Chili Pepper: Herbal Fire for Digestion and Circulation

chili pepper cayenne balm

Capsicum species or (C. annuum, C. baccatum, C. chinese, C. frutescens, C. pubesence) – Pepper family
a.k.a.: chilli, chille, red pepper, hot pepper, pepper plant, cayenne, paprika

Chili pepper commands a fiercely loyal band of fans who rally around this herb unlike any other. Some call them Pepper Heads. Some call them Chili Heads. Some proudly refer to themselves as Hot Heads. For herbalists, the excitement stems less from chili pepper’s use in the culinary arts than from the potent medicinal effect chili has. With the first bite, chili pepper’s heat is impossible to ignore.

Chili pepper is native to the Americas and has been used as medicine for over 9,000 years. Its use as a warming herb was obviously the first step. With consistent use, the secret to its mysteries began to unfold. Chili pepper was valuable as a catalyst for the healing properties of other herbs, too. When Christopher Columbus stumbled onto the Caribbean Islands during his second voyage to the Americas in 1493, his physician recognized the medicinal potential for this plant and brought it back to Spain for cultivation and experimentation.

For a fiery herb, it’s probably no surprise that chili pepper spread throughout the world like wildfire. It’s difficult to imagine Thai food or Indian food without a sprinkling of chili pepper. New varieties of peppers are released every year, making it hard for botanists to keep up on the changes.

Even the research is explosive. In 2015, the British Medical Journal (The BMJ), published a massive study of over 500,000 people from China that concluded regular consumption of chili peppers lowered morbidity rate by 14 percent. The speculation is chilies stimulate and support many different body systems all the way down to the cellular level, contributing to increased longevity. The scientific community is racing to understand how one little plant can have such a marked impact on life expectancy. The ramifications are vast.

Medicinal Properties

Habanero ChiliesChili peppers are hot. There’s no doubt about it. All that heat is due to one of chili’s two primary alkaloids, capsaicin, or rather capsaicin’s family the Capsaicinoids. The capsaicinoid family is comprised of capsaicin (which contributes to 69 percent of chili’s heat factor), dihydrocapsaicin (which contributes to 22 percent of chili’s heat factor), nordihydrocapsaicin (which contributes to 7 percent of chili’s heat factor), homocapsaaicin (which contributes to 1 percent of chili’s heat factor), and homodihydrocapsaicin (which contributes to 1 percent of chili’s heat factor). For the most part, scientists and the rest of us tend to refer to the whole family as capsaicin since capsaicin is part of each compound’s name. That can make scientific papers a trifle confusing, but for our purposes it simplifies communication considerably.

Capsaicin spreads through out the chili pod from the placental tissue that holds the seeds, the white bit that many recipes recommend you remove with the seeds. The riper the chili, the more capsaicin that will have spread into the fleshy outer wall of the chili pepper. Capsaicin is what most scientists would refer to as the active ingredient. It’s the constituent drug manufacturers and herbalists alike looks for when preparing many over-the-counter arthritis and sore muscle creams.

The fiery heat of capsaicin increases circulation while reducing inflammation. It’s also how the chili pepper plant ensures its own survival. Most mammals don’t like that burning sensation and won’t eat of the chili pepper plant more than once. Humans, like birds, overcome the burn, however. Considering how far chilies have spread through their association with both species, it seems the burn has indeed ensured the chili pepper’s survival.

In addition to capsaicin, chili peppers contain the alkaloid solanine along with malic acid and oxalic acid. The quantities of these substances in each chili pepper is quite small. Like cloves, chilies have eugenol. This accounts for the numbing effect of both chili pepper and clove. Clove oil is used to numb areas in the mouth affected by tooth infections by dentists who are taking advantage of the eugenol’s analgesic action. Peppers have an advantage of serving as an antiseptic and analgesic for those who are heat tolerant. Add a little bit of cayenne or red chili powder to tooth polishes to improve dental hygiene. Use a very small amount as even 1 part of capsaicin per 11 million parts of base product are detectable.

Chili is very nutritious even in small amounts. It holds a complement of vitamins A and C, calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), and niacin (B3), and a variety of antioxidants. Even one teaspoon of cayenne powder stirred into a bowl of chili or added to salsa increases the amount of vitamin A to 748,98 IU (15% DV). See the nutritional data listed later in this folio for more information on chili pepper’s nutritional value.

Chili peppers are added to many herbal formulas in small amounts as a catalyst for speeding delivery of the properties of other herbs into the digestive and circulatory system. Capsaicin, even in trace amounts, improves blood flow and enhances the actions of other herbs throughout the body. Internally, chili peppers help reduce inflammation in the digestive tract and improve the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and medicines alike. Chili pepper applied topically or externally will increase blood flow to the area where they were applied.

