According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, cayenne pepper has been used by Native Americans to flavor food and heal illnesses for more than 9,000 years. As a medicine, cayenne pepper has been used topically to treat such maladies as joint pain and arthritis, and can also be taken orally to treat a variety of gastrointestinal problems.
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According to the Encyclopedia of Spices, cayenne pepper was named for the country from which it was thought to have originated, the region of Cayenne in French Guyana. Cayenne pepper as we know it today is actually the ground-up seeds and pods of various types of spicy chilis, typically the smaller, spicier varieties. Beyond cayenne pepper's use as a condiment and food seasoning, it is often used for medicinal purposes and is commonly available in the form of a dietary supplement. For example, cayenne pepper is used to lower cholesterol, treat circulatory problems, weight loss and is applied directly to the skin as a topical pain reliever by its ability to block substance P, a chemical that relays information to the brain that the skin is in pain.
Cayenne has also traditionally been used to treat stomach aches, pain from gas and cramping, and other gastrointestinal problems. The active ingredient in cayenne pepper is capascin, which is what causes the spicy “burn” you experience when you taste it. The capascin within cayenne pepper can be effective in stimulating digestion by the stomach and intestines creating an increased volume of digestive enzymes in response to capascin. The Univeristy of Maryland Medical Center notes that there is some evidence that capsaicin may be effective in treating heartburn, but this treatment may also result in abdominal discomfort.
A study published in the March 1998 issue of “The Journal of Nutrition” presented evidence that hot spices such as cayenne pepper could actually interact with epithelial cells within the body’s gastrointestinal tract to increase the permeability of cells. Cayenne pepper was one of several spices tested, and was found to increase cells’ transepithelial electrical resistance (TER) and increase permeability. This observation, researchers concluded, could be of “pathophysiological importance” in future research, especially research involving food intolerances and allergies.
Cayenne pepper is commonly used by alternative-medicine practitioners to kill parasites within the digestive tract. Claims that cayenne destroys intestinal parasites are primarily anecdotal, however, and there appears to be no scientific research to lend support to these claims. Cayenne is also used to treat parasites in animals. A paper produced through McGill University’s Ecological Agriculture Projects recommends a tincture made from cayenne pepper, powdered wormwood, honey and flour as a natural deworming treatment for cattle.