Hot peppers of one sort or another are grown all over the world and have become an important part of numerous cuisines, from Hunan and Szechwan Chinese to Thai and East Indian curries. It’s easy to forget that all peppers, from the mild bell pepper to the jalapenos so popular in Mexican or Southwest dishes, belong to the genus Capsicum and originated in South America.
That’s right. South American natives started using members of the genus capsicum as early as 5,000 B.C. They developed hundreds of varieties, which have been adopted into various cultures and styles of cooking to the point that it’s hard to conceive that before Columbus came to the new world, Europeans, Africans and Asians had never seen any variety of pepper.
The variety of pepper most commonly used as medicine is called the cayenne pepper. However, just about any “hot” pepper is going to have similar medicinal effects. The “heat” of the pepper is determined primarily by a substance called capsaicin. Mild peppers, like green bell peppers and paprika, have little or none. Other peppers, like African red bird cayenne, jalapenos and habaneras, have a lot. So, although we’re focusing on the benefits of the herb called capsicum, be aware that most hot peppers will provide similar benefits.
Capsicum’s main claim to fame is its ability to promote blood circulation. It revitalizes cells, arteries, veins, the stomach, intestines, the heart and most of all, the blood. It is well suited for people suffering from either high or low blood pressure as it not only enhances blood flow but also helps to equalize circulation. It can also be used as a preventive measure against heart attacks and strokes.
These benefits have been noted in people who eat a lot of hot peppers in their food. For example, many people from Thailand use red pepper as a seasoning and appetizer quite regularly, and research has shown that this may be associated with the low incidence of potentially fatal blood clotting diseases that occur in that country.
Capsicum also benefits digestion, although it’s effect on stimulating digestive secretions is short-lived compared to herbs like ginger and horseradish. It also has some mild expectorant qualities that benefit the respiratory system. People who eat red pepper have also been found to have less chronic obstructive lung disease than other people who eat a blander diet. It can also be used to remedy colds and flu in the early stages. One study found that patients receiving capsicum three times daily for three days found a marked reduction in nasal obstruction and nasal secretion.
Cayenne can also be used to reduce pain and inflammation. Research has found that our nervous system contains a neuropeptide called “Substance P”, that is associated in the regulation of mood disorders, anxiety, neurogenesis respiratory rhythm, neuro toxicity, nausea, emesis (vomiting) and pain. Capsaicin binds to Substance P receptors which reduces pain sensations. At the same time, it also reduces inflammation and promotes healing.
Capsicum-based creams or lotions are used topically for treating sore muscles, toothaches, cramps, stiffness, sprains and nerve pain associated with diabetes and fibromyalgia. Capsicum powder can also be sprinkled into bleeding wounds. It helps stop bleeding and promotes rapid healing. Made into a tea, it can even be used to relieve sore throat pain (although it will sting at first).
Capsicum is available from NSP in capsule and extract form. It is also an ingredient in numerous formulas as it is frequently used as a catalyst to make other herbs work faster.