Sometimes, you want to add a bit of spice to your life. One way is to try cayenne pepper, a red, hot little spice with origins in South and Central America, the West Indies and Mexico. Dried and powdered, it produces a powerful heat that can enhance a plethora of foods – in the right amounts! But better than that, an active ingredient called capsaicin gives cayenne and other hot peppers their intensity and is also a powerful pain reliever.
Native Americans understood both the culinary and medicinal potency of this ingredient around 9,000 years ago. Cajun and Creole cooks, as well as those in Italy, Mexico and Asia, use it to make their dishes a little – or a lot – spicier, while Korean, Japanese and Chinese healers and Indian Ayurvedic traditions have relied on this ingredient for a number of cures.
One burning question many have asked is the difference between cayenne pepper and paprika, since both spices look remarkably the same. One taste of each, however, will answer that question very quickly, as cayenne is ground from one of the hottest of dried hot peppers, while paprika is from dried, ground and sometimes smoked red bell peppers, which exude a mild sweetness rather than heat. Jalapeno peppers, tabasco peppers and hot cherry peppers are remarkably similar to cayennes, with slightly varying degrees of heat.
You may find them at your local farmers’ market, or you can grow cayenne peppers in your own garden, just like jalapenos or other peppers. They appear long, slender and brilliant red among dark green, bushy plants.
One method for drying fully ripened cayenne peppers is to stack as many as you’d like on sturdy thread using a standard needle inserted right under the stem. Hang them in a dry area for several weeks, or however long it takes for their moisture to completely dissipate, and they turn dark red and crinkly.
When they’re completely dry, cayenne peppers (or any other kind) can be placed in an air-tight jar or baggies for several months. Grind them in your food processor or even coffee grinder to make either red pepper flakes or a little longer so they become a fine powder. Use immediately or store in a spice jar with a tight lid.
Cayenne pepper can transform fish tacos, condiments, creamy or tomato-ey dishes, teas, smoothies and meat glazes. Even dark chocolate has been made tastier with a little sprinkle of this spice with a kick. Start small, though; you want the flavor to be pleasing, not painful!
Health Benefits of Cayenne
Cancer Treatment Centers of America1 listed 11 foods with cancer-fighting properties, and placed cayenne pepper near the top. There are reasons for that.
A single teaspoon of cayenne pepper imparts 15 percent of the daily recommended value in vitamin A (good for fighting infection, as well as to maintain healthy mucous membranes, from your lungs to your urinary tract), and 3 percent of the vitamin E (aka alpha tocopherol). Red peppers also tend to have a higher carotenoid content – especially lycopene and astaxanthin, the latter arguably being the most powerful antioxidant in nature!
Cayenne peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C, which provides collagen synthesis to retain healthy skin, blood vessels, bones and organs, and helps boost your immunity. Vitamin K maintains healthy blood flow. Cayenne is also a good source of vitamin B6, manganese, niacin, riboflavin, magnesium and iron, as well as potassium, which helps control your heart rate and blood pressure.
One organic food magazine asserts that every naturopath and holistic health advisor should include cayenne in their medicinal wares. Here’s why:
“While cayenne is amazing by itself, when it is combined with another herb, the results are worth more than the sum of its parts. Capsaicin helps every other herb function better because it stimulates the circulation of blood, which helps get the beneficial bio-chemicals and nutrition to the cells.
Cayenne is an extremely effective treatment for heart and blood circulation problems, palpitations and cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heart beat). It’s a miracle for congestive heart failure and is beneficial for someone who has any type of circulatory problems, such as high or low blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, high triglycerides, and even varicose veins.”2
An impressive number of other health benefits can be gleaned by ingesting careful amounts of cayenne pepper, especially in regard to capsaicin for pain relief. In fact, capsaicin is now widely-known in medical circles as a useful treatment, even for painful, debilitating arthritis.
Studies also indicate that cayenne pepper:
- Clears congestion – It may come as no surprise that the heat from cayenne peppers can help loosen up phlegm and mucus in your lungs and nasal passages so you can get rid of it.
- Reduces headache pain - The capsaicin in cayenne peppers is thought to bring about headache relief by depleting Substance P, a neurotransmitter that helps send pain signals.
- Fights inflammation – Capsaicin is currently being studied for its ability to treat painful sensory nerve disorders such as arthritis and psoriasis. Animals fed foods containing this substance were also found to benefit by easing swelling and pain from arthritis.
