Health – Cayenne, Healing Herb of Choice

Hold it right there!! Don’t burn this magazine, (or this page of the magazine). Read the rest of the paragraph, and then the rest of the article. Cayenne (in the Solanaceae family) is not related to black pepper (Piper nigrum). Sometimes also referred to as chili peppers, cayenne and others in this family are closely related to tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants, which are also in the Solanaceae family.

Cayenne pepper is just one variety of Capsicum annuum, and though health food stores sell “cayenne” powder, most is from other varieties of small peppers. However, that fact should not be seen as misleading, as there is little difference in the chemical composition of the different varieties of Capsicum annuum. The potent burning in the pepper is caused by the alkaloid capsaicin. Other key constituents of cayenne include carotenoids, flavonoids, and volatile oil. However, capsicum is the constituent most responsible for the herbal benefits. Cayenne is also laden with vitamins A, C, and E, making it a natural anti-oxidant.

When speaking of cayenne as a “healing herb,” it is not being referred to in its cooked or raw fruit form, but typically in its dried, uncooked and usually powdered form. Used in its cooked or raw form, it can be a contributor to ulcers, as well as an irritant to the digestive tract. Other useful forms of cayenne include ointment, liniment and oil.

As you read the remaining part of the article, it is crucial to note that cayenne does not and should not take the place of expert knowledge, whether in the form of an ER visit, say, in the instance of a heart attack or venomous bite, or regular visits to your doctor, as in the case of diabetes. Nor are the suggestions meant as a “fix-all” for poor diet, exercise, or other health habits. The following information is to provide possible additions/alternatives to usual health care. Good health is a combination of caring for one’s body in numerous and balanced ways.

The most important role cayenne plays is in increasing circulation. Almost every other benefit we derive from cayenne stems from increased circulation.1 What are some of the benefits cayenne gives internally? First and foremost, of course, is the role cayenne plays in aiding healthy circulation. It has the ability to prevent internal blood clots, assist in easing varicose veins, and lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.1 For diabetics, cayenne is effective in lowering blood sugar levels,1 provides relief from the pain of diabetic neuropathy, and stimulates circulation in the limbs.2 For those of us whose issues are less severe, cayenne is recommended as a general “pick-me-up” herb,4 a powerful tonic for stomach upsets and colds,1, 2 , 3 and breaking a fever.2, 3 If you do not like the speed of your metabolism, apply some heat. It will increase not only your energy level, but boost your metabolism as well.2 Two other very important uses for cayenne occur in emergency situations. Cayenne under the tongue is beneficial for immediate treatment for heart attack1 and subduing the effects of shock.1 People who suffer from spider bites and bee stings can take cayenne powder to counter the effects of the poisons.1 The list could actually go on, but we must visit the benefits of, remarkably, external uses as well.

In talking of internal uses, we learned that cayenne can increase circulation. Well, it also increases circulation externally, being known as a rubefacient.3 Do you get cold hands or feet? Simply make a mixture of cayenne and cornstarch and sprinkle in shoes, socks or mittens,1, 2 being careful NOT to be too liberal. If you have sustained a sprain or bruise, or suffer from an “itis” such as arthritis, apply a cayenne liniment, oil, or ointment.1, 2 Diseases of the skin, as well as cuts, and scrapes, including ones with swelling and infection, often show remarkable response to cayenne treatments.2 A coating of cayenne stops bleeding on open wounds quickly.1, 2 Cayenne creams or ointments can also be applied topically to aid in the reduction of the pain associated with diabetic neuropathy.2 Fresh pepper juice or poultices can be applied immediately to all kinds of insect bites, and in some locales they are used to extract the venom of snake bites.2 Headaches are capable of being debilitating, especially migraines. Try placing a little powder on the end of a toothpick and inhaling. In addition, a little cayenne cream can be applied onto particularly painful areas around the head.2

In some ways, it seems incredible that one substance could be effective in so many different ways, yet when you consider the involvement of circulation in the health of the body, it should be no surprise that cayenne has such a broad application.

Though cayenne is not a drug, there are some counter indications and cautions involved with its use. The first caution, though not in any way dangerous, can prevent extreme discomfort. Do not breathe or inhale very hot or large quantities of cayenne pepper. It is also a wise idea to keep cayenne in any form away from the eyes, so care should be taken when applying creams, ointments, etc., and making sure hands are washed well after application. Hypoglycemics should not take cayenne internally because it can further lower blood sugar levels.1 When using cayenne externally, begin with small concentrations and build to higher or hotter concentrations, as sensitive skin can be burned with too strong a mixture. This is also true when taking it internally. Begin with small amounts and work up. Excessive ingestion of cayenne can cause gastroenteritis and liver damage. Remember, as with anything, balance is the key. During pregnancy or lactation, cayenne should be avoided. Capsules have been known to break before reaching the stomach, causing intense discomfort. At times, the burning sensation is noted in the stomach after ingesting cayenne; therefore, it is best to take it with food or drink of some kind. Most of all, remember, when it comes to cayenne, a little goes a long way.

Having explored the wonders of this plant, where can it or the fruits thereof be obtained? Farmers’ markets are a good resource, in addition to the local store. Health food stores are a good source for the ointment or capsule forms, but one other option worthy of consideration is growing your own. Cayenne loves hot climates, but also does very well in colder places during summer months and even indoors year round. Cayenne needs moist, well-fertilized soil, neutral to slightly acidic. If grown outside in cooler climates over summer months, it can tolerate a light frost in the fall. Once the fruit completely ripens, cut the peppers off the plant, but leave a minimum of ½ inch of the stem in place on the pepper. This fruit can then be placed right on screens to be dried, or hung up in a warm, dry place out of direct sunlight. Once dried, they can be stored whole or ground, using a blender or food processor. (Make sure you let the dust settle after grinding to avoid inhalation or contact with sensitive eye membranes.) There are around 20 to 30 species of Capsicum, five of which are domesticated, with many types within each species. So break out your spade and add some color and interest to your world.

Having covered some of the most common uses for cayenne, it is my hope that this article will “spice up” your interest in this wonderful, versatile veggie, and cause you to seek out your own unique applications and uses for this handy herb.

  1. Laurel Dewey, The Humorous Herbalist, Safe Goods Publishing, East Canaan, CT, 1996.
  2. Dave Dewitt, Melissa T. Stock, Kellye Hunter, The Healing Powers of Peppers, Three Rivers Press, New York, NY, 1998.
  3. Andrew Chevallier, The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants, DK Publishing, New York, NY, 1996.
  4. Jerry Baker, Jerry Baker’s Herbal Pharmacy, American Master Products, Inc., Pownal, VT, 2000.