Cayenne Pepper is a Health Food Wonder

Cayenne Pepper is a Health Food Wonder

Cayenne peppers (Capsicum annuum, C. frutescens) have long been valued for their culinary contributions and their medicinal traits, both of which are associated with its key ingredient, capsaicin. When food and healing factors have an opportunity to work together, the results can be satisfying on several levels!

But we’re here to discuss cayenne pepper as a healthy food. A search of the Internet for health benefits of cayenne pepper unleashes a wealth of claims, but many of them are based on anecdotal evidence or the rubberband effect; that is, stretching research findings in animal models to fit humans, at least until adequate human studies are performed. So here are some of the things we know and are still learning about cayenne pepper as a healthy food:

1. Heart Benefits: In experimental models of hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol), capsaicin has been shown to effectively reduce cholesterol in doses that are comparable to those taken by people. This cayenne ingredient lowers cholesterol by enhancing the conversion of cholesterol to bile acids and activating a specific enzyme. Use of capsaicin also can prevent the accumulation of fatty substances called triglycerides, which are associated with heart disease and diabetes.

Research has shown that capsaicin blocks the activity of a gene that makes your arteries constrict, and in turn that improves blood flow. This “hottie” also helps escort bad cholesterol out of your arteries but does not affect levels of good cholesterol.

2. Psoriasis: Are you suffering the heartbreak of itchy, inflamed psoriasis? Cayenne pepper may come to your rescue. Use of capsaicin cream can significantly reduce symptoms associated with pruritic (itchy) psoriasis. In fact, a new study is now underway to explore the use of nanoparticles (incredibly small molecules that can be used to deliver drugs to a targeted area) and capsaicin to treat psoriasis.

3. Pain: Topical formulas containing capsaicin can reduce pain because the plant component depletes the ends of nerves of substance P, a chemical that transports pain signals to the brain and is also associated with inflammation. How well capsaicin creams perform, however, depends on the type of pain and the patient.

For example, one meta-analysis of the use of capsaicin for chronic neuropathic (nerve) pain (6 trials) and musculoskeletal pain (3 trials) found that it had “moderate to poor efficacy” in managing these types of pain, but that it “may be useful as an adjunct or sole therapy for a small number of patients who are unresponsive to, or intolerant of, other treatments.”

Other researchers found that people with cancer who had undergone surgery reported relief from postsurgical neuropathic painwhen using capsaicin cream. Compared with patients who were treated with a placebo, those who used capsaicin cream reported an average reduction in pain of 53 percent versus 17 percent.

If you get shingles (and I don’t mean the kind on your roof) or the complication known as postherpetic neuralgia, these hot peppers may help. According to a review in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, capsaicin cream should be considered as a palliative treatment for these conditions.

When the pain, stiffness, and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis gets you down, topical capsaicin can be beneficial. According to Arthritis Research UK, at least four studies have shown the topical treatment to be effective in relieving these symptoms.

4. Weight Loss:  You may not set the world on fire using cayenne pepper to lose weight, but as every dieter knows, every little bit counts. One group of researchers found that people who consumed one-half teaspoon of cayenne pepper with their meal experienced a reduction in appetite and less desire to eat salty, fatty, or sweet foods than did a control group who did not have any cayenne.

In addition, those who included cayenne pepper in their food had a higher core temperature than those who did not enjoy a spicy meal and they also burned 10 more calories. As I said, not a bonfire but at least a burning ember!

Cayenne Pepper Precautions
When using capsaicin creams, be sure to wear gloves and wash your hands immediately after applying the treatment. Avoid touching your eyes.

If you are taking medications to reduce stomach acid production or ACE inhibitors, you should not use cayenne, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Capsaicin capsules may cause stomach irritation, so if you have heartburn or ulcers, talk to your doctor before using this remedy.

Tell Us about Cayenne Pepper
What has been your experience with cayenne pepper and capsaicin as a healthy food and natural treatment? Have you tried it for any of the conditions mentioned here or for others? Did you self-treat or did a healthcare provider recommend the remedy? We would love to hear from you!

Image via Chris Potako

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Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently, she lives in Tucson, Arizona.