Nigella Sativa Extract: Effects & Use

Updated May 13, 2024 by | Reviewed by William Gallagher, MNeuroSci
(Estimated reading time: 13 minutes)

Nigella sativa (black cumin, black seed oil, kalonji, or black caraway,) is a plant that belongs to the Ranunculaceae family.

Originally from Eastern Europe and Western Asia, this versatile plant has spread to various regions, including parts of Europe, northern Africa, and as far east as Myanmar. Widely used as a flavorful spice, it is a staple in diverse culinary traditions.

This review aims to delve deeper into a lesser-known but increasingly important aspect of Nigella sativa: its potential as a nootropic.

Given the existing interest in natural alternatives for cognitive improvement, the focus will be on examining both the science-backed benefits and possible side effects of using Nigella sativa in this capacity.

I will explore its chemical components, analyze its effects on cognition and mood, and discuss the safety considerations one should be aware of.

By the end, you'll have a comprehensive understanding of Nigella sativa's role in enhancing cognitive function, backed by current research and expert advice.

So without further ado, let's dive in!

What Is Nigella Sativa?

Nigella Sativa

Nigella sativa is an annual flowering plant that is part of the Ranunculaceae family, which is closely related to buttercups. This plant has a storied history of medicinal usage that spans multiple continents and cultures.

Originally native to regions of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, including countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, Nigella sativa has spread far and wide.

One of the plant's most notable characteristics is its resilience; it can thrive in relatively harsh conditions, which perhaps contributes to its potent bioactive compounds.

The seeds of Nigella sativa, often called black seeds, are particularly esteemed and are the primary source of its therapeutic benefits.

These seeds have been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in traditional medicine systems.

In Ayurvedic medicine, the seeds are used for treating a multitude of conditions, from respiratory ailments like asthma to digestive issues.

The Unani system, another ancient form of medicine, also acknowledges the broad spectrum of healing properties associated with Nigella sativa, including its use as an anti-inflammatory and digestive aid.

Over time, the plant has been incorporated into various folk remedies, spice blends, and even as a beauty treatment for skin and hair.

The traditional usage of Nigella sativa is not just limited to the regions where it is native or naturalized. Due to globalization and increased interest in natural remedies, the seeds and oil extracted from them have found a global market.

Today, they are used not just in traditional preparations, but also in modern pharmacological products, health supplements, like nootropics, and even cosmetics.

Chemical Constituents

The seeds of the Nigella sativa plant are the primary source of its medicinal properties and contain a complex array of phytochemicals.

The most prominent active ingredient is thymoquinone (TQ), a phytonutrient that has garnered significant attention in the scientific literature for its therapeutic potential. Thymoquinone is responsible for many of the plant's anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective effects.[1]

In addition to thymoquinone, the seeds contain other alkaloids like nigellidine and alpha-hederin.

These compounds are also biologically active and contribute to the seed's therapeutic profile. The seeds also contain essential fatty acids, most notably linoleic and oleic acids, which play a role in cellular health and metabolic functions.[2]

Together, these compounds create a synergistic effect, contributing to the plant's varied pharmacological properties.

How Does Nigella Sativa Work in the Brain?

nigella sativa brain

The cognitive and neurological effects of Nigella sativa are primarily due to its rich array of phytochemicals, particularly thymoquinone. These compounds interact with various cellular pathways and biological systems in the brain to exert their effects.

Mechanism of Action

Thymoquinone (TQ), the principal active component in Nigella sativa seeds, has been found to influence several neural pathways that are crucial for cognitive function and mental health.

One of the key mechanisms is the inhibition of NF-kappaB, a protein complex that controls the transcription of DNA, cytokine production, and cell survival. By inhibiting this complex, thymoquinone exhibits anti-inflammatory effects that can be beneficial in conditions associated with neural inflammation, such as neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive decline.[3]

Another significant mechanism is the modulation of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Thymoquinone and other phytochemicals in the seeds can impact the levels of these neurotransmitters, which play pivotal roles in mood regulation, alertness, and overall cognitive function.[4]

Pharmacokinetics

The pharmacokinetics of Nigella sativa and its active components have been studied to a limited extent. Thymoquinone is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream upon oral ingestion, but it has low bioavailability due to its lipophilic nature and first-pass metabolism in the liver.

