What Is It?
Thought to have originated in Cayenne, French Guiana, cayenne is a spice derived from several varieties of dried hot peppers in the Capsicum species. Cayenne is a relative of the mild bell pepper used in salads and also of the fiery peppers found in chili powders and hot sauces, but it has no connection to black table pepper. Used for centuries by cooks around the world to add “heat” to traditional dishes, cayenne has gained a solid reputation both as a painkiller and digestive aid.
The principal active ingredient in cayenne is capsaicin (pronounced cap-SAY-sin), an oily, irritating phytochemical that can cause a burning sensation on initial contact with the skin. (Not surprisingly, it’s found in pepper sprays sold for self defense.) Applied topically, cayenne cream (also called capsaicin cream) eases pain by providing diversionary discomfort and by depleting the body’s supply of substance P, a chemical component of nerve cells that normally sends pain signals to the brain. Taken in any of its various oral forms, cayenne may help digestion, stimulate circulation, and relieve sore throats and colds. Suggestions that cayenne can reduce heart disease risk or help prevent cancer are unfounded.
Specifically, cayenne may help to:
• Reduce the pain of arthritis, diabetes, shingles, fibromyalgia, surgical wounds and headache. Cayenne cream or ointment is particularly effective in easing the joint discomfort of arthritis. It can also relieve pain that results from diabetes-related nerve damage or the aftereffects of shingles (postherpetic neuralgia). In addition, preliminary studies indicate that cayenne cream may help control the muscle pain of fibromyalgia. It may even ease wound pain following a mastectomy or limb amputation. Special cayenne nasal preparations may minimize the severity of cluster headaches (use these preparations only under a doctor’s supervision, however).
• Ease the itching of psoriasis. Because itching is generated by signals that follow the same nerve pathways as those of pain, applying cayenne cream to irritated areas may help psoriasis sufferers. Cayenne works by keeping the nerve signals responsible for perceiving itching or pain from ever reaching the brain.
• Relieve the discomforts of Raynaud’s disease. Applying cayenne topically to your fingers and toes may help reduce some of the pain and numbness Raynaud’s sufferers typically feel in their extremities when exposed to cold air.
• Promote digestive health and relieve ulcers. When taken internally, capsaicin is believed to help reduce gas and speed the healing of ulcers. This is accomplished by increasing blood circulation in the stomach and intestines, and by stimulating the normal flow of digestive juices.
• Soothe colds and sore throat. Using a special cayenne nasal preparation may reduce cold-related congestion. Gargling with a mixture of liquid capsaicin and water may offer relief from a sore throat.
Note: Cayenne has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Cayenne.
• For external use to relieve pain: To see how sensitive your skin is to this herb and how effective it will be for you, begin by applying a thin coating of cayenne cream or ointment to just one painful area; rub it in well. Reactions will vary, often depending upon the formulations of different preparations: Concentrations of topical capsaicin can range from 0.025% to 0.075%. Initially, almost everyone feels a warm or uncomfortable burning sensation at the site of the application; this usually lingers for about 30 minutes. After a few consecutive days of applying the cream or ointment (do it three or four times daily), the burning effect usually vanishes. If, after a week, the discomfort has diminished and some pain relief is noticeable, treat all the other painful areas in the same manner.
• For digestive health and other internal uses: When taking cayenne internally as a digestive aid, follow the package directions carefully. The usual recommendation is to start at a low dose for either acute or chronic conditions and increase the dose gradually as needed. For example, gas, indigestion, or a headache might respond to 1 capsule of capsaicin or a cup of cayenne tea. Prepare the tea by pouring 1 cup (8 ounces) of boiling water over 1/2 teaspoon of powdered cayenne; mix well. For chronic conditions, start with one cup of tea at this concentration three times a day. Over a period of weeks, gradually increase the amount of cayenne to 1 teaspoonful, and drink the tea three times a day, or as tolerated.
• For sore throat and nasal congestion: For sore throat, gargle with cooled cayenne tea made by pouring 1 cup (8 ounces) of boiling water over 1/2 teaspoon of powdered cayenne. Drink the cooled tea as a decongestant, up to three times a day as needed, if nasal and sinus congestion accompanies your sore throat.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Cayenne, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
• If applying cayenne topically to relieve pain, leave it on for at least 30 minutes before washing it off. This gives the capsaicin a chance to penetrate the skin.
• Use warm, soapy water or vinegar to remove cayenne from the skin.
