By Emma Suttie
There is a lot more to cayenne peppers than their spicy flavor. In fact, these small, bright red peppers are loaded with health benefits that have been used medicinally for millennia.
Cayenne peppers are native to Central and South America, and the oldest specimens were discovered in Mexico from seeds found on the floor of caves and in ancient fossil feces. From these samples, scientists concluded that people were eating peppers as far back as 7000 B.C. and were cultivated between 5200 and 3400 B.C., making capsicum peppers one of the oldest cultivated plants on earth.
Cayenne peppers, or Capsicum annuum, belong to the Solanaceae, or nightshade family of plants that include other culinary spices like crushed red peppers, chili powder, paprika, and foods like eggplant, potatoes, and tomatoes.
Cayenne peppers contain a bioactive compound called capsaicin that gives them their spicy flavor. The intensity of any pepper’s spiciness is usually measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHUs) using the Scoville scale, created by an American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville in the early 1900s. The scale subjectively measures people’s sensitivity to the capsicum in different peppers, giving them a score that ranges from zero (no spiciness) to one of the hottest peppers known—the ghost pepper—which measures more than 1,000,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHUs). Cayenne peppers have a score that ranges from between 30,000-50,000 SHUs.
The capsaicin in cayenne and other peppers is also responsible for their medicinal properties, which are plentiful. Below are just some of the health benefits of cayenne peppers.
Benefits the Heart
Cayenne is a powerful stimulant, vasodilator, and blood thinner and is well known for benefiting the heart and circulatory system. Cayenne regulates blood flow while strengthening the heart, vessels, and nerves and is often used as a heart and digestive tonic. Cayenne peppers also contain salicylates, which are often used in medications to treat pain, fever, and inflammation. Salicylates, like aspirin, thin the blood by inhibiting platelet aggregation and reducing blood clotting, making them protective against heart disease. Natural salicylates also have anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, anti-cancer, and antidiabetic effects.
Research suggests that the capsaicin in cayenne and other peppers helps to clear lipid deposits that can build up and cause narrowing of the arteries, restricting blood flow to the heart. Capsaicin’s ability to dilate vessels and remove toxins adds to its heart-protective effects.
One study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, involving 22,811 adults, showed that eating chili peppers regularly was associated with a lower risk of dying from heart disease.
A review involving 570,062 people found that chili pepper consumption was associated with a lower risk of all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer-related mortality.
Dr. John Christopher, naturopath, herbalist, and founder of the School of Natural Healing, famously stopped heart attacks using cayenne pepper—cayenne in some hot water. He said that in 35 years of practice, he never lost a patient to a heart attack because—if they were still breathing—he would pour them a cup of cayenne and hot water, and within minutes, they would be up and around.
One of the most common uses for capsicum in cayenne and other peppers is to relieve pain. Capsaicin is used to treat pain from arthritis, nerve pain, muscle pain, and headaches, relieve itching, and treat psoriasis—where dry, itchy patches build up on the skin.
Several studies have shown capsaicin to be beneficial in treating migraine and cluster headaches. One double-blind study treating patients for migraines found that the capsaicin group showed improvements of between 50–80 percent compared to a placebo.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial found that when patients with cluster headaches—excruciating headaches that usually recur over several weeks or months—used intranasal capsaicin over a seven-day period, their headaches were significantly less severe than those in the placebo group.
A double-blind, randomized study using a topical 0.025 percent capsaicin cream for the pain associated with osteoarthritis concluded that the capsaicin was superior to a placebo at providing pain relief.
Another study published in the British Journal of Anesthesia investigated the pain-reducing ability of an 8 percent capsaicin patch on peripheral neuropathy. They found that “a single 60-minute application in patients with neuropathic pain produced effective pain relief for up to 12 weeks.” The study authors also noted that the “advantages of the high-concentration capsaicin patch include a longer duration of effect, patient compliance, and low risk for systemic effects or drug–drug interactions.”
Helps Weight Loss
Capsaicin has also been shown to help with weight loss.