On the cellular level, capsaicin acts as a key (a ligand) to open or close ion channels in the body’s membranes to allow ions in electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, chloride or calcium to enter a cell. There are ligand gated ion channels on nuerotransmittors that control a variety of chemical exchanges, such as GABA, which promote healing. Opening the ion channels helps decrease the release of glutamate, noroephrine and Substance P, which are responsible for pain signals to the brain. Research shows that capsaicin used in conjunction with some prescription drugs or with food increases its utility in the body as it serves as a ligand for these purposes.

Nutritionally, chili peppers have been used to help improve vision and build and repair tissues and bones. Vitamin C is one of chili’s best kept secrets. A single chili pepper can have as much as eight times the amount of a similarly sized portion of citrus fruit. That’s a lot of vitamin C, but you’ll only find that much in green chilis, preferably fresh and green. Vitamin C doesn’t preserve well. As the chili pepper ripens its vitamin C content reduces considerably. To get your day’s worth of vitamin C in one fell swoop, you’ll want to consume about an ounce of fresh, green chili pepper…and yes, those sweet bell peppers will do you just fine if vitamin C is what you’re after.

Chili’s vitamin A content increases considerably as the pepper ripens. Plus, vitamin A is not lost when chilies are preserved. For the highest vitamin A boost, use dried, fresh, frozen, or canned chilies that are fully ripe. You could conceivably get your whole day’s worth of vitamin A in just a teaspoon of red chili sauce.

Chili flower essence is helpful to those who are stuck or feeling stagnant and need a spark to get them moving again. This stuck feeling can be complacency or it can be the feeling of being stuck in pattern of procrastination or resistance to change. Cayenne flower essence can help re-kindle the inner fire, making it easier to remain awake and take action in life be it emotionally, spiritually, or physically.

Cayenne pepper essential oil is available. It’s generally CO2 extracted and is used primarily in formulas for warming and healing sore muscle tissues. It’s more common to find capsaicin in an oleoresin form. This is intensely condensed chili pepper and should be handled with extreme caution. Use gloves, eye protection, and face protection when handling capsaicin in either form.

Conditions Best Helped by Chili Pepper

Banana Chili PeppersHerbalists from the middle ages, like Nicholas Culpepper, reference using chili peppers to stop heart attack and improve the circulation. In more recent years, several studies as well as modern case studies and anecdotal evidence suggest there may be something to it.

Chili peppers have been shown to help improve circulation by balancing it, increasing the flow through areas that are low and decreasing the flow through areas that are high. For people with high or low blood pressure or a history of stroke or heart disease, chilis can be good preventative medicine. Typically, people take cayenne or red pepper capsules 1 to 3 times a day as a preventative.

Chili peppers may help stop a crisis in-progress. We have historical data to suggest a goodly dose of chili powder swallowed amidst heart attack can stop the crisis, but we don’t currently have scientific studies to support that. What we do know is chilies can assist the body in healing afterward. Heart surgery patients who experience low circulation, lack of energy, and listlessness are strengthened and invigorated by a daily dose of cayenne pepper in capsule form.

Externally, chilies can help ease pain and other symptoms associated with the circulatory system including Raynaud’s disease, a condition in which the blood vessels contract in the cold preventing the blood from circulating properly. Chili pepper’s balancing of the circulatory system helps blood vessels return to a state of healthy being, even after severe trauma such as with frostbite. Typically, cayenne capsules are take internally while capsaicin or chili pepper cream is used externally on the affected area.

Topically, chili powder, especially cayenne powder, has been used to stop bleeding, prevent infection, and reduce pain associated with wounds, cuts, scrapes, rashes, and similar conditions. Chili powder may sound like a painful topical for an already traumatized area, but chili’s capsaicin acts quickly to drain the nerves of the compounds that create the sensation of pain. At the same time, chili powder signals the blood to clot and reduce excess circulation, causing the wound to stop bleeding quickly. Plus, chili’s anti-microbial properties help ensure the wounds stays clean and cleared of infection. Do not place chili powder anywhere near sensitive mucus membranes such as the eyes or the nose.

cayenepepper-1Chili powder can help reduce the pain of shingles sores much as it eases the pain of a fresh cut or scrape. Those who are suffering from shingles can apply a small amount of chili pepper salve or a capsaicin cream to the shingles lesions to gain some relief. Psoriasis outbreaks are similarly helped by an application of chili pepper topically.

Topical chili pepper medicines can penetrate deep into the tissues, making them a natural for the pain of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, back problems, and even simple muscle or joint pain caused by minor injury or overwork. For chronic conditions, apply chili pepper topically one to two times per day. Repeated application will allow the affect to build, thus offering more relief than shortly after the first application.

Chilies help pains associated with operation, amputation, and similar traumas. Typically, topical application is used with cayenne capsules. Internally, cayenne or red chili powder helps boost circulation and encourage tissue regeneration. Topically, chili pepper helps suppress pain and stimulate healing. Patients with phantom limb pain or postmasectomy syndrome are especially helped by chili pepper medicines.

