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Cayenne, also called capsicum annuum or merely red pepper, is a spice that has been in use in food for perhaps as long as nine millennia. Native to the Americas, this spice and food source is not only a great seasoning, but has been part of herbal remedies for thousands of years. A growing body of Western medical evidence suggests that herbalists of the past were not mistaken in prescribing cayenne to treat a variety of conditions, and that there may be specific health properties in red pepper.
Like many hot peppers, cayenne contains capsaicin, a chemical shown to relieve pain, when applied topically. You can apply capsaicin to the skin in ointment or lotion form for a variety of different painful conditions. It’s been shown to be effective in the treatment of post-herpetic neuralgia (shingles), rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, peripheral neuropathy, post surgical pain, and pain in the lower back.
While cayenne may be effective in topical form for these conditions, it should not be applied to broken skin. It can act as a skin irritant and make skin conditions worsen. Don’t use red pepper topicals, for instance, while you still have an outbreak of shingles. Instead, wait until after the skin heals. Some herbalists claim that red pepper can reduce itching, but this claim lacks a significant body of evidence, and traditional medicine has found that instead it may irritate skin that is broken.
However, if you have psoriasis with unbroken skin, red pepper topicals can help reduce itchiness and pain or swelling common with this condition. If you find capsaicin cream an irritant instead of being helpful, don’t simply wash it off with water. Instead use a vinegar water solution, which assists in breaking down the cream with greater ease.
Another aspect of cayenne that is being studied is its potential weight loss benefits. It is known that red pepper temporarily raises body temperature. This might speed metabolism and help the body consume more calories. Unless you have any of the contraindicated listed conditions or take any of the medications listed below, you can certainly add red pepper to food to try to boost metabolism, though it’s not a substitute for good diet and regular exercise.
There are also claims that cayenne may be beneficial in stopping heart attacks. The evidence for this is primarily anecdotal and is being investigated by the traditional medical community. Red pepper has been a homeopathic remedy for heartburn, stomachaches, ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome. Medical testing for this property has shown that some people have increased pain while taking red pepper orally, and may actually worsen ulcers or reflux.
There are certain medications/conditions that might make the use of cayenne dangerous or inappropriate. Red pepper can cause negative side effects for people on different heart medications, and you should avoid its use, both topically and orally if you take aspirin, ACE inhibitors, or blood thinners. It will also prompt an increase in stomach acid and is not recommended if you have gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD) or take anti-acid medications. The strongest recommendation against using red pepper in any form is if you take the asthma medicine theophylline. It tends to increase absorption of this medication and can create theophylline toxicity.
Women who are pregnant, especially in danger of preterm labor may want to avoid red pepper since some studies suggest it might induce pre-term labor. On the other hand, if you’re past your due date, taking capsaicin may help start labor and may be safe. Capsaicin does pass into breast milk, and if you are a nursing mother you should discuss risk versus benefits of taking cayenne with your physician. The minimal amounts used in food, except if you have a stomach condition or are on blood thinners generally are safe for consumption
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