Capsaicin: This “Fire” Spice Cools Joint Pain and Inflammation
We all know that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, but few people know that his “wayward” trip also resulted in the discovery of something with amazing healing powers.
It all starts with a beef the Europeans had with the Arabs at the time.
See, the Arabs had this amazing spice that they were keeping from the Europeans. For centuries, all of Europe had to go without black pepper to season their food, as the Arabs would not share their source.
So, as Columbus made his inadvertent way to America, he vowed to bring back this black pepper for all Europeans to enjoy. But it didn’t work out quite the way he planned. And lucky for us it didn’t!
Black pepper was originally found in India, and seeing as Columbus was 5,000 miles away in the Americas, he was way off track. But, what he did discover was a much better find.
He found a different kind of pepper that not only helped to spice food, but also had incredible healing properties. This hot, healing pepper was the cayenne, or chili, pepper.
The Hot Healer
While most people think of cayenne pepper as the spicy cousin of ground black pepper, it is an actual member of the pepper family. More of a chili pepper than a bell pepper, it is named for the city of Cayenne in French Guiana and looks a bit like a red jalapeno.
But looks aren’t the only thing cayenne peppers share with their spicy cousin. They also resemble jalapenos and habaneros in terms of heat.
In the case of the powder found in your spice cupboard, the pepper itself is dried and ground before it makes its way to your home.
Fortunately, the active ingredient found in cayenne—capsaicin—is present in both the vegetable and the dried spice.
This is the key, as it’s the capsaicin that gives cayenne its healing mojo.
A Universal Tonic?
A quick Internet search for either cayenne or capsaicin will turn up claims for all sorts of medicinal benefits. They have been linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, indigestion, pain, and even weight loss.
After a more thorough investigation and countless hours going over studies, articles, and even books on the subjects, we discovered that while there is solid traditional use and experiential examples for nearly all these conditions, the strongest evidence of capsaicin’s benefits lies in its ability to relieve pain.
Soothing Relief for Arthritis Sufferers…
Capsaicin is a natural anti-inflammatory, due to its ability to block COX-2, a type of prostaglandin that causes inflammation. That’s one of the reasons it has so many other medicinal benefits.
As we’ve written about with other natural treatments, simply reducing inflammation throughout your body keeps a whole host of health conditions at bay. But, capsaicin really shines when it comes to easing pain.
In one gold standard, double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study1, researchers divided more than 100 patients with either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis into two groups. The first group rubbed a cream with 0.025 percent capsaicin into painful knees four times a day. The second group used a plain cream.
Within two weeks, 80 percent of the capsaicin group had a reduction in pain. And by the end of the four-week study period, the capsaicin group had a statistically significant reduction in pain as compared to the placebo group. In fact, the rheumatoid arthritis patients had a 57 percent reduction in pain, while the osteoarthritis patients had a 33 percent reduction.
Help for Diabetics Too…
Given the positive results of this impressive study (in terms of design as well as patient size), researchers set out to see if capsaicin would help other types of pain. This time, diabetic neuropathy, a painful condition that occurs when nerves are damaged as a result of high blood sugar levels.
In a multi-center, double blind, placebo-controlled study2, researchers divided 252 patients with diabetic neuropathy into two groups. The first group used a capsaicin cream on any painful areas four times a day. The second group used a plain cream with the same frequency.
After eight weeks, those people who used the capsaicin cream enjoyed a 69 percent reduction in pain, 58 percent improvement in pain relief, and 38 percent decrease in pain intensity. Statistically, these were significantly better results than those found in the placebo group.
When you have a gold standard study such as this, there’s not much to say. Capsaicin works.
The Great Ulcer Debate…
Clearly capsaicin is an effective, natural topical solution for pain relief. But, what about consuming it? Enter the great ulcer debate.
Many articles warn about the risk of ulcers when eating hot peppers and other foods containing capsaicin. Then you have the studies saying that these same foods can prevent ulcers. Which is it?
