Bush Medicine: Folk Cures with Chile Peppers

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By Dave DeWitt

Illustration by Harald Zoschke

One of the most enjoyable chile research experiences I ever had was to study chile pepper folk cures used in various cultures. At that time the World Wide Web was not up and running, so I had to do the research the hard way–by going to libraries, going to the stacks, finding books–especially in the QK 99 section on herbal medicine–and looking up all the various terms for chiles in the indexes of the books. In many cases, I found foreign language citations which I had to have translated. I visited libraries all over the Southwest, but the most useful were the libraries at the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University, Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, and the University of Texas at Austin. Below are the fruits of my research. Note: I have included some examples of herbal remedies for illustrative purposes only. These are not intended to replace a physician’s care.

Beauty and Punishment

The role of chiles in appearance and behavior modification has been strong in many cultures. David Livingstone, the famed African explorer, reported that West African women bathed in water to which ground red pepper–he called it paprika–had been added because they believed it would make them more beautiful. The Mayas also used chile as a beauty aid, specifically for skin care. However, their technique left a lot to be desired. The women washed their skin with hot urine, applied chile powder, and then repeated the procedure.

Various parts of the chile plant are ingredients in hair dyes in numerous cultures–in Taiwan, for example, a decoction of the stem and leaf is said to be an effective hair dye for jet-black hair. And chiles are reputedly a cure for baldness in the West Indies. Fiery hot chile oil is rubbed into the scalp and the resultant tingling is said to be the start of the hair-growing process. This makes some sense when we consider that capsaicin is an ingredient in a dandruff remedy called Denorex. Apparently the advertising agency for this product realized that the shampoo had to give the illusion of doing something when it was applied to the scalp. So, they added an irritant–in this case a minute amount of oleoresin capsicum–and it produced the tingling sensation of the shampoo “doing something.” But what is it doing? Are the capsaicin molecules gobbling up the dandruff flakes? I think not. And I don’t think that the capsaicin is growing hair, either.

As usual, there’s a darker side of chiles–their use as behavior modifiers and as punishment. Sometimes the usage is rather benign, as in Mexico and other Latin American countries, where chile powder is rubbed on children’s thumbs to prevent sucking. But in the Codex Mendocino, one of the few remaining books that survive from the Aztecs, there is a rather graphic illustration of a boy being held by an adult in the smoke of burning chiles. Chile expert Jean Andrews noted: “Today, a Popolocan Indian group near Oaxaca still punishes disobedient children in this manner.”

Lazy and delinquent children of the Kallawaya Indians of the Andes are corrected by burning chiles and their seeds. “This makes them sneeze, forget their mischievousness, and become docile and obedient children,” said one herbalist. Many parents fervently wish that this were so, but are reluctant to attempt the burning chile technique because of violation of cruelty to children statutes.

The Mayas, of course, we not bound by such rules; they threw chile powder into the eyes of young girls who stared at boys or men, and they squirted chile juice on the private parts of unchaste women. It gets worse. The Carib Indians of the Caribbean rubbed chile juice into the wounds of youths during their ritual of passage to become a warrior. Worse yet, the Caribs, legend holds, marinated the flesh of captured Arawak Indians in chile before they barbecued and ate them.

On the lighter side of behavior modification by chiles, they are occasionally cited as being an aphrodisiac. In North African legend, they are an occasional ingredient in spice mixtures such as ras al hanout that also include numerous other spices and cantharides beetles, the notorious Spanish fly. They are also an ingredient in Samoan kava, the potion of love and virility–except that if you drink too much, you’ll pass out before, well, the act. But in case the chile works too well as an aphrodisiac, the root of the chile plant is used in Indonesia as a treatment for gonorrhea.

A tincture of chile pods is used to treat bad memory in Venezuela, but how does the patient remember to take the remedy? A fascinating cure for “mental sluggishness” comes from the American Amish community, who eat bell pepper seeds for nine days, starting with one and doubling the dosage each day until 256 are consumed. The point is, can you remember how many to take? If you can, you’re cured.

More seriously, chile is often listed as a treatment for alcohol-related disorders. Cayenne in large doses is recommended in herbal lore for control of delerium tremens and in India, chile powder with cinnamon and sugar in a water-based drink is prescribed for alcholism and delerium tremens, as it is said to lessen the craving for alcohol. Interestingly enough, an identical chile-cinnamon-sugar cure is used in the Philippines. This treatment corresponds to a homeopathic remedy to suppress the desire for alcohol: ten to 15 drops of tincture of Capsicum in the diet per day, usually in hot tea or beef broth.

Chile seeds also play a role in such treatments. In his book Indian Medicinal Plants, published in 1918, K.R. Kirtikar quotes a Surgeon-Major Gray of Lahore: “A dose of ten grains of finely powdered Capsicum seed, given with an ounce of hot water, two or three times a day, sometimes shows wonderful effects on delerium tremems.”