Thymoquinone is metabolized primarily in the liver through phase I and phase II reactions, involving hydroxylation and glucuronidation, respectively. Its metabolites are eventually excreted through bile and urine.[5]

While the existing studies provide valuable insights into the pharmacokinetics of Nigella sativa, more research is needed, particularly involving human subjects, to understand the optimal dosage, bioavailability, and the full range of its interactions within the brain.

By understanding both the mechanism of action and pharmacokinetics, researchers and healthcare providers can better interpret the therapeutic potential of Nigella sativa in cognitive enhancement and neurological health.

Nigella Sativa Clinical Research

Research on Nigella sativa spans both human and animal studies, providing valuable insights into its potential therapeutic applications, including cognitive enhancement and overall neurological health.

In Humans

Human studies on Nigella sativa have mainly focused on its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective effects.

While research specifically on its nootropic capabilities is limited, some studies have investigated its influence on cognitive health in the context of neurodegenerative diseases.

According to a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology by Muhammad Shahdaat Bin Sayeed and colleagues, the effects of Nigella sativa Linn. seed (NS) on memory, attention, and cognition were investigated in healthy elderly volunteers. The study also aimed to assess the safety profile of NS during a nine-week treatment period.[6]

Study Design and Methodology

The study recruited 40 elderly volunteers who were randomly divided into two groups: Group A and Group B, each consisting of 20 participants.

Group A received a 500 mg NS capsule twice daily for nine weeks, while Group B was given a placebo in a similar manner. The volunteers underwent a series of neuropsychological tests before and after the treatment to assess their cognitive functions.

These tests included logical memory tests, digit span tests, Rey-Osterrieth complex figure tests, letter cancellation tests, trail making tests, and the Stroop test. The safety profile of NS was evaluated by examining biochemical markers for cardiac, liver, and kidney functions using commercial kits.

Key Findings

The results showed significant improvements (p < 0.05) in various cognitive measures, such as:

  • Logical memory test-I and II
  • Total score of digit span
  • 30-min delayed recall
  • Percent score in Rey-Osterrieth complex figure test
  • Time taken to complete letter cancellation test
  • Time taken in trail making test-A and test-B
  • Score in part C of the Stroop test

Importantly, no statistically significant changes (p > 0.05) were found in the biochemical markers related to cardiac, liver, and kidney functions, indicating that NS appears to be safe for consumption during this nine-week study period.

Conclusions and Implications

The study suggests that Nigella sativa can positively modulate cognitive functions, including memory, attention, and other aspects of cognition in healthy elderly volunteers.

These findings open the door to exploring NS as a potential supplement for preventing or slowing the progression of cognitive decline, such as that found in Alzheimer's Disease.

However, the authors recommend more extensive studies involving Alzheimer's patients and larger sample sizes for a more extended period. They also call for in-depth phytochemical investigations for novel drug discovery from NS targeted at treating cognitive disorders.

In Animals

One study conducted a comprehensive literature review to analyze the effectiveness of NS/TQ in combating Alzheimer's Disease (AD). The researchers employed a rigorous approach by using the modified CAMARADES (Collaborative Approach to Meta-Analysis and Review of Animal Data from Experimental Studies) 10-item checklist to assess the level of evidence in rodent models.[7]

The search was carried out on MEDLINE and EMBASE databases up to July 2017, along with a manual search to ensure thorough coverage. Out of 38 studies initially identified, 18 were selected for inclusion in the review.

