The Health Benefits of Caraway Seeds

These small seeds may be a big help for digestive problems

Caraway annotated

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman 

Caraway (Carum carvi) is an aromatic plant that resembles other members of the carrot family, with feathery leaves and tiny white flowers that yield small hard brown crescent-shaped seeds. These seeds are the most-used part of the plant and they're popular as a spice in cooking, lending a distinctive earthy licorice flavor to soups, stews, and—more often—baked goods (you may recognize them from rye bread).

Like many other aromatic plants, caraway is often used for medicinal purposes. Indeed, caraway seeds have been employed since antiquity for the treatment of various medical problems in traditional healing systems, including Ayurveda, across the globe. Their use as a digestive aid was first mentioned in an Egyptian text on herbal knowledge dating to around 1550 BC. More recently, the seeds, which are rich sources of essential oils with a dense supply of antioxidants, are being actively researched for their chemical composition and biological activity.

Health Benefits

The most widely studied and established uses for caraway are for digestive problems, including those associated with irritable bowel syndrome.

Digestive Disorders

During the Middle Ages, people consumed caraway as a digestive aid after a feast to prevent bloating and other digestive issues—and research has proven these benefits. In fact, in Germany, where the healing power of herbs is widely accepted, Commission E, a scientific advisory board that approves substances previously used in traditional, folk, and herbal medicine, has endorsed caraway for mild, spastic conditions of the GI tract, bloating, and fullness since 1990. More than 25 years later, in 2016, the University of Würzburg in Germany chose caraway as the medicinal plant of the year in order to highlight its scientific importance as an effective medicine.

Caraway belongs to a class of herbs called carminatives (aka aromatic digestive tonics or aromatic bitters), which are plants helpful in easing gastrointestinal discomfort. The volatile oils derived from this group of plants, including carvol and carvene, have been found to soothe the muscles of the digestive tract, relieving spasms and helping to expel gas.

While caraway is effective when taken by itself, it tends to offer more relief when used in combination with peppermint and other herbs. For instance, in a review of 17 randomized clinical trials, nine of which involved peppermint and caraway, up to 95 percent of patients reported improvement in symptoms of indigestion. In one double-blind multicenter trial, people with indigestion took capsules containing peppermint and caraway oil or placebo twice daily, in the morning and dinner. The group taking the peppermint-caraway-oil preparation reported significant improvements in abdominal pain and discomfort compared to the placebo group, 62% to 26%.

Another double-blind placebo-controlled study of the combination oil showed a greater reduction in pain intensity (40% versus 22% with placebo), and sensation of pressure, heaviness, and fullness (44% versus 22% with placebo). In terms of global symptom improvement, people receiving the combination oil gave a median response of "much improved" while those receiving the placebo reported a result of "minimally improved." Another study found that a combination with peppermint, caraway, fennel and wormwood was useful in reducing gas and cramping in people with indigestion, while a combination of caraway with the herbs anise and fennel was shown to reduce flatulence and mild abdominal cramping, especially in children.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Caraway has also been successfully used in combination with peppermint oil in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which causes an array of symptoms, including bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea or constipation. The combination of 90 mg of peppermint oil plus 50 mg of caraway oil in enteric-coated capsules taken three times a day led to a significant reduction in IBS symptoms in a double-blind trial. (Enteric coating protects the oil from stomach acid and vice versa.) In a similar trial, capsules that were not enteric-coated were as effective as enteric-coated capsules. The same combination compared favorably to the drug cisapride (Propulsid), which has since been removed from the market, in reducing symptoms of IBS.

Caraway appears to also be helpful for IBS when used topically. In one study, participants with diarrhea-dominant IBS applied a hot poultice made with caraway oil or hot or cold placebo poultices for three weeks. Nearly 52% of people who used the caraway poultice reported adequate relief compared with 24% to 26% with the placebo poultices. To try this at home, you can apply caraway oil to your abdomen, cover it with a moist towel and dry towel, then place a heating pad on top.

Other Possible Benefits

Though there is research on other suspected benefits of caraway, much of it is preliminary—performed on animals and yet to be replicated in humans. One potentially exciting use is as an agent for lowering cholesterol. One study on diabetic rats found that caraway lowered blood sugar and cholesterol, and another study showed significant cholesterol reduction in both regular and diabetic rats. However, further investigation is necessary before caraway can be recommended for this use.

Historically, women have used caraway oil to relieve menstrual cramps, and its antispasmodic effects may prove helpful in soothing the muscles of the uterus.

Selection, Preparation, & Storage

Caraway seeds are available in most grocery stores. Caraway supplements are widely available for purchase online, and can also be found in many natural-foods stores and in stores specializing in dietary supplements.

To make a tea, use two to three teaspoons of freshly crushed caraway seeds per cup of boiling water. Steep it for 10 to 20 minutes, then strain. Drink it up to three times a day to aid digestion and relieve gas or menstrual cramps.

Homemade tinctures of the extracted herb, one-half to one teaspoon, can also be taken three times a day. A tincture is a concentrated liquid herbal extract that's typically made by soaking herbs and other plant parts in alcohol for weeks to extract the active constituents.

When taking commercial preparations, follow the package instructions. One popular over-the-counter remedy, Iberogast, contains caraway and peppermint as two of its nine active components. Iberogast (known as STW 5 in research articles) has been used for over 50 years and there's much research to support its usefulness in easing symptoms of indigestion and IBS.

It's important to keep in mind that supplements haven't been tested for safety and dietary supplements are largely unregulated. In some cases, the product may deliver doses that differ from the specified amount for each herb. In other cases, the product may be contaminated with other substances, such as metals. Also, the safety of supplements in children and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established.

Possible Side Effects

Caraway has been well tolerated in therapeutic doses and showed no toxic effects in humans. That said, there are some things to consider before you use it:

Caraway oil is not recommended for people under 18 due to insufficient data, but it can be used topically as an anti-colic and carminative agent for children or infants.

Women traditionally use caraway to increase the flow of breast milk, but its use is not recommended during lactation due to a lack of data. Similarly, women who are pregnant should exercise caution, as caraway has been used to promote menstruation.

Since caraway may lower blood sugar, people with diabetes should be cautious when consuming high amounts of it. Given caraway's potential to affect blood sugar levels, it's also important to avoid consuming caraway for at least two weeks prior to undergoing surgery.

If you're considering the use of caraway supplements for the treatment of a specific health condition, make sure to consult your physician before starting your supplement regimen. Self-treating a chronic condition with caraway supplements and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious health consequences.

Common Questions

People often wonder if fennel and caraway are the same things: They're relatives but not the same plant. Other look-alike seeds with different flavors than caraway are cumin, anise, and dill.

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Article Sources
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