On the lighter side of the alcohol issue, a broth laden with chiles is a classic hangover cure in Mexico, as is menudo, a tripe soup with chiles served in northern Mexico and the American Southwest. Menudo is called “the breakfast of champions” because of its reputed ability to banish the demons of drink.

Chiles are also associated with other drugs. For example, chile powder is mixed with tobacco snuff to make it “more effective” for some tribes in the northwest Amazon. Some of the tribes in the region actually smoke a tobacco and chile powder mixture, but not to get high but to come down. The Waorani Indians smoke the mixture to counteract hallucinogenic yage intoxication–it is one of the most powerful hallucinogens known and apparently the Waorani believe that chiles have the power to counter the vivid hallucinations. The Kulinas of the same region eat chile as they ingest the drug to temper its power. But the most daring drug story of all comes from coca-growing Bolivia, where powdered chiles are mixed with powdered cocaine and snorted for what is supposedly the ultimate rush.

And then there are the mysteries. Thomas Rutherford, who lived for many years in West Africa, wrote to me about chiles and babies. “In Liberia, chile peppers are boiled, and the water s used to give the babies enemas and to rinse their faces. I have not actually seen the enemas, but I have watched the face-rinsing in the village. The mother lays the baby on her lap. Scoops up the pepper water with her hand and allows it to drip into the baby’s eyes as well as over the face. As the baby cries, the mother laughs happily. The reason for this, whether medicinal or as a tonic, was never explained to me.”

Herbal Ointment for Wounds

Clean the wound and then apply this ointment. Cover with a bandage or gauze.

  • 2 ounces dandelion leaves

  • 2 ounces plantain leaves

  • 2 ounces yellow dock leaves

  • 1 quart boiling water

  • 1/4 cup lard

  • 2 ounces beeswax

  • 1 teaspoon cayenne

In a pot, combine the dandelion, plantain, and yellow dock. Add the boiling water and continue boiling until the liquid is reduced by one-half. Strain the mixture and add the remaining ingredients, stirring well. Transfer to a clean jar for storage.

The Chilehead’s Head

Both externally and internally, chiles have a significant role in folk medicine for treating ailments related to the head. Headaches, one of the most common afflictions of mankind, are thought to respond to a variety of chile treatments. A poultice of pepper leaves is applied as a treatment in the Philippines, while biting into a serrano chile in Mexico is a cure because it is thought to be a distracting influence on the headache. In Bolivia, ground chile powder in a poultice is applied to the forehead to relieve headaches.

Just how far-fetched are such cures? Well, capsaicin compounds–mostly powerful creams–are used to treat the victims of cluster headaches, a type of migraine that is probably the most painful of all headaches. But headaches are not the only head ailment treated by chiles as a folk medicine: the Mayas applied chile powder to the head to cure vertigo, and chiles are consumed to relieve the effects of stroke in the Peruvian Amazon.

Anyone who has accidentally spread the juice of fresh chiles into their eyes while cleaning or chopping them knows the incredibly sharp pain and tearing blindness that results. So why would anyone in their right mind apply chile juice directly onto their eyeballs? Malingerers, for one. I have read reports of workers in Africa who imitate the condition of conjunctivitis as an excuse not to work by using the juice from fresh pods as an eyewash. Interestingly enough, nineteenth century Peruvians believed that a capsaicin infusion from the juice of crushed chiles was a cure for conjunctivitis. Some African tribes use chile pepper eyedrops as a way to relieve headaches–apparently the pain of the eyes overwhelms that of the head. Perhaps more soothing is a cure for ophthalmia in the West Indies: juice from the leaves is used rather than the hot pods.

The Incas believed that eyesight was improved by eating chiles, and one Mexican source states that “two roasted chiles should be eaten with all meals” for better eyesight. The vitamin A in red chiles is known to fortify vision, and in Hungary, night-blindness was treated with a paprika tea.

The ears are not immune from chile treatment either–the mashed chile pods are used for earache treatment in Jamaica. Among the ancient Mayas, the blossom of the pepino (cucumber), the blossoms of the chile plant, and the flower of an herb we only know as algodon atabacado are all mashed together, combined with cotton-wool, and squeezed into the afflicted ear. The Mayas also cured ear infections and earache by mixing the resin of the herb coyoxochtil with chile powder and applying it three times per day, expelling pus and mucous. Later, during the colonial era in Mexico, a cure for earache was to mix wine and chile powder for use as eardrops. In the Philippines, in combination with chinchona, chiles are used to treat tympanitis.