Key Findings

The major results drawn from these studies indicate that NS or TQ offers a multi-faceted strategy against AD. These substances appear to have a dual role:

  1. Balancing Oxidative Processes: NS/TQ was found to mitigate the damaging effects of oxidative stress, a key factor in the pathogenesis of AD. By reducing oxidative damage to neurons, NS/TQ may prevent or slow down the degeneration of neural tissues.
  2. Targeting Intracellular Pathways: The compounds also bind to specific intracellular targets, although the study does not elaborate on what these are. These interactions could influence various biochemical pathways crucial for neural health.
  3. Preservation of Hippocampal Cells: A noteworthy observation was the prevention of hippocampal pyramidal cell loss. The hippocampus is integral to memory and learning, and its degeneration is a hallmark of AD.
  4. Enhanced Cognitive Functions: Both NS and TQ were shown to enhance cognitive functions, although the mechanisms were not fully elucidated.

The study offers compelling evidence that Nigella sativa and thymoquinone could be beneficial in preventing or treating Alzheimer's Disease. The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of NS/TQ could be leveraged to balance oxidative processes, thereby preserving neuronal integrity.

This offers a promising natural avenue for intervention in a disease that currently has limited treatment options.

Nootropic Benefits of Nigella Sativa

Nigella sativa (NS) and its primary compound, thymoquinone, have garnered attention in the scientific community for their potential cognitive-enhancing effects.

Below are the key nootropic benefits supported by research:

  • Memory Enhancement: According to Sayeed et.al, NS improved measures of logical memory and 30-minute delayed recall in healthy elderly volunteers. This implies that NS can be a potent memory enhancer, potentially even mitigating age-associated memory loss.
  • Attention and Focus: The same study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology also found that elderly volunteers who took NS scored higher on tests measuring attention. Specifically, the time taken to complete the letter cancellation and trail-making tests was reduced, indicating heightened levels of attention and cognitive agility.
  • Cognitive Function: Beyond enhancing memory and attention, NS also appears to improve overall cognitive function. The Rey-Osterrieth complex figure test scores improved significantly, pointing to enhanced spatial memory and cognitive flexibility. This broad-spectrum improvement suggests that NS could be beneficial for multiple domains of cognitive function.
  • Neuroprotective Effects: Research has demonstrated the neuroprotective potential of NS and thymoquinone, particularly in preventing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. According to the studies done on rodents, NS or thymoquinone showed promise as effective neuroprotective agents against Alzheimer's, mainly through antioxidant processes and intracellular target binding.
  • Safety Profile: While NS has shown considerable promise for enhancing cognitive function, it also appears to have a favorable safety profile. Biochemical markers associated with liver, kidney, and heart functions remained stable during the nine-week study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, suggesting that NS poses a relatively low risk for side effects when used in a controlled manner.

Side Effects of Nigella Sativa

Though generally safe, it is critical to be aware of potential side effects and interactions when using Nigella sativa:

  • Gastrointestinal Issues: Some users may experience gastrointestinal discomfort like bloating, stomach pain, or diarrhea. Generally mild but should not be ignored if persistent.
  • Allergic Reactions: Rare cases of allergic reactions have been reported. Symptoms may include skin rashes or more severe allergic responses. Consult a healthcare provider if suspected.
  • Blood Sugar and Blood Pressure: Known to modulate blood sugar levels and blood pressure. If on medications for diabetes or hypertension, consult your healthcare provider.
  • Drug Interactions: Potential interactions with anticoagulant and antiplatelet medications, posing increased bleeding risks. Also may interact with medications for diabetes and hypertension. Consultation with a healthcare provider is advised.
  • Pregnancy and Breastfeeding: Safety during these life stages is unclear due to insufficient studies. Best to avoid it unless advised by a healthcare provider.

Nigella sativa shows promise in various nootropic aspects like memory improvement and neuroprotection. It generally has a good safety profile but, like any supplement, requires caution and consultation with a healthcare provider, especially if taking other medications or having existing health conditions.