- Helps stop the spread of prostate cancer – A study at the Los Angeles School of Medicine revealed that capsaicin has the power to slow the growth of prostate cancer cells and even destroy them.
- Lowers Type 2 diabetes risk – Ingesting chili peppers has been found to lower the amount of insulin needed to lower your blood sugar after a meal. Further, the more often hot pepper is included in your meals, the less insulin is required.
- Aids in weight loss – Science shows that cayenne pepper contains heat-producing compounds that create a phenomenon known as thermogenesis, which consumes oxygen in your body and can result in weight loss.
All this said, it is possible to eat too many hot peppers. While all that heat provides the unexpected benefits of killing off harmful stomach bacteria and stimulating the secretion of juices to protect your stomach lining, studies also confirm that eating an excessive amount of spicy foods like cayenne is associated with stomach cancer.
Of course, no one with sense would down an ounce of cayenne pepper at one time, but in examining that amount for its nutritional attributes, you’ll get a good idea of what even a tiny bit sprinkled on your cottage cheese might do for you.
Cayenne Pepper Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 1 ounce (28 grams), raw
|Calories from Fat
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
It’s been suggested that because cayenne peppers belong to the Solanaceae or nightshade family of plants, along with all other peppers, eggplant, potatoes and tomatoes, they may contain alkaloids that can exacerbate joint pain, arthritis or gout. There are no clinical studies proving this, however. In fact, multiple studies indicate just the opposite.
Studies Done on Cayenne
Due to the powerful pain-relieving properties in capsaicin, research has revealed a long list of maladies it has helped to alleviate, which includes low back pain, pain caused by damaged nerves in the feet or legs due to diabetes (peripheral neuropathy), osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis, pain from fibromyalgia, pain after surgery, including amputation or mastectomy, and nerve pain from shingles.3
Studied extensively for its biological effects, capsaicin has been found to be heart-protective, anti-inflammatory and to have beneficial effects on the gastrointestinal system, among other things. Evidence supports its use for pain relief, cancer prevention, inflammation, diabetes, healing gastric ulcers, preventing gallstones and aiding weight loss.4
A comprehensive, 33-study review explored capsaicin’s effectiveness in pain relief, concluding that capsaicin worked better than a placebo for cluster headaches.5
Healthy Cayenne Recipe:
Spicy Chicken-Peanut Stir Fry
|¼ cup chicken broth
||2 Tbsp. Bragg’s Liquid Amino
||1Tbsp. arrowroot powder
|1 Tbsp. powdered stevia
||¾-1 tsp. cayenne pepper
||1 Tbsp. white vinegar
Stir fry ingredients:
|1 lb. skinless, boneless chicken thighs cut into ¾-inch pieces
||2Tbsp. coconut oil
||1 clove garlic
|1 red bell pepper cut into ¾-inch pieces
||1/3 cup dry roasted peanuts
||2 green onions, sliced
- Whisk chicken broth, Bragg’s Liquid Amino, arrowroot powder, stevia, vinegar and cayenne pepper in a bowl until smooth.
- Heat the coconut oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the chicken and garlic until the chicken is no longer pink in the center – 5 to 10 minutes. Add the red bell pepper and sauté for 1 minute.
- Stir the sauce into the chicken mixture and cook until it’s thickened – about a minute. Stir in the peanuts and garnish with green onions.
- Serve over brown rice, pasta, or all by itself.
Recipe adapted from Allrecipes.com
Cayenne Fun Facts
Developed in 1912, the Scoville Heat Scale was devised to rank various peppers according to their heat. The test involved a panel of taste testers willing to subject themselves to a controlled amount of capsaicin from specific peppers to be dropped onto their tongues. The number of drops of sugar water it took to dilute the heat constituted SHUs, or Scoville heat units. Bell peppers weren’t hot enough to require sugar water, so they rated zero. Peppers used to make pepper spray, however, called for millions of drops of sugar water. Cayenne pepper tipped the scale at 30,000 to 50,000 SHU. Today, SHUs are measured much more scientifically.
Dried and powdered, cayenne pepper lends an astonishing heat to many types of foods, so starting with a small amount is definitely recommended! Paprika, although it looks very similar, is ground from red bell peppers, so it doesn’t pack the same spicy punch. Traditional medicine throughout Mexico as well as Central and South America centuries ago took advantage of the healing power of this spice for pain relief, heart trouble and high blood sugar. Today’s research corroborates those uses, but adds that cayenne is also useful for fighting inflammation, preventing cancer, inducing weight loss and preventing stomach ulcers.