A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial found that treating overweight or obese subjects with 6 mg a day capsinoid for 12 weeks was associated with abdominal fat loss measured by dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry. Body weight also decreased more in the capsicum group. Notably, none of the patients experienced any adverse events from the treatments.
In a randomized controlled trial published in the journal aptly named Appetite, people who ate red peppers with every meal had fewer cravings and an increased feeling of fullness. The study concluded that adding capsaicin to the diet increased feelings of fullness and tended to prevent overeating when participants could eat as much or as often as they wished. The authors also noted that capsaicin decreased the desire to eat after dinner.
Boosts the Immune System
Cayenne peppers are high in vitamins and minerals that benefit the immune system. Cayenne contains ample vitamin C and vitamins B6 and E, which are well known for their immune-boosting effects. Cayenne peppers also contain antioxidants that include (vitamins C and E), and choline, as well as carotenoids like beta carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and cryptoxanthin—a pigment that gives the peppers their red color and a source of vitamin A.
The vitamin A in cayenne protects against pathogens by helping to build up healthy mucous membranes in the nasal passages, mouth, and lungs, helping the body fight off infections.
A study titled “Dietary Capsaicin and the Immune System” notes that capsaicin in cayenne and other peppers has anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating properties. It concludes by stating that capsaicin is rich in vitamins C and A, and bioactive phytochemicals that fight pathogens, strengthen immune cells and significantly boost the immune system.
Cayenne pepper is also an excellent remedy for congestion, coughs, and to fight colds and flu.
A study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that using a capsaicin nasal spray showed “significant and rapid” relief in all nasal symptoms in subjects with non-allergic rhinitis, a condition involving inflammation of the nasal passages causing sneezing, a stuffy, drippy nose, and a reduced sense of smell.
Prevention and Healing of Gastric Ulcers
Although it seems counterintuitive that something so spicy could benefit the stomach, research has shown capsaicin can help prevent and heal stomach ulcers.
According to a review, capsaicin inhibits stomach acid secretion, stimulates alkali and mucus secretion, and particularly stimulates gastric mucosal blood flow, which helps prevent and heal gastric ulcers.
In a different study titled “Capsaicin and Gastric Ulcers,” the authors state that capsaicin stimulates afferent neurons in the stomach, which signal for protection against injury-causing agents. It continues saying that “epidemiologic surveys in Singapore have shown that gastric ulcers are three times more common in the ‘Chinese’ than among Malaysians and Indians” who consume more chilis.
As with all foods and herbs used as medicines, some caution is warranted. Despite cayenne’s many health benefits, some people have reported adverse reactions to applying it topically and taking it internally, mostly irritation, inflammation, and a burning sensation. Because we all have our own unique physiology, health issues, activity levels, etc., herbs and spices can react differently in each individual. As always, moderation is key, and if you are on any medications, introduce cayenne with the guidance of a health care provider. For those not on medications, introduce it gradually and see how you feel.
If you use fresh peppers, be mindful not to touch your eyes while handling them. The easiest way to take cayenne is by adding some dried spice to foods or drinks to see how you tolerate it. Also, if you are taking blood thinners, speak to a health care provider before introducing cayenne, as it is a potent blood thinner and may interact with or compound the effects of your medications.
Cayenne is a magnificent spice that is easy to find, inexpensive, and incredibly versatile—not only for a considerable number of conditions but for strengthening the body and preventing illness.
Dr. Christopher, the herbalist who famously stopped heart attacks with cayenne in hot water, had a number of health challenges early in his life. Due to severe hardening of the arteries in his 20s and 30s—which he says was so severe no insurance company at the time would give him a policy, even for $1000—Dr. Christopher started using cayenne. He worked up to taking one teaspoon three times a day. After ten years, at the age of 45, he was examined by two doctors, the first telling him that despite being 45 years old, he had the venous structure of a teenage boy. The second doctor told him, with a degree of shock, that his systolic and diastolic blood pressure was perfect despite him being 45. Dr. Christopher credits his healthy vessels and perfect blood pressure to cayenne.