I initially resisted the idea that something that causes me so much acute pain could actually help me with my chronic pain. But over time I have come to terms with the seemingly conflicting results that cayenne pepper causes in my body. On the one hand, consuming the pepper in anything close to its ‘natural’ state results in me crying from how spicy it is (yes I am an embarrassment to my father who loves all kinds of spicy foods). On the other hand, there is nearly 20 years of clinical research which fairly conclusively shows cayenne pepper aids the body in fighting inflammation.
How Does It Work?
So the simple answer is cayenne pepper also contains a wide range antioxidants that work at a cellular level and actually disarm free radicals that can lead to cellular inflammation.
The more technical answer is that cayenne contains a substance known as capsaicin that gives the spice its “heat” and creates a burning sensation on any tissue it comes into contact with. When delivered at correct concentration (read: don’t rub raw peppers on your skin), capsaicin has a therapeutic effect, triggering a biochemical reaction that is both analgesic (pain-relieving) and anti-inflammatory.
Capsaicin is classified as a neurotoxin, and while that sounds scary, it is important to remember that it is the dose that makes the poison (hence why
botulinum toxin – also known as botox – is both lethal, and really useful for keeping me looking young) . Capsaicin works by reducing the concentration of substance P, a compound produced by the body which delivers pain signals to the brain (don’t worry if you haven’t heard of this substance before – I hadn’t either – and to be honest it sounds fake).
What is it good for?
Well – cayenne pepper is most commonly used in my dad’s tacos, but other than for cooking, there is evidence capsaicin helps with the following conditions:
Back Pain: A 2006 review of studies published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews concluded that there was “moderate evidence” that cayenne-based topical therapies were more effective than placebo in relieving low back pain.
Neuropathic Pain: Capcaisin has long been explored as a means of treating neuropathic pain given the lack of effective pharmaceutical remedies. A 2009 study published in Therapeutic Drug Monitoring concluded that a high-dose capsaicin patch used for 60 minutes on 173 people with HIV drug-induced peripheral neuropathy resulted in a twofold decrease in pain compared to those using a placebo.
Heart Health: A 2015 review of studies published in BMJ Open Heart suggested that the biochemical reaction triggered by capsaicin may have practical applications in treating an array of metabolic and cardiovascular disorders. The evidence mainly involved research into the use of dietary cayenne in rats, pigs, and other mammals.
Joint Pain: A recent study published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia concluded that topical capsaicin cream provided modest relief of chronic muscle and joint pain. The study specifically looked at capsaicin cream applied three to five times daily for 2 to 6 weeks. This and other studies have highlighted capsaicin’s benefit in providing mild pain relief for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, sports injuries, and repetitive stress injuries.
Other Potential Benefits: Some researchers have suggested, that a diet rich in cayenne may be beneficial when used to prevent or treat atherosclerosis, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver, hypertension, and stroke. Additional research is still needed for this though.
What it doesn’t help with
Weight Loss: The evidence supporting the use of cayenne tablets in boosting metabolism and losing weight is generally weak. A lot of nutritional supplement companies have asserted that cayenne has thermogenic properties that can speed up your metabolism and burn more calories.
While a cayenne tablet can certainly induce sweat, a sign of increased metabolism, there is no evidence that this effect correlates to increased fat burning or weight loss.
As with anything you take cayenne has side effects, and you should consider whether the benefits of taking this (or any other supplement) outweigh the risks.
Most common side effects for topical capsaicin creams are fairly mild, and include irritation, burning, and itching. Some stronger versions of topical patches and creams may cause localized swelling, rash, pain, and even blisters.
When taken as a tablet, cayenne may cause nausea, sweating, flushing, diarrhea, and runny nose. Cayenne in its tablet is not advised for long-term use as the overuse of cayenne tablets may cause liver and kidney damage. Although research is still ongoing to determine how widely this happens.
Next time I’ll continue this series talking about anti-inflammatory compounds, and I am working on getting a guest post about inflammatory foods from a fitness instructor who is currently working on an anti-inflammatory cookbook.
For now feel free to check out some old posts on how to read nutritional research, or check out my supplement Freedom. You can also feel free to check out the latest in totally awesome pre-history at my future of space blog. I’m also available to give talks on either anti-inflammation compounds of the future of space, both of which are tailored presentations for any industry (previous talks have been given at a range of settings from government agencies to political science conferences). Contact me if you want more info.
Until next time – don’t forget to bring your full selves to life.
Citations (other than what I linked to)
Khanna RD, Karki K, Pande D, Negi R, Khanna RS (2014) Inflammation, Free Radical Damage, Oxidative Stress and Cancer. Microinflammation 1:109. doi: 10.4172/2381-8727.1000109