Remember when we lived in a world where the hottest pepper around was the cayenne pepper? Along with the jalapeno pepper, cayenne peppers reigned supreme. And then, almost overnight, we were catapulted into a land of umpteen thousand varieties of chili pepper, some of them so fiery they make the cayenne pepper look positively tame. But through it all, the cayenne pepper has still managed to hold its own. And that probably has a little to do with the health benefits of this hot (okay, medium hot) little pepper. So come with us as we explore the many cayenne pepper benefits and uncover how it may lower high blood pressure, boost metabolism, and possibly even help with weight loss.
Cayenne Pepper Nutrition Facts
Cayenne peppers are members of the nightshade family and belong to the genus Capsicum annuum, a genus that also includes bell peppers and jalapenos. Native likely to the French Guiana region of South America—where it’s been used for thousands of years by the indigenous peoples as both food and medicine—these chili peppers were first introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus.
Like other red peppers, cayenne peppers are rich in a number of vitamins. In fact, just a teaspoon of cayenne pepper contains:
- 15% of the RDA of vitamin A
- 2% of the RDA of vitamin B6
- 2% of the RDA of vitamin C
- 2% of the RDA of vitamin E
- 2% of the RDA of vitamin K
- 1% of the RDA of niacin
- 1% of the RDA of riboflavin
Cayenne peppers are also rich in a variety of phytochemicals, including capsaicin—the most widely studied active ingredient in cayenne and the culprit behind that burning sensation we associate with the pepper family.
Like many other phytochemicals, capsaicin has antioxidant properties. These properties enable it to fight free radicals, which can cause oxidative damage and inflammation and lead to chronic disease, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Cayenne Pepper Benefits for Health and Wellness
If you consider just the antioxidant capabilities of capsaicin, it’s obvious that cayenne is pretty good for you. But what exactly are the health benefits of cayenne peppers, and can they really help lower blood pressure and weight?
Let’s see what the science has to say.
If you have high blood pressure and you’re curious as to whether cayenne peppers can really help you get your numbers down, the good news is that multiple studies have documented the blood pressure–lowering effects of cayenne peppers and capsaicin.
In fact, according to a review published in the Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences, capsaicin decreases blood pressure via a number of mechanisms, including by stimulating the excretion of excess salt and urine, acting as both an angiotensin-converting-enzyme (ACE) inhibitor and a calcium channel blocker, and releasing vasodilator neuropeptides, which relax blood vessels and lead to increased blood flow.
Moreover, a clinical trial in the journal Nutrients found that participants who received 4 milligrams of capsaicin daily for 3 months experienced significant increases in high-density lipoprotein (HDL)—the so-called good cholesterol—and decreases in the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP).
If you’re looking to shrink your waistline, you might be interested to know that cayenne has been found in numerous studies to boost metabolism and rev up thermogenesis.
For example, a clinical trial published in the journal BMC Obesity found that participants who received 4 milligrams of capsaicinoids for 12 weeks lost an average of 6% more body weight than those receiving a placebo.
Likewise, a study in the journal Progress in Drug Research found that capsaicin activates receptors associated with fat metabolism, increases satiety, and reduces appetite. And taking capsaicin before engaging in exercise actually increases fat burning.
Another study published in the journal Appetite found that participants who consumed red pepper with every meal reported feeling fuller and experiencing fewer cravings throughout the day.
And a study published in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand found that women who ate fresh chili peppers experienced a fall in blood sugar levels accompanied by a rise in metabolic rate for up to 30 minutes post consumption.
Finally, a review in Pharmacognosy Reviews concluded that capsaicin reduces body weight, burns fat, promotes satiety, and reduces appetite. Which means capsaicin may be a useful ally in the fight against obesity.
While the benefits of cayenne peppers and capsaicin on blood pressure and weight are certainly impressive, their medicinal properties don’t stop there.
The very qualities that cause capsaicin to burn your mouth and tongue (and sometimes throat!) are the same ones that give this phytochemical the ability to act as both an analgesic and anti-inflammatory.
In fact, capsaicin has been included in creams and patches as a pain-relieving aid for individuals with arthritis and nerve pain for years, and its ability to treat pain has been documented in numerous studies as well.
However, while it was originally thought that capsaicin worked by depleting circulating levels of substance P—a compound believed to be involved in the transmission of pain signals—studies have now found that topical applications of capsaicin actually appear to work by desensitizing sensory receptors.
When it comes to preventing and treating cancer, capsaicin has a bit of a checkered past. While some early smaller studies indicated a possible link between capsaicin and the development of cancer, it’s now thought that these studies were flawed and included impurities that tainted the results.
Be that as it may, more recent studies are generally in agreement that capsaicin may be a potent force in the prevention and treatment of cancer, with current studies indicating that its antioxidant properties can neutralize carcinogens and even induce cancer cell death.
For example, a study published in the journal Cancer Biology & Therapy found that capsaicin inhibits the growth of gastric cancer cells. And a study in the journal Oncotarget found that capsaicin induces the destruction of prostate cancer cells.
If you thought something as fiery as capsaicin must be toxic to disease-causing microbes, you just might be right. While studies are still limited, the current evidence suggests that the main active ingredient in cayenne peppers may have significant antimicrobial properties.
For example, a study published in Frontiers in Microbiology found that capsaicin was effective in inhibiting the growth and virulence of erythromycin-resistant group A Streptococcus.
Although you may think that super spicy foods like cayenne peppers are rough on the stomach (and, in extremely high doses, they can amount to too much of a good thing), the evidence suggests that they may actually help protect the gastric mucosa from injury.
A study published in the Journal of Physiology (Paris) found that capsaicin functions in the stomach much like it does when applied topically to the skin. After first acting as an irritant to the stomach’s sensory nerves, it then desensitizes them, which triggers the stomach to, in essence, defend itself against the development of gastric ulcers.
Cayenne Pepper Side Effects
While studies have found that capsaicin may help protect against a number of health problems, if you’re interested in taking cayenne pepper or capsaicin supplements to boost your metabolism or lower your blood pressure, it’s important to be aware that capsaicin is a powerful phytochemical, and it’s not without potential side effects.
Because cayenne peppers and capsaicin are irritants, taking extremely high doses can cause gastritis, heartburn, and even kidney and liver problems—a possibility that’s increased in people who are particularly sensitive to peppers.
In addition, because capsaicin acts like a mild stimulant, excessive doses can lead to coronary vasospasm, which can trigger a heart attack. We should stress that this is an extremely rare reaction, but when taking cayenne or capsaicin supplements, it’s a good idea to always be sure to follow the recommended dosage. And, if you have any concerns, don’t hesitate to speak with a qualified health care professional.
However, if you don’t go overboard, and you focus on low and slow, cayenne pepper makes a great addition to Tex-Mex dishes and pretty much any cheese-heavy recipe.
But don’t think you have to limit yourself. Because cayenne pepper also works in lighter fare, like our mint lemonade liver cleanser. And you can also add a bit of a kick to the start of your day by mixing half a teaspoon of cayenne in a glass of warm water and adding honey to taste.
Whether you’re a spicy food addict or like things more on the bland side, the great thing about cooking with spices—even cayenne pepper—is that you can determine the amount that works best for you. So don’t be afraid to give cayenne pepper a try. You may find it’s just what the doctor ordered.