• When using cayenne topically, don’t let it come into contact with raw, irritated skin and open wounds or sensitive areas, such as your eyes and nose. The burning sensation can be severe.
• To avoid accidental transfer of cayenne cream or ointment to the eye area, wash your hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water or vinegar after applying it. Take care not to inadvertently touch your contact lenses. Alternatively, use disposable latex gloves during application and then discard them. You can also cover the area you’ve treated with a loose bandage to prevent accidental transfer of the cream or ointment to sensitive areas. If your eye is affected, flush the area with water or milk.
• Cayenne can be used safely with arthritis medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). If such a combination provides significant pain relief, consult your doctor about reducing the dosage of your medication.
• When treating an internal condition, cayenne can be taken with or without food.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with cayenne.
Possible Side Effects
• Should cayenne accidentally come into contact with your eyes, or any moist mucous membrane, the pain and burning will be intense but transient.
• When cayenne is taken internally in doses higher than recommended, sometimes diarrhea or stomach pain can occur.
• Some people experience a burning sensation during bowel movements when taking cayenne internally.
• Applying too much cayenne cream may produce coughing, sneezing, teary eyes and a scratchy throat.
• Never use cayenne cream on a raw or open area of skin, no matter how painful the area underneath may be.
• Keep cayenne cream and ointment away from your eyes and moist mucous membranes. The burning sensation cayenne causes can be extremely painful, but rest assured, it will not last and there’s no danger of permanent damage.
• Keep cayenne products away from children.
Arthritis Apply topical cream to affected joints several times a day.
Chronic Pain Apply cream thinly to painful areas several times a day.
Colds Drink one cup of cooled tea, up to 3 times a day, for congestion.
Diabetes Apply topical cream to affected area several times a day.
Fibromyalgia Apply topical cream to affected area several times a day.
Psoriasis Apply topical cream (also called capsaicin) to affected area several times a day.
Raynaud’s disease Apply topical cream to affected area several times a day.
Shingles Apply small amount of cream to painful areas 3 or 4 times a day.
Sore Throat Gargle with cooled cayenne tea.
Ulcers Drink one cup tea 3 times a day.
David Edelberg, M.D.
Derived from dried hot peppers, this herb can be applied externally for pain relief or taken internally for indigestion. It’s also widely used as a spicy culinary seasoning, which can have a decongestant effect.
HOW IT HELPS ARTHRITIS
Cayenne cream is also known as capsaicin cream, after the pepper’s active ingredient, a chemical called capsaicin. Cayenne cream applied to the skin over an aching arthritic joint keeps the brain from perceiving the pain within the joint itself. This is because it depletes a neurochemical called substance P that transmits pain. When there’s not enough of substance P handy, the joint can’t let the brain know it’s hurting. Of course, this means that cayenne cream doesn’t do anything to reverse the arthritis itself. It’s strictly to mask the pain.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Cayenne for medicinal use is widely called capsaicin. There are a number of therapeutic products on drugstore or health-food store shelves.
Cayenne is used either externally or internally. For topical use: Cayenne or capsaicin creams and ointments are widely available. For oral use: Tablets, capsules, and softgels can be taken orally and tinctures and liquids should be diluted in water.
Look for products containing 0.025% to 0.075% capsaicin, the active ingredient. Shopping tip: Many doctors write also prescriptions for capsaicin creams. You can often buy over-the-counter products with the same potency (0.025% to 0.075%) much cheaper at the drugstore or health-food store.
Using cayenne cream effectively can be a bit tricky. A few tips are included below. Begin slowly Cayenne cream can feel quite hot, especially on sensitive skin, a phenomenon called a counterirritant effect. This means that it deliberately causes a tolerable degree of discomfort to one area in order to distract the brain from perceiving the real pain somewhere else. Try applying a small amount to a test area for several days. Once you learn what the sensation feels like, you can enlarge the surface that you’re treating. Be patient Use cayenne regularly and allow several days for it to work. The depletion of substance P does take some time. Don’t worry Except for minor skin irritation in susceptible people, cayenne is very safe and can be used with all medicines and supplements. And, if needed, it can be used on a long-term basis as well.
Be sure to wash your hands after each use or even use latex gloves to apply the cream. Cayenne can cause intense pain and burning (although no lasting damage) if it gets in your eyes or in mucous membranes. And you definitely don’t want to put in a contact lens with any trace of cayenne on your hands.
David Edelberg, MD