Last summer we harvested a bumper crop of Anaheim-type chili peppers, many of which I roasted, peeled, and froze.
Mmmm. Nothing gives winter comfort and joy better than a bowl of spicy chili or an aromatic pepper-laced vegetable soup simmered on the woodstove.
Humans have been growing and eating hot peppers for at least 7,000 years, and for at least as long, indigenous healers have prescribed them in some form for pretty much everything that ails us, inside and out.
Modern research has borne out some of these health-promoting uses (and found conflicting evidence for others). Researchers continue exploring the use of hot peppers or their constituents for preventing or treating various cancers, weight loss, diabetes prevention and management, cluster headaches, skin disorders, respiratory diseases (including colds, coughs, and flu), digestive ailments, and many other health problems.
The hotness factor
Although medical researchers say the healing virtues of peppers result from numerous constituent compounds and their interaction, the phytocompounds called capsaicinoids (the most common of which is capasaicin) produce the sensation of heat you feel when you eat a hot pepper or rub your eyes after handling one.
Plant scientists theorize that pepper plants manufacture capsaicinoids to deter mammal pests (whose molars can grind and destroy the seeds). That allows whole seeds to be dispersed by birds, whose tissues aren’t irritated by capsaicin.
Plant breeders over the centuries have developed multitudes of hot-pepper varieties, with widely varying degrees of “hotness.” However, a pepper’s heat depends not only on its genetic makeup, but also on the soil that produced it, the weather during its growing season, how the crop was grown, when it was harvested, how it was stored, and how it gets used.
The mild Anaheim-type peppers I grow register between 1000-2500 Scoville units; the popular habaneros have 100,000-350,000 units, and the pepper spray used by law enforcement somewhere around 2 million units.
Natural high, natural cooling
Many people love intensely hot food for the euphoria it produces after the burn abates. Scientists theorize that the burning pain produced by the capsacinoids triggers release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.
Counterintuitively, hot peppers also cause a natural cooling effect in hot weather by increasing sweating, one reason anthropologists suggest that native cuisines incorporate hotter ingredients the closer they are to the Equator.
Peppers for pain relief
Although the hotness of a hot pepper doesn’t actually damage skin or mucous membranes, one way it may promote healing is by tricking the body into believing it’s been injured, thus triggering various natural immune and painkilling responses.
You’ve no doubt seen many over-the-counter products that claim to relieve the pain of arthritis, muscle pulls and aches, sprains, and shingles. The most effective of these products contain capsaicin.
The use of hot peppers for pain relief also seems counterintuitive, but science confirms that it works.
Using these capsaicin-containing products generally offers relief only after several applications. The first few applications are likely to sting, but gradually the pain gives way to relief. Scientists theorize that the capsaicin works by gradually depleting something called substance P, a neurotransmitter that sends pain signals to the brain.
The temporary inflammation and redness will subside as the capsaicin depletes substance P, and your body should experience less pain in the region.
Please confer with your healthcare professional before you use capsaicin or hot peppers for any therapeutic purpose.
Make your own capsaicin oil or cream
It’s inexpensive and easy to make your own pain-relieving cream.
Combine two tablespoons powdered hot chili peppers (I use powdered cayenne from the health food store) with two cups of olive or canola oil. Heat on low temperature in a dedicated stainless saucepan, stirring occasionally. Let it sit for a few days, then rewarm the mixture, strain it through cheesecloth into a big glass jar (with a lid). If you want to create a thicker product, add an ounce of two of grated beeswax or beeswax beads to the warm mixture and stir to dissolve. Cover and store in a cool place.
To use, rub the oil or cream into the sore or chronically inflamed area several times a day. Wear kitchen gloves or (for smaller areas) use a Q Tip.
Don’t apply it to broken skin or burned areas, and don’t apply it immediately after a hot bath or shower. Don’t use it with a heating pad.
And finally, don't use it on young children.
Although the “heat” of hot peppers isn’t damaging, therapeutic use of hot peppers does carry a number of cautions. Capsaicin may interact with a number of prescription and over-the-counter products. Check this list carefully before you use it externally or internally.
Capsicum annuum L. All (and probably more than you imagined wanting to know) about peppers as a crop.
How Hot is That Pepper? Unpacking the Scoville Scale A look at the modern methods used to measure the heat profile of hot peppers.
Chili beer? Yep. Here’s the story
Make your own hot pepper spray to deter house and garden insects and mammal (including rodent) pests. Note: Wear goggles and gloves when handling, and don’t spray in the wind.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.