Cayenne Pepper

The herb with a bite

Cayenne pepper consists of the fresh or dried fruits of different capsicum plants, Capsicum annuum and C. frutescens, members of the nightshade family that also includes sweet bell peppers, paprika, or pimento. The capsicum plant grows from 8 to 40 inches in height, and the fruit is harvested when completely ripe.

Cayenne pepper, which is also known as red pepper or chili pepper, is indigenous to South America. Chili is actually the Aztec name for cayenne pepper. Today it is grown throughout much of the warmer regions of the world. Cayenne was brought to Europe from the West Indies by Christopher Columbus. From Europe it spread to the rest of the world.

Cultivation over the centuries has produced a large variety of peppers of differing sizes, shapes, and levels of pungency. The degree of pungency determines how the pepper is used. Cayenne or chili pepper is commonly used in chili powder blends, soups, and seasonings in many Mexican, Indian, and Italian dishes.

Variety of Uses

Native Americans have used cayenne as food and medicine for centuries. The Mayan Indians also used cayenne to treat mouth sores. Today some promote the use of cayenne to improve one’s digestion, to stimulate circulation, and as an anti-inflammatory agent to treat sore and infected throats. Cayenne is used in traditional Indian, Chinese, and Korean medicine and is commonly recommended as a gastrointestinal stimulant.

Regulatory bodies in Europe recognize that cayenne pepper produces a local nerve-damaging effect, causes reddening of the skin, and has a vaso-stimulant effect. Cayenne pepper has also been used to decrease blood-clotting tendency.

Cayenne has an antiseptic action, since its constituents show antimicrobial effects against certain Clostridium, Streptococcus, and Bacillus organisms, as well as bactericidal activity against Helicobacter pylori, the troublesome bacteria found in the stomach of some persons. Cayenne also contains the dark-red pigment capsanthin, as well as other carotenoids, which may enhance immune function.

Kindling a Fire

The principal pungent constituents of cayenne pepper are capsaicin and other related compounds. The pepper may contain up to 13,000 parts per million of these capsaicinoids. These highly irritating compounds can cause intense burning when the pepper comes in contact with the skin and mucous membranes of the mouth and gastrointestinal tract. The tissue may experience redness and swelling, along with a burning sensation and vasodilation.

Cayenne peppers can cause burning skin irritation and contact dermatitis, and must be handled with care. It can also cause inflammation of the eyes. When ingested, some people may react to cayenne with severe inflammation and bleeding of the gums. The main ingredient, capsaicin, is not water soluble, so it is difficult to wash off without soap after one has handled the chili peppers.

External Use

Repeated exposure to capsaicin can result in a desensitization of nerve fibers and a subsequent loss of pain sensation. Hence, cayenne extracts have been used externally in small amounts in topical analgesic creams to treat psoriasis, myalgia, frostbite, and the pain associated with shingles. The use of cayenne has demonstrated a significant decrease in the postsurgical pain of cancer survivors. Capsaicin-containing creams have also been used successfully for the relief of painful diabetic neuropathy.

In Europe cayenne preparations in the form of a cream are commonly used for the treatment of muscular tension, arthritis, lumbago, neuralgia, and rheumatism. It is also useful for treating painful muscle spasms in areas of the shoulder, arm, and spine. However, extensive use on the skin can cause blistering and ulceration and damage to sensitive nerves. It should be limited to two days’ use. The cream should not be applied more than three to four times a day for any condition. Two weeks should elapse before applying the cream again to the same location.

Unsafe Uses

Studies involving the feeding of cayenne to patients with ulcers have produced mixed results. However, the majority of studies reveal that cayenne increases acid secretion in the stomach of either healthy persons or in those with duodenal ulcers. Capsaicin has been reported to cause gastric ulcers, while the consumption of red pepper is believed to aggravate symptoms of duodenal ulcer.

The internal use of cayenne may increase intestinal motility causing diarrhea and intestinal colic. Excessive amounts may cause nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, or bleeding from the bowel as a result of the severe irritation of mucous membranes.

Chili pepper and its extracts have been reported to significantly increase the risk of cancer and promote the growth of tumors. Other reports have suggested that it lacks tumor-promoting effects, and may help the removal of harmful substances.

Heavy use of cayenne pepper or its ingredient capsaicin over extended periods can cause neurotoxic effects as well as chronic inflammation of the stomach. Use should be restricted for external uses only. Cayenne should be avoided by those having an allergic response. Cayenne preparations irritate the mucous membranes even in low concentrations and cause a painful burning sensation. All contact with the eyes should be avoided.

Remember: Herbal products and dietary supplements can have pharmacological effects, may produce adverse reactions in some people, and could interact with over-the-counter and prescription medications you may take. Discuss with your physician your decision to use any herbal product. Anything mentioned in this article is not intended to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any ailment.

Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is a professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.