The capsicum family includes red peppers, bell peppers, pimento, and paprika, but the most famous medicinal member of this family is the common cayenne pepper.
Cayenne and related peppers have a long history of use as digestive aids in many parts of the world, but the herb's recent popularity has, surprisingly, come through conventional medicine.
What Is Cayenne Used for Today?
Many people think that hot peppers cause inflammation to tissues, and that this is the source of the classic hot pepper sensation. However, hot peppers don’t actually have any damaging effect; they merely simulate the sensations produced by damage. (Herbs like
, horseradish, and mustard actually can cause tissue damage.)
Here’s how it works:
All hot peppers contain a substance called capsaicin. When applied to tissues, capsaicin causes release of a chemical called substance P. Substance P is ordinarily released when tissues are damaged; it is part of the system the body uses to detect injury. When hot peppers artificially release substance P, they trick the nervous system into thinking that an injury has occurred. The result: a sensation of burning pain.
When capsaicin is applied regularly to a part of the body, substance P becomes depleted in that location. This is why individuals who consume a lot of hot peppers gradually build up a tolerance.
It’s also the basis for a number of medical uses of capsaicin. When levels of substance P are reduced in an area, all pain in that area is somewhat reduced. Because of this effect, capsaicin cream is widely used for the treatment of various painful conditions.
Under the brand name Zostrix, a cream containing concentrated capsaicin has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of post-herpetic neuralgia, the pain that often lingers after an attack of
. There is also relatively good evidence that topical capsaicin can modestly decrease the pain of
diabetic peripheral neuropathy, other forms of peripheral neuropathy nerve pain following cancer surgery, as well as the pain of arthritis. Capsaicin cream may also be helpful for other forms of pain, including
However, the benefits seen with capsaicin are seldom dramatic; in many cases, other pain relieving treatments are used simultaneously.
Besides pain-related conditions, some evidence indicates that topical capsaicin may be helpful for
and possibly other skin conditions as well (especially those that involve itching).
Cayenne can be taken internally as well. It appears that oral use of cayenne might reduce the pain of minor indigestion (
). This may seem like an odd use of the herb; intuitively, it seems that hot peppers should be hard on the stomach. However, remember that hot peppers don’t actually damage tissues—they merely produce sensations similar to those caused by actual damage. Apparently, by depleting substance P in the stomach, they reduce sensations of discomfort.
In fact, some evidence suggests that oral use of cayenne or capsaicin can actually protect the stomach against
However, contrary to some reports, cayenne does not appear to be able to kill
, the stomach bacteria implicated as a major cause of ulcers.
In addition, it appears that, contrary to long standing belief, hot peppers do not cause increased pain in people with
What is the Scientific Evidence for Cayenne?
Oral Uses of Cayenne
study, 30 individuals with
were given either 2.5 g daily of red pepper powder (divided up and taken prior to meals) or placebo for 5 weeks.
By the third week of treatment, individuals taking red pepper were experiencing significant improvements in pain, bloating, and nausea as compared to placebo, and these relative improvements lasted through the end of the study.
failed to find benefit, but it only enrolled 11 participants, far too few to have much chance of identifying a treatment effect.
Topical Uses of Cayenne
All double-blind studies of topical capsaicin (or cayenne) suffer from one drawback: It isn’t really possible to hide the burning sensation that occurs during initial use of the treatment. For this reason, such studies probably aren’t truly double-blind.
It has been suggested that instead of an inactive placebo, researchers should use some other substance (such as camphor) that causes at least mild burning. However, such treatments might also have therapeutic benefits; they have a long history of use for pain as well.
Because of these complications, the evidence for topical treatments cited below is less meaningful than it might at first appear.
Weaker evidence supports the use of topical capsaicin for
Capsaicin instilled into the nose may be helpful for
(The fact that this has even been considered a viable treatment option shows how painful cluster headaches can be!)
Actual cayenne rather than capsaicin has been tested for pain as well. A 3-week, double-blind trial of 154 individuals with
found that cayenne applied topically as a “plaster” improved pain to a greater extent than placebo.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of nearly 200 individuals found that use of topical capsaicin can improve itching as well as overall severity of
Benefits were also seen in a smaller double-blind study of topical capsaicin for psoriasis.
Topical capsaicin is thought to be helpful for various itchy skin conditions, such as prurigo nodularis, but double-blind studies are lacking.
Capsaicin creams are approved over-the-counter drugs and should be used as directed. If the burning sensation that occurs with initial use is too severe, using weaker forms of the cream at first may be advisable.
For treatment of dyspepsia, cayenne may be taken at a dosage of 0.5 to 1.0 g three times daily (prior to meals).
Capsaicin creams commonly cause an unpleasant burning sensation when they are first applied; this sensation disappears over subsequent days as treatment is continued.
As a commonly used food, cayenne is generally recognized as safe. Contrary to some reports, cayenne does not appear to aggravate
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Tandan R, Lewis GA, Krusinski PB, Badger GB, Fries TJ. Related Articles Topical capsaicin in painful diabetic neuropathy. Controlled study with long-term follow-up.
The Capsaicin Study Group. Treatment of painful diabetic neuropathy with topical capsaicin. A multicenter, double-blind, vehicle-controlled study.
Arch Intern Med
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provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a
substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER
IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the
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