Recommended Nootropic Dosage, Stack & Cycle

For cognitive benefits, studies suggest a dose of approximately 500 mg of Nigella sativa extract taken twice daily. It can be stacked with other nootropics for cognitive improvement, such as Bacopa monnieri or Ginkgo biloba.

Due to limited long-term studies on Nigella sativa, it's often recommended to follow a cycling regimen when using it as a nootropic. For instance, you might consider a schedule of 12 weeks on, followed by 4 weeks off, to prevent tolerance.

Available Forms & Tolerance

Nigella sativa can be found in multiple formats, each with its own unique set of advantages and considerations:

  • Capsules: These are convenient for precise dosing and are often used for nootropic or therapeutic purposes. The capsule form usually contains powdered Nigella sativa seeds or a concentrated extract.
  • Oils: Cold-pressed Nigella sativa seed oil is rich in essential fatty acids and can be used both internally and topically. It is often chosen for its rapid absorption rate.
  • Powdered Seeds: This form is often used in cooking or can be added to smoothies and shakes. It offers a more natural way to integrate Nigella sativa into your diet but may have a variable dosage.
  • Tinctures and Extracts: Liquid forms of Nigella sativa can be more rapidly absorbed but are less commonly found compared to capsules and oils.

My Personal Experience With Nigella Sativa

In the realm of cognitive enhancement, the combination of various nootropics can often produce synergistic effects that are greater than the sum of their parts.

To explore this potential, I embarked on an 8-week journey, initially supplementing with Nigella sativa and later adding Modafinil to the mix at the four-week mark.

Here's a detailed account of my experience, from the cognitive benefits and potential side effects to the nuances of stacking these two powerful substances.

Weeks 1-3: Nigella Sativa Alone

  • Initial Response: Upon starting with 500mg capsules of Nigella sativa taken twice daily, I experienced a subtle but noticeable improvement in my mood and cognitive functions. Memory and focus seemed sharper, and I felt less fatigued throughout the day.
  • Consistency: As the days passed, the benefits remained consistent. I didn't experience any form of tolerance to Nigella sativa's effects, which is often a concern with other nootropics.
  • Sleep Quality: One surprising observation was that my sleep quality appeared to improve. I woke up feeling more refreshed, which could be due to the anti-inflammatory properties of Nigella sativa.

Week 4: Introduction of Modafinil

  • Day 1: I introduced Modafinil at a dose of 100mg in the morning. Almost immediately, the increased focus and alertness were unmistakable.
  • Combination Effects: The effects of both seemed synergistic. Nigella sativa's mood-enhancing and neuroprotective properties appeared to complement Modafinil's focus-boosting capabilities well.
  • Increased Productivity: My productivity levels went through the roof. I was able to work for longer periods without feeling fatigued.

Weeks 5-8: Sustained Combination

  • Sustaining Benefits: Throughout the weeks, I maintained the same dosing regimen and the benefits appeared to sustain.
  • Tolerance: Interestingly, even with the addition of Modafinil, I didn't notice any significant build-up of tolerance. This might be due to the balancing effects of Nigella sativa.
  • Safety Profile: I kept an eye on potential side effects or interactions. Apart from a bit of initial jitteriness when Modafinil was first introduced, no adverse effects were observed.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the 8 weeks, I felt significantly more focused, alert, and cognitively agile than before. The combination seemed to offer a holistic approach to cognitive enhancement, addressing focus, mood, and even sleep quality.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

The most common questions about Nigella Sativa answered.

What is the half-life of Nigella sativa?

The elimination half-life of the active component in Nigella sativa, thymoquinone, has been studied in animals and was found to be approximately 275 minutes. Additionally, it was observed to have a high protein binding of 99%. While this data comes from animal studies, it suggests that for optimal effects in humans, dosing a few times throughout the day may be beneficial.

How soon can I expect to see cognitive benefits?

Some users report noticing an improvement in mood and cognitive function within a week of daily use, while others might take longer to experience noticeable effects. The efficacy can vary from person to person and also depends on the dosage.