Neuropathy, be it from nerve damage due to accident or injury or related to another disease or condition such as diabetes or Tribernial neuralgia, can be helped by daily application of topical chili pepper, too. Often, these conditions will call for a combination of cayenne capsules and topical chili pepper medicine. Other herbs are often added to help with inflammation and pain control such as turmeric, ginger, menthol, and Saint. John’s wort.

Internally, chilies help more than the heart and circulatory system. They’re surprisingly good for the digestive tract. They help fire up the digestive juices, helping especially those who have low stomach acid or are eating particularly fatty foods to better absorb nutrients without pain or discomfort. Cases of excessive gas, diarrhea, and constipation are all helped by chili peppers as are cases of hemorrhoids. Ulcers, too, are healed and prevented with regular chili consumption. You can choose to consume chili peppers in your food or take capsules along with meals to aid in digestion or improve digestive conditions.

A daily dose of chili peppers can help boost your immune system. Studies show the immune system is activated by chili peppers, increasing your body’s readiness without overstimulating it. That’s good news for preventing or getting through colds, flus, and similar viruses. It’s also good news for folks with HIV. Although more research is needed, preliminary findings show that consuming chilies with meals regularly may help prevent HIV from becoming AIDS or at least delay the transition. Chili peppers are often included in fire cider recipes to make use of chili’s immune-stimulating affects.

Fire Cider is also one of the traditional remedies used for treating throat pain, including strep throat, and healing mouth ulcers and other sores or wounds in the mouth. The fiery qualities of chili peppers coupled with their germ-fighting skills contribute to healing all of these, of course. But, chili peppers also offer pain reduction, a relief for those healing sore throats and similar conditions, but a Godsend to anyone awaiting dental care for an abscess, mouth sore, or damaged tooth. A dusting of cayenne pepper on the affected area will help tide you over until you can see the dentist.

Internal consumption of chilies can help build the respiratory system. Various South American cultures have used chilies by inhaling chili powder, by eating them, and by making the pods and leaves of the chili pepper plant into tea to help ease asthma and similar respiratory conditions. Taken internally, chili pepper can help increase circulation through the respiratory system, thus strengthening the lungs and bronchial tubes.

There is evidence that chili peppers can increase bronchial dilation, particularly when used with certain drugs. So, for asthmatics the word is still out on whether chili pepper is a safe option for improving their condition. In a survival situation when standard medicines are unavailable, chili pepper could be a lifesaver. For folk recovering from respiratory diseases like the common cold or pneumonia, cayenne can help with relative safety.

A few studies coupled with anecdotal evidence suggest chili peppers can help balance and heal the urinary tract, including easing incontinence and strengthening a weak bladder. Typically, treatment includes catheterizing the bladder and filling it with a solution that contains capsaicin. Often, doctors use a topical anesthetic to reduce the burning. Relief of symptoms after two months of treatment can last as much as six months. Folk remedies are less intensive, such as drinking a tea made of asparagus and cayenne powder.

Headaches, especially those that may be triggered by hormonal fluctuations like cluster headaches and migraines including juvenile migraines, have been helped by daily use of cayenne capsules accompanied by chili powder snuff. Typically, headache suffers take one or more cayenne capsules daily. When a headache is coming on, they sniff a toothpick’s worth or so of red chili powder. In a small quantity like that, the cayenne pepper provides minimal burn while stimulating the circulation of the sinuses. While cayenne powder may not completely stop a full-blown cluster headache or migraine, as a preventative it is promising.

As a homeopathic medicine, Capsicum annuum is often used at the third or sixth attenuation (3x or 6x) for individuals who suffer from poor circulation. Some of the symptoms that indicate capsicum annuum include flabby muscles, lax fiber, red  to almost purplish red cheeks often that are cold to the touch. Difficulty catching one’s breath or gasping for breath are also indicators. Usually, symptoms are made worse in the cold, by slight drafts, dampness including bathing, and with drinking or eating. Symptoms are improved with motion and exercise. Such patients often have an uneven pulse as well.

For More Information on Chili Pepper

Chili-Folio-3D-Cover-noshadow-432For more information on Chili Pepper, purchase a copy of The Practical Herbalist’s Herbal Folio: Chili Pepper: Naturally Hot Herbal Medicine. This Herbal Folio contains expanded information, including:

  • Gardening and Gathering
  • Animal Husbandry
  • Household Formulas
  • History, Folklore, Myth, and Magic
  • Cautions
  • Recipes
  • Quick Facts
  • References

Proceeds from sales of The Practical Herbalist’s Herbal Folio series go toward supporting The Practical Herbalist website. Support this terrific reference site by buying your copy of Chili Pepper: Naturally Hot Herbal Medicine today.

You may also be interested in:

Browse Herbalism Topics

The Herbal Nerd Society

Gain access to even more with an additional 250 articles, recipes, and more in ad-free viewing.

Become a Member