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Take Two Anchos and Call Me in the Morning
Chile Pepper MedicineBy Lenora Dannelke, Chile Pepper Magazine

You've always known that peppers were good for your soul, but medical science may convince you that cayenne has as much a place in your medicine cabinet as in your spice rack. Current research is discovering a wealth of potential healing properties in the substance capsaicin, the alkaloid element that gives peppers their distinctive burn. Applications for capsicum-based treatments range from arthritis to cluster headaches.

Capsicum has long been a staple in the pharmacology of folk medicine, Western herbal medicine, and traditional Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian Ayurvedic medicines. Evidence indicates that cayenne pepper, commonly referred to by its Aztec name, chili, was used as both food and medicine by Native Americans 9,000 years ago.

Hundreds of scientific studies and clinical trials, including those conducted at such respected facilities as Yale and the National Cancer Institute, have resulted in some ambiguous and contradictory findings, though there seems to be a consensus on the proven efficacy of capsaicin as a painkiller. Discomfort caused by osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, bursitis, diabetic neuropathy, neuralgia, lupus, shingles, and the post-surgical pain experienced by cancer patients may be alleviated by the topical application of non-prescription creams containing capsaicin. The pain-deadening facility of capsaicin is thought to be derived from its ability to deplete substance P, a neurotransmitter that sends "messages" of pain through the nerve cells. A reduced amount of substance P means the brain receives fewer pain signals, causing the perception of pain to diminish. Because this effect takes place gradually, treatments must be applied at regular intervals to achieve long-term relief. An article in Prevention magazine recommends three or four daily applications for two to three weeks to ensure maximum results. The Penn State Sports Medicine Newsletter reports that the only side effect of using topical capsaicin preparations is an initial burning sensation when applied to the skin-a temporary discomfort when compared with chronic pain. Topical preparations should not be applied to open sores, and the same precautions that apply to handling fresh peppers should be followed: Avoid contact with eyes, and wash hands thoroughly after use.

Developing peppers with the right amount of heat for such medications is one of the challenges being addressed at The Chile Pepper Institute. "Pungency determines the amount of heat in a pepper and how long it lasts," Prof. Paul W. Bosland, director of the institute, explains. "Peppers with a burn that dissipates quickly are great for eating- they allow you to continue consuming and enjoying the peppers. Those which have a lingering heat are best in medicines-the stronger pungency provides longer-lasting relief from pain."

The ancient practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) also employs pepper-laced liniments to achieve warming effects in external applications. "Cayenne plasters are excellent analgesics that help with circulation," David Molony, executive director of the American Association of Oriental Medicine, states. "You can throw some cayenne in your socks or shoes to make your feet warmer, too."

"Molony says that TCM commonly uses cayenne tinctures, mixed with garlic or cinnamon, as natural decongestants to treat colds. "The pepper creates a sweat that helps to loosen up mucus," Molony explains. "Peppers are used in China for defense, most commonly through cooking, depending on the relative altitude and temperature of the region. In parts of Szechuan, there are frequently more peppers than anything else in whatever you're eating."

Ayurveda, the Indian system of natural medicine that has been practiced for over 5,000 years, provides an integrated, balanced approach to the health of both body and mind. Cayenne is included in herbal therapy treatments that target several areas of the body. "Cayenne, taken within prescribed guidelines, can be an aid in digestion, helping the peptic juices - but it must not be used in excess, which can cause inflammation and acidity," suggests Pratima Raichur, a leading Ayurvedic practitioner. "Moderate use may also help hormonal secretions-affecting everything from the pineal gland to the sexual organs-depending on the constitution of the individual. Seasonal considerations also apply. Cayenne is best recommended in cold weather, since it is a natural heat generator, and should be avoided at hot, humid times of year."

"Naturopathic medicine, which focuses on whole-patient wellness, also finds many applications for peppers. A cornerstone of this practice is clinical nutrition, which includes using food to maintain health and the therapeutic use of food to treat illness. "When you sit down to a meal, your plate should look like a rainbow," Suzanne Peppell, a naturopathic doctor, states. "Peppers fit well in this description, and they are rich in riboflavinoids." Nutritionally, peppers offer a number of benefits, being rich in anti-cancer beta-carotene, vitamin A, vitamins B and C, folate, and silicon, a trace mineral for healthy skin, nails, and hair.

Peppell reports excellent results in improved circulation from the use of tonics containing capsicum-which also seem to have a bonus effect of improving memory. She has also had success in treating painful dialysis-induced itching with capsaicin creams, and she is familiar with a treatment for cluster headaches in which the capsicum compound is applied inside nasal passages on long swabs.

Dietary supplements of cayenne, which are available in a range of heat units as well as in special "cool" formulas, can be found in health food stores. Cayenne is frequently used in combinations of herbs and spices because of its efficacy as a facilitator, helping with absorption of the other elements. These capsicum supplements are believed to improve blood flow and circulation, and act as a cardiovascular stimulant that aids in lowering blood pressure and improving the ratio of HDL to LDL cholesterol. "It is a medical fact that capsicum boosts the metabolic rate," Dr. P.J. Marcelletti, of the Optimum Health Institute, attests, "and that helps your body to burn fat."

Numerous other medicinal properties have been attributed to cayenne, which has been used to treat stomachaches, gas, indigestion, alcoholism, seasickness, malarial fever, and yellow fever. While these claims have not yet been scientifically verified, some studies have found positive results in treating duodenal ulcers.

Other applications-a few of which sound downright unpleasant-abound:
• Nineteenth-century practitioners of Thomasonian herbal therapies prescribed cayenne enemas for the sick.
• Frederick Burton, M.D., a doctor of internal medicine who is an expert in alternative medicine, attests to the effectiveness of a cayenne douche to control yeast infections.
• Cayenne has long been used as a deterrent to thumb-sucking and nail-biting.
• Men's Health magazine included hot sauce in a description of a perfect meal for surviving a hangover, citing its potential ability to eliminate headaches.
• Sara Altshul, alternative medicine editor of Prevention magazine, suggests chewing a hot chile pepper for immediate relief from toothache pain.
• A West Indian cure for a loss of appetite, called madram, is a chutney-like concoction of cucumbers, shallots, chives, lime juice, Madeira, and bird peppers.

One strong caveat about overindulging in capsaicin is the toxic effect it may have on your body, lowering core temperature, interfering with glucose uptake, and causing nerve damage that could lead to a partial paralysis of the bladder and urinary retention.

The celebrated endorphin "rush" that comes from ingesting hot peppers is largely unsubstantiated by science. Endorphins are mood-elevating psychoactive peptides that act at the same sites as opiates, and chileheads have traditionally prized the supposed ability of peppers to create a feeling of euphoric happiness. "The effect is essentially a peripheral one," Ted Nason, Ph.D., webmaster of Pharmacology Central (, explains. "The compounds in the brain are not affected very much-and you know this because pepper is not illegal. If the DEA ever found out it got you high, off the shelves it would go."

A final claim in the pantheon of peppers' capabilities is its aphrodisiac properties: Hot and spicy foods have long been thought to be sexual stimulants. Considering that the physiological responses-increased heart rate and metabolism, even sweating-that result from eating capsicum-rich foods are similar to the physical reactions experienced during sex, this belief may have some merit. Remember that the power of suggestion can be as strong as the power of peppers, so don't be afraid to heat up your health and your love life by throwing a few extra jalapenos into your next romantic dinner.

At the very least, they'll make sure no one gets a headache.

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