In September and October, it’s hard to miss the roadside stands filled with vegetables from the autumn harvest. The stands seem particularly festive in the Southwestern United States, adorned as they are with ristras, bunches of fresh red peppers drying in the crisp air. While ristras have become a popular decoration to hang on a front porch anywhere, their beauty shouldn’t overshadow the health benefits contained in their individual fruits.
A pepper by any name
Peppers are known by the botanical name Capsicum.
The Capsicum genus contains many familiar species, including
cayenne, chili, aji, hot pepper, jalapeno, anaheim, piquin, ancho,
red bell, green bell, pimento, cherry, and paprika, all of which
belong to C. annuum; tabasco, which belongs to C.
frutescens; and habanero, to C. chinense. The familiar
spice we call black pepper (Piper nigrum) belongs to a d
ifferent family of plants altogether.
The ripe, dried fruits of pungent capsicums have been used medicinally for centuries, and many folk uses have been borne out by modern scientific research. Eating hot peppers regularly can improve circulation, ease flatulence, relieve indigestion, strengthen the heart and nervous system, increase appetite, and promote sweating. Because hot peppers stimulate the circulatory system, digestive secretions, and perspiration, many herbalists recommend them to treat a cold or the flu, usually as a dried powder of the fruit in capsule form.
Externally, capsicums are used in ointments to treat sore joints, stiff muscles, and chilblains. Some people even put small quantities of dried, powdered cayenne into a plastic or cloth bag, seal it tightly, and place it next to cold feet to warm them.
How peppers help
Capsicums’ nutritional value comes from their high content of vitamins C and E and carotenes, antioxidants that help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease and defend against toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, among other benefits.
Their medicinal value comes from the alkaloid capsaicin, which gives hot peppers their pungency (the hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains). Capsaicin is believed to deplete the body’s pain messenger, called substance P, a protein that transmits pain impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain. In clinical trials, topical creams containing .025 to .075 percent capsaicin have eased pain associated with shingles, postmastectomy and postamputation pain syndrome, diabetic neuropathy, and cluster headaches. However, it takes several days of applying the cream before the pain-reducing effect begins.
Internally, capsaicin has been proven to help ease a variety of gastrointestinal conditions by stimulating the flow of digestive juices to help the stomach break down carbohydrates; promoting sweating (which some advocate as a way to help rid the body of impurities such as those associated with a cold or the flu); and containing antibacterial properties that correct diarrhea.
Capsicums were eaten by the Indians of South and Central
America as early as 7000 B.C. After Columbus returned from his
explorations, they were introduced to Europe and other parts of
the world, and cultivation of the plant began in Spain and Portugal
in the early sixteenth century. Peppers were popularized in North America by self-styled physician Samuel Thomson (1769 – 1843), who followed Native American practices and used cayenne as a key ingredient in his materia medica. The eclectic physicians of the nineteenth century used capsicums to treat arthritis, muscular aches, colds, and diarrhea. Today, about 2.5 million acres of red peppers are grown annually, and one-quarter of the world population uses it daily, primarily for culinary purposes.
Large quantities of hot peppers can severely irritate the esophagus, stomach, and perhaps the kidneys, so anyone with gastrointestinal or kidney disorders should avoid overeating peppers or taking high doses of capsicum powder. Pregnant women should avoid powder made from the stems and leaves of red peppers, as they are known to cause uterine contractions. Reports a few years ago linking capsaicin to stomach cancer or ulcers have since been discounted. Traces of capsaicin on your hands can burn if it gets in your eyes or touches other sensitive areas, so wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling peppers or the powder; a vinegar rinse is often recommended to wash away pepper residue.
In Canada and Great Britain, hot pepper products are approved as over-the-counter drugs. Hot pepper and hot pepper products are generally recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which recently approved an over-the-counter cream containing .075 capsaicin in a cream base. The cream’s desensitizing action is limited to the area of application.
If you want to boost your capsicum intake but don’t like
hot peppers, dried powders and capsules are available in health-food
stores. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you are seeking
relief from a cold, some herbalists recommend taking one capsule containing the dried powder four times a day. Talk with your health-care provider about whether capsaicin is right for you and your particular condition.