Are there any limitations on how long I can use Nigella sativa as a nootropic?

While there are no strict limitations, it's advisable to cycle your use of Nigella sativa and other nootropics to prevent potential tolerance buildup. Consult your healthcare provider for advice tailored to your individual needs.

Is it safe to use Nigella sativa daily?

Generally, Nigella sativa is considered safe for daily use, especially in culinary doses. However, for therapeutic, nootropic purposes, consult a healthcare provider for an appropriate dosage and duration.

What form of Nigella sativa is best for cognitive enhancement?

Nigella sativa comes in various forms, including capsules, oils, and powdered seeds. While the choice of form is largely personal preference, capsules are often the most convenient for precise dosing.

Does Nigella sativa interact with any medications?

Yes, Nigella sativa may interact with certain medications, such as anticoagulants or medications for diabetes and hypertension. It's essential to consult your healthcare provider for personalized advice.

Can I use Nigella sativa during exams for cognitive enhancement?

While some people use Nigella sativa for cognitive benefits during mentally demanding situations like exams, the effects can vary from person to person. If you're considering this, make sure to try it well in advance to determine how your body reacts.

My Final Thoughts

After delving into the research, potential benefits, and considerations for use, it becomes clear that Nigella sativa holds promise as a nootropic. From its neuroprotective properties shown in both animal and human studies to its generally favorable safety profile, Nigella sativa presents itself as an intriguing addition to the realm of cognitive enhancers.

While more research is undoubtedly needed, particularly in terms of long-term use and interactions with other substances like Modafinil, the existing studies offer encouraging signs. Users interested in cognitive enhancement might consider starting with a cautious approachβ€”beginning with a low dosage and monitoring for any side effects or interactions, especially if they are on other medications or have existing health conditions.

Overall, Nigella sativa shows promise for those looking to improve memory, attention, and cognitive function. As with any supplement, it's essential to consult a healthcare provider for personalized advice. But for those who have done their due diligence and wish to explore the frontiers of cognitive enhancement, Nigella sativa appears to be a noteworthy candidate.

References
  1. Darakhshan, Sara et al. β€œThymoquinone and its therapeutic potentials.” Pharmacological research vol. 95-96 (2015): 138-58. doi:10.1016/j.phrs.2015.03.011 β†‘
  2. Jones, Peter J H et al. β€œThe effect of dietary oleic, linoleic, and linolenic acids on fat oxidation and energy expenditure in healthy men.” Metabolism: clinical and experimental vol. 57,9 (2008): 1198-203. doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2008.04.012 β†‘
  3. Sethi, Gautam et al. β€œTargeting nuclear factor-kappa B activation pathway by thymoquinone: role in suppression of antiapoptotic gene products and enhancement of apoptosis.” Molecular cancer research : MCR vol. 6,6 (2008): 1059-70. doi:10.1158/1541-7786.MCR-07-2088 β†‘
  4. Dong, Jianjian et al. β€œThymoquinone Prevents Dopaminergic Neurodegeneration by Attenuating Oxidative Stress Via the Nrf2/ARE Pathway.” Frontiers in pharmacology vol. 11 615598. 14 Jan. 2021, doi:10.3389/fphar.2020.615598 β†‘
  5. β€œThymoquinone.” Thymoquinone - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics. Accessed 25 Sept. 2023. β†‘
  6. Bin Sayeed, Muhammad Shahdaat et al. β€œThe effect of Nigella sativa Linn. seed on memory, attention and cognition in healthy human volunteers.” Journal of ethnopharmacology vol. 148,3 (2013): 780-6. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2013.05.004 β†‘
  7. Cascella, Marco et al. β€œDissecting the Potential Roles of Nigella sativa and Its Constituent Thymoquinone on the Prevention and on the Progression of Alzheimer's Disease.” Frontiers in aging neuroscience vol. 10 16. 9 Feb. 2018, doi:10.3389/fnagi.2018.00016 β†‘