As an herb revered by ancient healers in diverse cultures going back to the Ancient Egyptians, Nigella sativa (commonly known as black seed) is often considered a panacea for health. Used for applications ranging from lung and sinus health, immune support, help with breathing, supporting heart health and improving skin health, it’s no wonder why this herb is such an important tool in traditional herbal medicine.
As research into black seed and its constituents continues, scientists are proving that many of its traditional uses are validated by modern science. While black seed contains several active compounds as well as important fatty acids, one of the compounds receiving a high level of research attention is thymoquinone.
Thymoquinone is a unique compound extracted from the volatile oil portion of black seeds that possesses highly therapeutic benefits. Considered the major bioactive principle of Nigella sativa, thymoquinone has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal benefits. More recently, and quite pertinently, thymoquinone has been found to possess antiviral effects as well, lending it to be a useful compound to enhance immune function.
Black seed oil benefits the immune system, respiratory tract, sinuses, cardiovascular system, skin, and other areas, and thymoquinone plays a major role in the broad spectrum of activity of this herb. Here, we will review some of the specifics related to thymoquinone in black seed oil.
The liver is a critical organ playing an active role in the body’s ability to effectively neutralize and remove toxins and it plays a part in metabolizing compounds we encounter from our diet as well as our environment. Thus, keeping the liver healthy is an important endeavor. It turns out that thymoquinone has hepatoprotective, or liver supportive properties.
Research has found that giving thymoquinone to animals that had been overdosed on acetaminophen (a compound often toxic to the liver) led to a significant improvement and decrease in liver enzymes as well as an increase in markers of cellular protection and antioxidant function compared to animals not receiving thymoquinone. Additional studies found that giving thymoquinone to animals at the same time as drugs that impact liver function induced a protective effect where thymoquinone lowered liver enzymes and prevented cellular decline. These studies also found that thymoquinone improved the levels of reduced glutathione in the liver (the master antioxidant of the body) and reduced markers of oxidative stress (indicating antioxidant activity on liver tissue).
Taken together, these studies support a critical role for thymoquinone on conferring protection to liver tissue, allowing it to perform its detoxifying functions at a high level in the face of challenging toxic compounds.
Inflammation can either be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-lasting) in nature. When inflammation is chronic, it can have negative health consequences on tissues and organs. Most major disease conditions result from elevated inflammation taking its toll on the body. Research into thymoquinone has revealed potentially useful anti-inflammatory benefits of this natural compound.
Cellular studies have found that thymoquinone has direct and indirect activity against some of the key inflammatory messengers responsible for significant damage in a variety of disease conditions. For example, studies have found that thymoquinone induced favorable effects on gene expression that led to the inhibition of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) enzymes as well as nuclear factor kappa-beta (NF-ĸβ), two key regulators of inflammation in the body that are also key targets of several anti-inflammatory drug compounds.
Administration of thymoquinone to animals has also been found to result in lower levels of several inflammatory cytokines, including IL-1β, TNFα, IFN-ɣ, and others. These are key messengers of the inflammatory cascade that were all found to be reduced in the presence of thymoquinone. Studies also show that thymoquinone is effective at reducing inflammation in pulmonary tissue that results from environmental chemicals, highlighting its benefits for lung health and conditions impacting breathing, such as asthma and others.
We have seen how thymoquinone supports liver health by reducing cellular damage to liver cells and promoting antioxidant activity there. However, the antioxidant benefits of thymoquinone extend to other tissues throughout the body as well. One of the best indicators of thymoquinone’s ability to support the body’s antioxidant defenses is research showing that it promotes healthy glutathione levels, increasing the body’s stores of this crucial antioxidant. Glutathione is the body’s master antioxidant and is the major antioxidant system in the body, active throughout multiple tissues. By supporting healthy glutathione levels, thymoquinone buttresses the body’s ability to defend against free radicals that damage cells and tissues.
In addition to antioxidant effects throughout the body, thymoquinone has been studied on neuronal tissue of the brain. When cultured neurons were bathed with thymoquinone for 72 hours, a discrete neuroprotective effect was found compared to neurons that were not bathed in thymoquinone. Thymoquinone inhibited the generation of free radicals, restored neuron function and firing activity, and improved cellular viability, indicating its ability to support the function of these important brain cells.
As more research is conducted into the beneficial effects of black seed for health, the importance of this traditional panacea continues to be highlighted. One of the most important compounds in black seeds is thymoquinone. As a compound with powerful liver protective, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects, the utility of thymoquinone and black seed oil benefits in general as a health promoting herbal medicine continues to become apparent. Its broad range of actions makes it an indispensable herb for health and particularly critical for supporting the lungs, sinuses, immune system, liver, and other areas.
- Badary OA, Hamza MS, Tikamdas R. Drug Des Devel Ther. 2021 May 3;15:1819-1833.
- Khader M, Eckl PM. Iran J Basic Med Sci. 2014 Dec;17(12):950-7.
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