Cayenne - A Healthy Spice!
Cayenne: The Capsicum genus originated in the
New World but has been adopted into cuisines around the globe. It
contains as many as five species, with an untold number of variants, giving
rise not only to the familiar green bell pepper, but also to paprika and a wide
range of "hot peppers." The flavors of these fruits have been much
appreciated as spices for a very long time. Archaeologists have found remains
of chilies in Mexican sites dating to 7000 B.C., and hot peppers played an
important role in Aztec and Maya mythology. The spiciness of edible
peppers varies dramatically. The active ingredient in hot peppers, capsaicin,
is so strong that people can detect it at a concentration as low as just one
part in eleven million.
Most people have no trouble
telling a mild pepper from a torrid one, but it was the medicinal use of
cayenne that led to a way to compare them consistently.
When capsaicin is applied to
the skin, it provokes a feeling of warmth and stimulates circulation in the
area. As a consequence, these fruits are popular ingredients in liniments or
rubs for arthritis.
Back in 1912 Wilbur Scoville,
a pharmacologist working for Parke Davis, needed to standardize the pepper
extract used to make Heet Liniment. He started with an organoleptic scale that
required a panel of tasters to measure pepper hotness. Using Scoville's
scale, the capsaicin in a capsicum fruit is currently determined by high-tech
machines rather than sensitive palates. The "hotness" of peppers can
range from 3,000 to 5,000 Scoville units for a jalapeño to about 50,000
Scoville units for a cayenne pepper. The very hottest, the habañeros,
weigh in at 200,000 to 300,000 Scoville units.
The part of the plant used
medicinally is the fruit. To flavor food, it may be used fresh or dried, but in
herbal products it is generally dried. Capsicum peppers are rich in
nutrients, especially vitamin C and a range of carotenes. Not only
beta-carotene (which is in abundant supply), but also such compounds as lutein,
zeaxanthin, and others are found in these fruits. But the ingredient that
is responsible for most of the medicinal effects of cayenne is capsaicin, a
pungent phenolic compound structurally similar to eugenol, a pain-relieving
compound found in cloves and some other spices.
The principal use of both
cayenne and of capsaicin derived from it is in topical ointments or creams.
Such rubs have long been used to alleviate joint pain due to arthritis or the
pain of muscle spasms. When applied to the skin, capsicum results in a
feeling of warmth, which may in some people become a perception of heat or even
of burning. With repeated applications, the capsaicin depletes substance
P from nerves in the skin. Because substance P is apparently crucial to the
transmission of pain sensation, its depletion results in diminished pain.
This action led to the development of over-the-counter creams containing 0.025
percent capsaicin to treat postherpetic neuralgia, diabetic , and trigeminal
neuralgia. A higher-potency product, Zostrix-HP, with three times as much
capsaicin, is also available. Other painful conditions such as phantom
limb syndrome, postmastectomy pain, and reflex sympathetic dystrophy are being
studied to see if capsaicin can be helpful.
Preliminary research suggests
that capsaicin may be helpful for the treatment of cluster headache, and a
nasal spray has been tested at Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center for the
treatment of chronic runny nose.
Traditionally, cayenne was
recommended to stimulate the appetite and aid digestion. Although people
often think of chili peppers as irritating to the digestive tract, studies in
rats have actually shown that pretreatment of the stomach lining with capsaicin
solution (similar to Tabasco sauce) prevented damage from subsequent aspirin
exposure. It also prevented damage due to alcohol; this research was
carried out in rats, and its applicability to humans is uncertain. Clinicians
have established, however, that capsicum ingestion does not slow the healing of
ulcers. Preliminary studies suggest that chili peppers may help lower
cholesterol or slow blood clotting. Further research is needed for confirmation
of these uses.
Topical use of capsaicin in
over-the-counter or herbal preparations requires repeated applications. Varro
E. Tyler suggests four or five applications daily over a period of four
weeks. At least three days of applications are needed to determine the
effect. There are no time limits on topical use of cayenne preparations unless
you develop a reaction. Semi-liquid preparations contain 0.02 to 0.05
percent capsaicin; liquids contain 0.005 to 0.01 percent capsaicin; and
poultices may contain 10 to 40 g capsaicin and related compounds per square
centimeter. Tolerance of cayenne for internal use varies with the individual.
In capsules, the usually recommended dose ranges from 30 to 120 mg three times
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