Like garlic, cayenne pepper (Capsicum annum) is one of those rude, crude herbs that has staunch friends and enemies. Regarded as a virtual panacea by many, others find themselves irritated and annoyed by its hot spiciness. Among herbalists there are “cayenne doctors” who extol its benefits for just about every disease known to man and still others who turn their irritated noses up at it, deeming it unworthy for serious consideration as a healing agent.
I became aware of the healing power of cayenne pepper when attending my first ever lecture on herbal medicine in 1970, given by the late great herbalist John Raymond Christopher. In those days, Dr. Christopher was like the lone voice for herbal medicine on the North American continent that had all but completely abandoned its deep herbal medicine roots.
It was the first of a weekend series of classes that Dr. Christopher happened to be offering under the aegis of the great Canadian herbalist Norma Meyers in Vancouver, British Columbia. Dr. Christopher was a Tony Robbins-type motivational speaker and a worthy representative of old-time herbal medicine, especially cayenne, the hot spicy herb that he loved and extolled as a virtual cure-all.
To demonstrate cayenne’s safety he would – and this is no exaggeration – begin his lecture presentations by downing as much as three heaping tablespoons of the hottest African bird cayenne pepper with a pinch for good luck, in a glass of water in front of a room full of students, young and old who came to learn about herbs. We could hardly believe what we saw, but the point was indelibly impressed upon us that cayenne is safe to take. He then went on to encourage us to take a more modest amount of cayenne pepper with a little olive oil and water three or more times a day. From there we would gradually increase the dose until we could tolerate a teaspoon at a time with no inconvenience or adverse reaction.
I did this for at least two or three years, and found that indeed, cayenne was a strong enough herb to relieve most sore throats, colds, and flu, simultaneously promoting cardiovascular health and blood circulation by warming up the entire body inside and out. As such, we learned that cayenne pepper could be used along with any other herbal therapy to focus and intensify the healing effects of any herb with which it is combined.
“Cayenne Doctors”: A Bit of History
There is so much lore associated with the discovery of cayenne as a South and Central American herb of the Mayans and Aztecs, being first presented to Christopher Columbus by the native Arawak people he encountered when alighting on an island in the Bahamas Archipelago off the coast of North America. His trip was financed by European venture capitalists to find a more direct route to the spices of India. To appease his financiers, his accompanying physician, Diego Alvarez Chanca, encouraged him to bring back cayenne pepper. At first the herb was condemned by European physicians as ‘noxious,’ a conclusion with which many today who find themselves adversely affected by it would concur. It would take another few decades before cayenne would gain more acceptance in Europe, when we find it described in the famous 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper’s materia medica.
Indeed, many indigenous peoples in South and Central America, Africa and Asia have a high regard for the healing benefits of cayenne pepper. It seems that some people have ‘the stomach’ for it but others (especially of Northern European descent as I’ve noticed) have moderate to extreme adverse reactions to cayenne.
It could be said that the granddaddy of all North American “cayenne doctors” was the self-styled farmer-physician Samuel Thomson (1769-1843) of New Hampshire, a maverick reformer who spawned a huge wave of followers throughout the 19th century. From an early childhood, Thomson showed an avid interest in herbal healing. Like most herbalists today, this received powerful impetus as he witnessed the ravages that mainstream medicine of his time brought upon its unfortunate patients. Perhaps the most famous case of this was our nation’s first president, George Washington, who, contracting a relatively simple fever, was subjected to extreme blood-letting that history now accedes was probably his cause of death. How many today, who have submitted unnecessarily under the knife or other extremely toxic and invasive treatments, have only found their health worsened, if not extinguished, by the ordeal?
Dr. Thomson formulated a completely new theory for the cause and treatment of disease equating life energy with heat, and death with cold. He worked on the premise that disease was the result of coldness and healing occurred by restoring heat to the core of the body and thus promoting energy and life.
He learned medicine from nearby native healers, as well as from a woman simply called “the widow Benton,” famous in the area for her herbal healing. Armed with his homespun theory of healing diseases caused by cold and cured by heat, he looked around for the perfect herbs to accomplish the task. One day while visiting a New Hampshire cabin, he discovered a string of cayenne chili peppers hanging up to dry. Then and there, he realized that this was precisely the herb he was looking for to burn off all “cankers” (pathogens) from the body.