On the topic of causing ulcers, that issue was put to rest in 1988. Researchers in Houston, Texas (hot chili capital!) used endoscopy to determine if, in fact, spicy food caused ulcers3.
In this randomized, crossover study, 12 people were given a basic endoscopy. This is a procedure that uses an instrument with a small camera attached to a long, thin tube to allow a doctor to move throughout your body and look at specific organs; in this case, the stomach and duodenum (beginning of your small intestine).
The subjects then ate four different meals at four different times. The four meals were unpeppered steak and fries (the control), pepperoni pizza, a spicy Mexican dish (containing 30 grams of jalapeno peppers), and a bland meal with 1,950 mg of aspirin. Twelve hours after each meal, each subject was given another endoscope to determine damage to the stomach and duodenum.
Researchers found that 11 of the 12 subjects had “severe” injury with multiple minor ulcers after the bland meal containing the aspirin. The pizza meal and Mexican meal caused one incidence of one minor ulcer each, and there were no issues with the steak and fries.
So, spicy is okay, but aspirin is “severe.” And it’s peppers they are worried about?
We weren’t the only ones who thought this was ironic. So ironic, in fact, that researchers in Singapore tested to see if capsaicin could actually protect against aspirin-induced ulcers4.
Researchers had 18 people take 20 grams of chili orally with 200 ml of water, then 30 minutes later, take 600 mg of aspirin with 200 ml of water. Four weeks later, the participants drank another 200 ml of water (no chili), followed by 600 mg of aspirin and water 30 minutes later. After each test, the subjects were given an endoscope.
Researchers found that damage to the stomach and duodenum was statistically greater when the participants took just the aspirin (a four on their gastric injury scale), versus when they took the chili (1.5 on the scale).
Or, in plain terms, the capsaicin actually protected the participants against damage caused by the aspirin.
This is a very intriguing study. However, we’d love to see it done in a larger study group and under double-blind, placebo-controlled conditions.
Turn Up the Heat to Cool the Pain…
A simple and delicious way to get the health benefits of capsaicin is to eat hot peppers.
Whether you choose cayenne peppers, jalapenos, or even habaneros, you can slice and add them to soups, stews, or sauces, or make your own salsa. And, as always, you should look for organic options.
You can also turn down the burner a bit by using cayenne in its powder form. Sprinkle it on potatoes or rice for a bit of a kick or add it to chicken or fish for a south-of-the-border change of pace. Some people even add half a teaspoon to their morning smoothie.
If you simply cannot tolerate or don’t like spices at all, you can take the supplement route. The recommended dosage is one to two capsules of cayenne (450 mg) per day.
Be sure to take care when choosing—and using—a cayenne or capsaicin product. It should be free of preservatives, fillers, binders, excipients, flow agents, shellacs, coloring agents, gluten, yeast, lactose, and other allergens. Ideally you’ll also be able to find independent analysis conducted by a third party to verify the active ingredients and identify any contaminants.
If you are interested in using a capsaicin cream, look for a product that contains 0.025 to 0.075 percent capsaicin. A burning sensation may occur at first as your skin adjusts to the heat, but it should subside after a few uses. If it persists, stop using it and consult with your physician.
No matter which route you take, it’s clear that using heat to ease pain can be very cool indeed.
1Deal, CL, et al. Treatment of arthritis with topical capsaicin: a double-blind trial. Clin. Ther. 1991, May-Jun.; 13(3):383-95.
2Treatment of painful diabetic neuropathy with topical capsaicin. A multicenter, double-blind, vehicle-controlled study. The Capsaicin Study Group. Arch. Intern. Med. 1991, Nov.; 151(11):2225-9.
3Graham, DY, et al. Spicy food and the stomach. Evaluation by videoendoscopy. JAMA. 1988, Dec. 16; 260(23):3473-5.
4Yeoh, KG, et al. Chili protects against aspirin-induced gastroduodenal mucosal injury in humans. Dig. Dis. Sci. 1995, Mar.; 40(3); 580-3.
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