Cayenne pepper or Capsicum annuum var frutescens is originally from South America, in a region close to the Amazon River (Wichtl, 2004). However, it is currently cultivated all over the world, particularly in areas with tropical climates. Europe sources cayenne pepper from Africa, China, and India; and North America gets it from Southwest United Statesn (US) and Mexico (Wichtl, 2004).
1. All Peppers Belong to The Same Species
All species of pepper, from sweet peppers to chili peppers have the scientific name of Capsicum annuum, but there are individual varieties (thus the term “var”) that distinguishes the shape or other characteristic of the peppers. Capsicum annuum var frutescens has the highest content of capsaicin of all peppers, and capsaicin is the primary constituent that gives cayenne much of its healing qualities.
Cayenne is a stimulant herb, benefiting the entire circulatory system that belongs to the Solanaceae family. It is effective in treating arthritis, rheumatism, colds, coughs, and relieving pain, among others (Wichtl, 2004).
2. Cayenne Has Been Around For Several Millennia
According to the American Botanical Council (ABC), Native Americans have been using cayenne for 9,000 years as a source of food and medicine (2000). In Mexico, cultivation started 7,000 years ago, and the Aztecs were the first to refer to cayenne pepper as chili. Christopher Columbus brought it to Europe, and from Europe it was eventually transported to the rest of the world (ABC, 2000). The word cayenne comes from Greek meaning “to bite” (Petersen, 2014, p. 110).
3. Cayenne Is Used in Eastern and Western Traditions
Cayenne pepper has been used in Ayurvedic Medicine, where it is used in combination with garlic and liquid amber in paste or plaster form to stimulate and bring redness to the skin (ABC, 2000). It is also made into a paste, and combined with mustard seeds to reduce irritation in the skin. The dried fruit or tincture is used in Ayurveda to tone digestive organs and reduce flatulence (ABC, 2000).
Cayenne pepper has also been incorporated in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Traditional Medicines. In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is used as a diaphoretic and to stimulate digestion. In both Chinese and Japanese Medicine it is used topically for myalgia and frostbite (ABC, 2000).
Cayenne pepper is widely used worldwide. In Canada it is approved in over 100 over the counter applications; in the US it is Generally Recognized as Safe and the FDA has approved it for topical applications; and in Germany, the Commission E approved it as topical ointment (ABC, 2000; Petersen, 2014; Wichtl, 2004).
4. Capsaicin Has Many Health Benefits
As mentioned, capsaicin is an active constituent of cayenne pepper. Capsaicin is an alkaloid that has varied uses. It stimulates both heat and pain receptors, and acts as an analgesic. It also stimulates the release of endorphins, which have sedative effects on the body (Petersen, 2014).
Capsaicin enlarges blood vessels, and thus increases blood flow. As a result, more nutrients are delivered to cells and removal of waste is increased. Capsaicin also has antiplatelet effects (Petersen, 2014).
Capsaicin has been successfully used to treat diabetic neuropathy, postherpetic neuralgia, and rheumatoid conditions. It can be used to treat arthritis, rheumatism, pain relief, and strained muscles, when it is used in a topical application. It relieves pain from those suffering with fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, psoriasis, and neuralgias (Petersen, 2014).
The FDA has approved capsaicin in topical preparations. However, it is recommended that the cream, ointment, or external application be used for at least 14 days for its analgesic effects to take place. As a topical application, it can relieve the sensation of burning, erythema, pruritus, and help heal lesions in the skin (Petersen, 2014).
5. Studies on Cayenne are Controversial
Petersen (2014) highlighted controversies in some of the studies, particularly in the effect cayenne has on stomach ulcers. One study indicated that people consuming cayenne pepper in the form of “chili powder, chili sauce, curry powder, and other chili-containing foods” an average of 24 times in a month had a lower risk of developing stomach ulcers than did those consuming cayenne an average of eight times in a month (p. 115). However, another study showed that stomach ulcers were worsened by consumption of cayenne pepper. It is believed that small doses of cayenne improve stomach ulcers, and large doses of cayenne worsen them (Petersen, 2014).