From these beginnings, Thompson’s method attracted thousands of followers throughout the world. Dr. Christopher was certainly among this group, infamously known by the “regulars” (regular doctors) as “cayenne doctors.”
As my first herb teacher, Dr. Christopher definitely had a profound effect on my budding herbal career dating back to the late ‘60s. In those early days, I easily corroborated in my own practice the healing virtues of cayenne pepper especially when the focus of healing centered around a cold-natured vegetarian diet along with frequent four-day apple juice fasts. Here you can see that it was the use of cayenne within the context of Dr. Christopher’s system based on detoxification with raw foods and fruit juices that made it such an effective herb.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Traditions such as TCM or Ayurveda describe a Yang or heating element in the body; within the cold-detoxification system advocated by Dr. Christopher, cayenne pepper used as a primary or adjunctive tool for healing represented the heating or Yang element that was otherwise totally missing.
So that’s my theory, but no matter what one may call Thomson’s or Dr. Christopher’s cayenne pepper-based healing, it is certainly not about balance. If there is a flaw in this approach to healing, it is its tendency to let cayenne’s already assertive personality dominate, even to the point of overcoming fire with fire. This may work in some instances, but there is no consideration for nurturing the cooling element or Yin aspect equally essential to health.
According to TCM, cayenne would be contraindicated for those who have symptom of Yin Deficiency with Fire, a pattern most strongly associated with inflammatory conditions such as wasting diseases like tuberculosis or AIDS. Ayurveda would view cayenne as a Pitta or Fire-predominant herb useful for individuals with cold Vata (nerve-oriented) or Kapha (mucus- or dampness-oriented) individuals, contraindicated for those with a dominant Pitta constitution.
Despite this, cayenne pepper is still a great healing herb so long as there are no signs of Yin deficient parasympathetic exhaustion. As Thompson predicates, diseases caused by coldness, congestion and poor circulation can all be benefitted with the use of cayenne. Adding a small amount of cayenne to most herbal formulas definitely focuses, intensifies and prolongs the healing effect of other herbs with which it is combined.
The Three Primary Ways Cayenne Heals
Cayenne does this through three broad approaches, considered to be the pillars of health and well being:
1. boosting metabolism (yang Qi)
2. promoting digestion
3. promoting circulation
It just so happens that these three constitute the core ways by which herbs help the body overcome disease.
Nutritionally besides capsaicin, which is the most characteristic and therapeutic constituent in cayenne, cayenne pepper is high in Vitamin C, beta-carotene and a wide range of bioflavonoids which are particularly good for the cardiovascular system.
The range of conditions for which cayenne pepper is effective is extensively explored in Dr. Christopher and Dr. Patrick Quillin’s book, The Healing Power of Cayenne. In it, one might correctly get the impression that cayenne is good for virtually all diseases.
Christopher and Quillin offer some common sense warnings of some problems encountered from taking too much cayenne, including the following:
- it should be used more sparingly by those suffering from hemorrhoids
- too much cayenne can cause minor gastric irritation, nausea, indigestion and possibly diarrhea
- even though it is anti-hemorrhagic, it may burn too much if applied to an open wound
- despite its benefit as an eyewash, getting it in the eyes can cause irritation
Dr. Quillin, a world renowned nutritionist, goes on to list over 55 major diseases for which cayenne has been beneficial, including the following:
- cancer prevention
- colds and flu
- diabetic neuropathy
- fatigue and depression
- fat reduction
- headache including cluster headaches
- low libido
- mouth sores
- motion sickness
- psoriasis (as an ointment)
- shingles (topically applied)
- sore throat
- low thyroid
- worms and parasites
Further, Dr. Christopher described at least two counterintuitive uses for cayenne that seem to be true: one involves its use along with other herbs as an eyewash, and another is its use for healing stomach ulcers.
I deliberately left out the two most important uses for cayenne: its beneficial effect for all diseases involving the cardiovascular system, and its now widely recognized value topically for the elimination or reduction of pain, which I will focus on separately.
Cayenne and Pain Relief
One can find cayenne plasters sold at most drug stores. These provide long-lasting pain relief over any part of the body to which they are easily applied.
