Capsicum – it has a faintly exotic ring to it, doesn’t it? You’d be forgiven for thinking you would need to go to the tropical fruit aisle in the supermarket to find one. Not so. Capsicum is more widely known as the pepper.
What is Capsicum?
Capsicum comes from the nightshade family, and there are several varieties available, ranging from the mild Sweet Red Pepper (or Bell Pepper) which we toss into our salads, to the Carolina Reaper (recommended only for those with asbestos mouths and digestive tracts!)
The most well-known species is the Capsicum annuum, which includes Sweet, Jalapeno, Paprika, Bell, and Cayenne Peppers, and it is the Cayenne Pepper which we will focus on in this article.
Capsicum was first recognised in or around 7500 BC in South America, and then in Central America between 5200 and 3400 BC. Legend has it that Christopher Columbus brought the pepper to Europe, and from there it appeared in Asia and Africa.
Looking at their origins, it is not surprising that the Cayenne Pepper (also known as guinea spice, bird peppers or cow horn peppers) needs heat to grow. It can be successfully grown in this country with plenty of care and attention, early sowing and propagating. A nice sunny windowsill makes the ideal spot for growing peppers indoors!
How Hot is a Cayenne Pepper?
Peppers range in heat from mild to blow-your-socks-off, and this heat is measured using the Scoville Scale. Each variety of pepper is given a Scoville Heat Unit rating. For example, the bell pepper is a 0 on the scale, while the above mentioned Carolina Reaper measures an incredible 2.2 million! The Cayenne Pepper sits at a still fiery 30,000 to 50,000. To put this into even more perspective, a jalapeno, which most people are familiar with, can fall anywhere between 2,500 to 10,000, and it is thanks to this heat that cayenne has earned its place in natural health.
Capsaicin, (pronounced cap-say-sin), is the active chemical compound in peppers which contains, or produces, heat. Contrary to popular belief, this heat is not found in the seeds of a pepper, but instead in the white membrane or pith which contains the seeds, although the seeds may well have capsaicin on them from being in contact with the pith.
How is it Used?
The use of cayenne has been documented throughout history. In the sixteenth century, for example, South American warriors were thought to have used the smoke of burning cayenne peppers to keep the Spanish invaders away. Buddhist monks, during the Vietnam war, would fill spray guns with curry powder, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper, and in the West Indies, it is still held in high regard as a deterrent against deadly diseases such as yellow fever.
Medicinally, cayenne has many qualities, such as analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antiseptic, as well as being an excellent expectorant, diuretic and diaphoretic (the ability to make one sweat.)
In cooking, cayenne pepper has been used for centuries – historically it was used to cover the taste of meat which had ‘gone off’ – the strong taste being enough to make spoiled foods palatable. Now, it is used to add heat or taste to a variety of foods.
Nutritionally, the cayenne pepper is a powerhouse of goodness! 100g of fresh cayenne peppers will yield around 127% of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C, and an incredible 1387% of the RDA of Vitamin A, and 47% of Potassium. Furthermore, 100g of cayenne will provide you with 39% of Vitamin B6, 54% of Niacin, 71% of Riboflavin, 97.5% of Iron, and 41% of Copper. And all of that for only 318 calories!
What Conditions Does Capsicum Help?
There are many conditions which are helped by Capsicum – the list below is not exhaustive, but it will provide an excellent snapshot of the incredible power of this little plant.
Researchers have found that consuming capsaicin can aid weight loss by inducing thermogenesis – the process in which energy is converted into heat. In fact, some researchers, (according to a study published in the Journal of Digestive Diseases and Sciences) claim that using capsaicin as a natural route to weight loss is almost as effective as undergoing major weight loss surgery.
Capsaicin is thought to encourage the stomach to produce more mucus, which in turn speeds up digestion. In addition, NYU's Langone Medical Center published an article in 2009 suggesting that capsaicin is effective in fighting harmful bacteria in the stomach - the same bacteria which can cause diarrhoea, meaning that stools pass quickly through the body as a liquid, taking essential nutrients with them.
Cayenne can be used in a VERY diluted form in water, as an eye drop, by increasing blood flow to the eye, and also by acting as an anti-inflammatory on the mucous membranes. This can also help to open up the tear ducts, which can relieve dry eye.
Because of the high levels of Vitamin C in capsaicin, cayenne is an excellent spice to take to boost your natural immunity. Furthermore, it encourages more immune system activity because of its diaphoretic properties. By taking capsaicin all year round, your immune system will be on top form to fight infections.
Cayenne encourages the blood to flow more easily through the veins, which can help to prevent or even dissolve blood clots. In addition to its effect on the circulatory system, the high amounts of Vitamin C and other nutrients in cayenne can strengthen the vein walls, which are much thinner and less muscular than arteries.
Capsaicin in cayenne has been the subject of much research in recent years. Capsaicin works, when used topically, by penetrating tissues. As it does so, it is thought to deplete the supply of ‘substance P’, a neurotransmitter which carries ‘bad’ pain signals to the brain. Isn’t all pain bad? It certainly feels that way, but in reality, a pain which warns us of danger, i.e. burning, broken bone etc., is classified as a ‘good’ pain. Chronic pain - a pain which is still present even after the sufferer has been made aware of the injury - is ‘bad’ pain, and the neurotransmitter present in this unnecessary pain is different to the one which carries ‘good’ pain signals. By applying capsaicin to the affected area, it can penetrate the skin and use up the ‘substance P’, thereby blocking the pain signals to the brain. Studies carried out in Germany in 2010 found that there was a 50% decrease in joint pain after only three week’s use of a 0.05% capsaicin cream. In fact, studies have shown capsaicin to be beneficial in many painful conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, shingles, neuropathy associated with diabetes, and lower back pain. Interestingly, fibromyalgia sufferers may obtain significant relief by using capsaicin, as their pain is thought to be caused by much higher levels of ‘Substance P’ - up to four times that of a person without the condition. By using capsaicin regularly, the levels of Substance P can be kept at bay, thus reducing pain levels.
Incorporating capsicum into your diet should be done gradually, as too much too soon can cause gastrointestinal discomfort. The hotter the chilli the less of it you need. If spicy food isn’t your thing, capsicum can be taken in supplement form, up to 120mg three times per day, and for topical pain relief, cream or gel. As long as you introduce it slowly, capsicum is a magnificent natural aid for a myriad of health conditions – give it a go, and spice up your life!
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