Do you like spicy foods? I don’t. But science says cayenne pepper is good for something other than making me cry. There is nearly 20 years of clinical research which fairly conclusively shows cayenne pepper aids the body in fighting inflammation. And seeing all that evidence changed my mind. Maybe it will change yours too.
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 touches. Capsaicin triggers a biochemical reaction that is both analgesic (pain-relieving) and anti-inflammatory. I should note here that rubbing raw peppers on your skin is not the preferred method of use though.
Capsaicin is classified as a neurotoxin. This sounds scary, but it is the dose that makes the poison. (Which is why botulinum toxin – also known as botox – is both lethal, and really useful for keeping people looking young.) Capsaicin works by reducing the concentration of substance P, a made-up sounding (but real!) compound produced by the body which delivers pain signals to the brain.
What is it good for?
Cayenne pepper is most commonly used in 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. 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 topical and oral capsaicin’s benefit in providing pain relief for various types of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis.
Other Potential Benefits: There are a few studies indicating that a diet rich in cayenne may be beneficial for other conditions. But there isn’t enough evidence yet to confirm that it can prevent or treat atherosclerosis, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver, hypertension, and stroke.
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 say cayenne has thermogenic properties that can speed up your metabolism. And a cayenne tablet can certainly induce sweat, but there is no evidence that this leads to weight loss.
As with anything you take, cayenne has side effects. 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 rarely causes nausea, sweating, flushing, diarrhea, and runny nose.