Numerous scientific studies have found that capsaicin reduces the amount of substance “P” which is a chemical that carries pain messages to the brain. When substance P is blocked, pain messages no longer reach the brain and one feels relief. This makes cayenne plasters, ointment or cream effective over any painful area will providing deep, and long-lasting relief.
According to the University of Maryland, capsaicin is effective for the following conditions:
- Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, as well as joint or muscle pain from fibromyalgia or other causes
- Nerve pain from shingles and other painful skin conditions (postherpetic neuralgia) that happens even after the skin blisters have gone away. Research is mixed, and it may be that it works for some people and not others. Check with your doctor to see if trying capsaicin ointment is right for you.
- Pain after surgery, such as mastectomy or an amputation.
- Pain from nerve damage to the feet or legs from diabetes, called diabetic peripheral neuropathy. However, capsaicin doesn’t seem to work for peripheral neuropathy from HIV.
- Low back pain. Several studies suggest capsaicin cream can reduce lower back pain.
Additionally, capsaicin cream can reduce itching and inflammation from psoriasis, a long-standing skin disease that generally appears as patches of raised red skin covered by a flaky white buildup. 
Cayenne and Cardiovascular Disease
Cayenne is very beneficial for those who are suffering from, or are at risk for, cardiovascular disease. As such it can be taken as a powder or in capsules, singly or combined with other heart herbs such as hawthorn for the treatment and prevention of stroke, heart attacks, high blood pressure, angina, and arrhythmia.
Many with cardiovascular disease have found benefit from the inclusion of cayenne in their healing regime. Because there is absolutely no reason that Big Pharma would invest millions of dollars to discover that a common herb such as cayenne chili pepper could be used to replace the many high profit cardiovascular drugs on the market, few clinical trials exist on cayenne. Nevertheless, following are studies worth considering:
- The anti-fibrin, blood-thinning properties of cayenne make it especially valuable for healthy cardiovascular circulation, preventing and relieving clots that could lead to strokes. This was confirmed in a research project by Sukon Visudhiphan, MD, PhD and colleagues in 1981 when he tested the viscosity of the blood of Americans living in Thailand compared with the native Thais, who consumed quantities of hot chilis. The fibrinolytic (breaking of fibrin) activity of the native Thais eating spicy chilis was much higher. 
- A 2010 study published in Cell Metabolism found that a receptor called TRPV-1 was activated in mice when they consumed capsaicin, which lowered the blood pressure. 
- Another study published in Current Medicinal Chemistry Cardiovascular Hematological Agents in 2003 found that capsaicin affects sensory nerves that work with neurohormonal systems to help lower blood pressure. 
The Thermogenic Effect of Cayenne for Weight Loss
Cayenne is popularly used as a thermogenic, i.e. calorie burning, substance. A study supported by the National Institutes of Health and the McCormick Spice company found that taking a half teaspoon of cayenne pepper either mixed with food or swallowed in a capsule and consumed with a meal helped normal-weight young adults burn about 10 more calories over a four-hour period, compared to eating the same meal without cayenne pepper. Pepper was found to further decrease the appetite especially in people who didn’t already eat spicy foods. 
It has been my personal experience and the experience I’ve noticed with many who regularly take cayenne as a supplement that because of the metabolic stimulating effect of cayenne, it is easier to lose weight if one includes cayenne in the diet or as a supplement.
Other Uses for Cayenne
Recently on a Viking river tour through Russia, I was introduced to a wonderful cayenne-honey vodka made in the Ukraine called Nemiroff Vodka. Besides being delicious, it served as a powerful treatment to ward off a bad cold or flu that was circulating towards the end of our two-week cruise.
Besides its use as a spice and medicine, cayenne is of course used in pepper spray to ward off possibly aggressive attackers. It can also be applied to a small patch of adhesive applied to acupuncture points on the body.
Both cayenne and garlic are potentially rude and crude herbs that tend to dominate anything with which they are combined. This makes it difficult to incorporate these herbs in a comprehensive herbal healing system based on creating harmony and balance. Keeping this in mind, there is no reason that either of these heroic herbal ‘bullies’ could not play a role in health and healing.
 Visudhiphan, S. et al., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol 35, p. 1452, June, 1982
 The Healing Power of Cayenne Pepper, Dr. Patrick Quillin pub. By the Leader Company.