as well as in the words of the Prophet Mohammed, they were not carefully researched until about forty years ago. Since this time, more than 200 studies have been conducted in universities.
The famous Greek physician Dioscorides used black cumin seeds to treat headaches and toothaches. Mohammed said that black cumin cures every disease but death itself. The reason might be found in the complex chemical structure of the seeds. These little seeds have over one hundred different chemical constituents, including abundant sources of all the essential fatty acids. Though it is the oil that is most often used medicinally, the seeds are a bit spicy and are often used whole in cooking—curries, pastries, and Mediterranean cheeses.
Nigella sativa seeds have very little aroma but are carminative, meaning they tend to aid digestion and relieve gases in the stomach and intestines. They aid peristalsis and elimination. The essential oil of black cumin is antimicrobial and helps to rid the intestines of worms.
Black cumin is regarded by many as a panacea and may therefore not be taken seriously by some, but for those inclined to dismiss folklore, it should be noted that these humble seeds have been found superior to almost every other natural remedy when used for autoimmune disorders, conditions in which patients suffer greatly because their own systems attack their bodies. Black cumin, especially when combined with garlic, is regarded as a harmonizer of the imbalance which allows immune cells to destroy healthy cells. The technical language to describe this property is “immunomodulatory action.” The difference between black cumin and interferon is that there are no known side effects with black cumin when administered in normal dosages. The saying goes that the beauty of black cumin is their capacity to restore harmony.
The most dramatic results are achieved with asthma and allergies. These respond relatively quickly unless there is infection, in which case, the infection needs to be eliminated before the symptoms of immune weakness subside. Continued use for six months or longer tends to give outstanding results. For extreme fatigue, consider mixing some crushed seeds with some royal jelly.
With a seed containing so many constituents and having such a long ethnobotanical history, it is not surprising that many throughout the Mediterranean and Asia believe that black cumin is basically good for all that ails us. However, the claims are not outrageously far-fetched if one considers how complete the seeds are in terms of their many chemical constituents. Still, it is understandable that anyone who claims that something can do anything from increasing one’s sperm count or increasing milk production in a nursing mother to relieving bronchial conditions such as asthma and bronchitis, is not taken seriously. One then wonders if the imagination of the poets has triumphed over the logic of scientists? Just remember: those paying homage to the black seeds of the Egyptian oases were praising the capacity of the seeds to restore normalcy, not cure. This is not unimaginable if the nutrients are sufficient to correct deficiency conditions.
Immune System and Cell Protection
The first major study of Nigella sativa in cancer prevention and treatment was performed by scientists at Cancer Immuno-Biology Laboratory of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. They concluded that a healthy immune system will detect and destroy cancer cells before the cancer endangers the patient. The immune system does this by supporting increased production of immune cells, bone marrow cells, and B-cells that produce antibodies. Black cumin stimulates neutrophil activity. These are the short-lived immune cells that are normally found in bone marrow but mobilized into action when there is a bacterial infection. Extracts of black cumin have also been shown to modulate production of interleukins, a quality it shares with some other highly revered herbs: ginseng, astragalus, mistletoe, garlic, and cat’s claw.
In animal studies, while none of the subjects in the control group survived, two-thirds of the mice that had been given black cumin seed oil were still alive 30 days after deliberate efforts to cause cancer in the subject groups. Black cumin is particularly useful in aggressive cancers whose growth depends on angiogenesis.
In vitro studies performed in Jordan and the United States have determined that the volatile oil is anti-leukemic. Studies performed in Spain as well as England found that the fixed oil is useful in the treatment of rheumatism and other inflammatory diseases. This property is attributed to thymoquinone which is as high as 25% in the Egyptian seed and missing entirely is some seeds.
Black cumin seeds are small. They can be used to make tea by simply pouring hot water over the seeds and letting the brew steep for 10 minutes, about a tablespoon makes a nice cup of tea, but it is better to keep the cup covered until ready to drink so as to prevent the aroma from escaping. Some people add a few seeds to their favorite tea or coffee and allow their imaginations to conjure up images of camels and nomads. The seeds can also be added to casseroles or breads, used in canning, or extracted in wine or vinegar. Some people grind the seeds and mix them with honey or sprinkle them on salads. They make a nice addition to salad dressings and even stir fry dishes, especially when combined with lemon, cilantro, and tahini.
Most people seeking the benefits of black cumin take the oil in capsule form. Over a period of time, usually a few months, the hair and fingernails are strengthened and have more luster. However, some people use the oil externally, for beauty as well as for treating skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. One can buy a ready-made cream, add some oil to a favorite cream, or make one’s own cream from scratch by warming equal parts (by volume) of black cumin seeds and a nice carrier oil, like shea butter or jojoba. It’s best to use a double boiler or be lazy (like me) and use a yogurt maker because the temperature is very even so you can safely ignore the process for hours. The oil will darken. When you feel this has been warmed long enough, melt a little beeswax into the warm oil. Stir it with a glass rod or new chopstick. If you like, you can add an essential oil or combination of oils just before the beeswax stiffens. Choose this for aesthetic or health reasons. Some people use such mixtures on burns or skin infections; some just use these creams to feel good, moisturize the skin, relieve joint or pain, or make wrinkles vanish.