Native to Central and South America, the spicy fruits known as peppers were first transported from the New World to the Old after the journeys of Columbus. European explorers dubbed the fruits “peppers” because they served the same purpose as the black peppercorn (actually a berry) in Europe: flavoring food. Capsicums (the scientific term for several species of hot peppers native to Latin America, including chili peppers) contain vitamins, minerals and medically active compounds called oleoresins. One of these oleoresins, capsaicin, is the active ingredient in some over-the-counter ointments for arthritis pain.
Uses: Capsicums have been used in folk medicine to treat colds and fevers, and herbalists sometimes recommend applying crushed hot pepper to the skin to improve circulation. Supplements and over-the-counter drugs containing capsicum or capsaicin alone are used to treat indigestion, help with weight loss and relieve pain.
Dose: Capsicum (sometimes sold under the name cayenne) is sold in pill form and as a liquid tincture. Topical creams containing 0.025% to 0.075% capsaicin can be applied three to four times a day for pain relief (the effect builds up gradually). Three daily doses of up to a milliliter of tincture or 30 to 800 milligrams in capsule form are recommended for other conditions.
Precautions: Capsicum can produce the same effects as a spicy meal: redness in the face, watery eyes, a runny nose and sweating. Because it increases stomach acid production, some doctors recommend that people on over-the-counter or prescription antacids avoid it. Capsicum- or capsaicin-containing creams can cause a rash and should never be applied to open skin or used by breast-feeding mothers, who can pass it to their newborns. The pepper can also cause extreme eye irritation and short-term blindness (which is why it’s a popular ingredient in self-defense sprays).
Research: Studies have shown that when used topically, capsicum relieves the pain of arthritis, psoriasis, shingles and diabetic neuropathy by temporarily preventing nerve cells from transmitting pain signals. Research on capsicum’s ability to fight indigestion has produced less-consistent results. A few human trials suggest that capsaicin from chili peppers reduces appetite and increases metabolism, but more research is needed before capsicum can be recommended as a treatment for obesity.
Dietary supplement makers are not required by the U.S. government to demonstrate that their products are safe or effective. Ask your healthcare provider for advice on brands.
-- Elena Conis