Another study by Hwang et al. (2012) looked at the effect of boiling, steaming, stir-frying and roasting Capsicum annuum L. This was not specifically on cayenne pepper, but its relative the red pepper. It was interesting because it looked at the composition and antioxidant activity in raw versus cooked red peppers. It also considered the time the pepper was cooked for, and whether or not five, ten, or fifteen minutes affected the composition and constituents, particularly in its antioxidant action. Each cooking method changed the composition and antioxidant action of the pepper. The less cooked the pepper the more anti-oxidants it had. In addition, boiling and steaming reduced the anti-oxidant activity of the peppers. Thus, the ideal preparation for the most anti-oxidant effect was to eat peppers raw, or to stir-fry or roast them (Hwang et al., 2012). One may assume that a similar conclusion could be drawn about cayenne peppers, given that they are closely related.
In the digestive system, cayenne pepper or Capsicum annuum var frutescens has beneficial effects. It stimulates gastric juice production, and also peristalsis in the intestines. Overall it aids to stimulate digestion, assimilation, and elimination. There is also some evidence that cayenne pepper can help with irritable bowel syndrome and to improve swallowing reflexes (Petersen, 2014).
Additional studies have indicated cayenne can be used to prevent treat hair loss, especially when hair loss is due to stress (Hartfield, 2017).
6. Cayenne Can Be Administered in Many Ways
For its digestive effects, cayenne pepper can be consumed or administered as an infusion, powder, or tincture. It can be taken on its own or mixed with water. It can also be taken in capsule form. It can also be consumed as a food in the form of powder, flakes, sauce, or within spice mixes, such as curry (Petersen, 2014).
It is important to handle the herb appropriately, since the same constituent, namely capsaicin, that imparts the herb with its medicinal and stimulant quality can also cause irritation if it is used inappropriately. The herb can be consumed in food, but caution should be used because it has a hot and biting taste. Cayenne should also not be consumed in large amounts as its beneficial effect on the digestive system can go from being beneficial to harmful (Petersen, 2014).
The herb can be applied topically as an ointment, oil, or even within a poultice to relieve pain, arthritis, varicose veins and other discomforts. However, if the pure herb is applied to the skin it can cause itching or burning to the skin. Thus, using the herb as an oil or ointment is preferred. In addition, the person handling the herb should ensure they wash their hands thoroughly after handling cayenne. The best approach is to wash hands with vinegar. They should not touch any other part of their body, particularly the eyes, nose, and mouth, until they have washed their hands to avoid any further irritation. When applying the herb topically it should not be placed on skin that has any open wounds or areas with pus (Petersen, 2014).
Cayenne is safe when it is used appropriately. Excessive use can cause nausea and irritation. It may delay coagulation. It is known to interfere with the cytochrome P450 pathway, and thus may interfere with the action of some drugs that use that pathway to make their effect on the body. It should also be used with caution on those who have sensitive digestive systems (Petersen, 2014).
American Botanical Council. (2000). Cayenne pepper. Herbal Medicine. Retrieved on September 30, 2016 from http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbstream/achs/HerbalMedicine/index.html#param.wapp?sw_page=@@@@@@expEView%3Fufgp%3DCayennepepper.html
Hartfield, W. (2017). Cayenne pepper for hair growth. Hair Loss Revolution. Retrieved on September 6, 2017 from: https://www.hairlossrevolution.com/cayenne-pepper-for-hair-growth
Hwang, I. G., Shin, Y. J., Lee, S., Lee, J., & Yoo, S. M. (2012). Effects of different cooking methods on the antioxidant properties of red pepper (Capsicum annuum L.). Preventive Nutrition Food Science, 17(4), 286-292. doi:10.3746/pnf.2012.17.4.286.
Petersen, D. (2014). HERB 504 Advanced Materia Medica III. Portland, OR: American College of Healthcare Sciences.
Wichtl, M. (Ed.). (2004). Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals: A Handbook for the Practice on a Scientific Basis, 3rd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.