Since the most common usage of chiles is consuming them orally, it is no wonder that they are readily linked to the mouth. Chiles are an ingredient to mask the unpleasant taste of other medicinal drinks among the Kamsá medicine men of the northwest Amazon. Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan monk living in Mexico in the sixteenth century, noted the use of chiles for: “An injury to the tongue, biting of the tongue, laceration of the tongue. Its treatment is to cook chile with salt, which is to be spread on. Then bee honey or thickened maguey syrup is to be spread on.” In another tongue-related chile cure, in northern Nigerian bush veterinary medicine, there is disease of cattle and horses called chizol. The patient’s hard, black tongue is scarified and treated with a mixture of chile powder, natron, and soot.

Swollen gums are treated with masticated chiles by the Kallawaya herbalists of the Andes in Peru. Similarly, gum infection are treated with crushed chile pods in state of Veracruz, Mexico. The Kallawayas also treat toothache by placing a chile seed on the sore tooth, while the Mayna Jivaros of Peru apply the broken or crushed pods directly to sore teeth. Also in the Peruvian Amazon, chiles are a general dental analgesic for any kind of mouth or tooth pain, while the leaves are used to treat toothache in China and Southeast Asia. Interestingly enough, commercial dental poultices contain Capsicum (probably small amounts of oleoresin capsicum), sassafras root, hops, and benzocaine. A drop or two of tincture of capsicum applied on a cotton swab was recommended as a remedy for toothache by the Dublin Medical Press in 1850.

Moving slightly downward, we find that one of the most common bush medicine chile treatments involves the throat–both externally and interally. External applications include a rub of macerated pods in Cuba for sore throat and laryngitis, and the super-hot malagueta chiles are crushed and used as a throat rub in Brazil for similar ailments. A poultice of crushed pods is applied to the throat to treat tonsilitis in Peru.

For general throat soreness, there are a large number of chile cures: leaf tea is gargled in Trinidad, while pod tea is used in Argentina, Jamaica, and Honduras. Pepper tea is also very popular with the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico. In India, a chile pepper tea is strongly recommended for what is descriptively called “putrid sore throat.” The classic Mayan cure for sore throat was to combine honey, crushed chiles, and tobacco leaf and swallow it. Inflamed tonsils and swollen throat are treated by drinking the extremely pungent juice of locoto or rocoto chiles in Bolivia. This is reportedly a horribly painful cure, but one that always works. There are a number of sore throat cures combining cayenne and other herbs. The effectiveness of chiles on sore throat probably involves the depletion of substance P, the neurotransmitter that sends pain signals to the brain.

Other ailments are treated by applying chiles in the throat. Swollen glands in throat are treated by boiling a dry red chile until soft, then applying it as a poultice in northern New Mexico. In Jamaica, whooping cough is treated with bird or Scotch bonnet chiles that are crushed with salt and the root of mimosa trees and used as a throat swab. In some parts of Africa, garlic with a chile-water mixture is said to be a cure for laryngitis, while in India, hoarseness is treated with a lozenge made from chile powder, sugar, and an herb called tragacanth (Astralagus sp.). One of the more perplexing cures comes from Peru and illustrates our early comment about chiles sometimes being a cause and cure of the same malady. There, chile pod tea is said to cure hiccups–which is a direct contradiction, because hot chiles are known to cause hiccups.

Capsicum Cold Remedy and Tonic

Dr. J. Michael Queen swears by this remedy’s astringent, mucous-reducing and general stimulating qualities. Use this regularly as a tonic for general health, or specifically to treat cold symptoms. Increase the amount of cayenne as your tolerance increases–use enough to feel the heat, but not be in pain.

  • 1 inch-long piece of ginger root

  • 1 1/4 cups very hot (not boiling) water

  • 1 round tablespoon lavender flower

  • Frozen lemonade concentrate, to taste

  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne

Mash the ginger root in a garlic press, then place the juice and pulp into a small glass bowl. Add the hot water and lavender, and steep for 3 to 5 minutes. Strain the liquid into a cup, then add the lemonade concentrate and cayenne. Drink the entire mixture.

Topical and Sometimes Tropical Cures

As I combed dozens and dozens of books on medicinal plants and folk medicine searching for chile pepper citations, one of the most frequent references we found were those linking chile peppers to the treatment of skin problems of all kinds. Generally speaking, chiles are commonly thought to be rubefacients, treatments that bring blood to the skin when applied externally. (Some experts say they are not true rubefacients because the skin is not reddened enough after their application.) Thus they are used as a treatment for frostbite in China, and their blood-drawing capabilities probably play a role in the many of the herbal skin cures below. Also in general, eating chiles causes gustatory perspiration, which in turn causes the body to cool off. In many tropical countries, large amounts of chiles are eaten during extremely hot weather to induce sweating; such a “cure” is common, for example, among the East Indian population in Trinidad.

Chile in various forms is believed to be efficacious in treating minor skin problems. For example, chile powder is a cure for itching in Peru and pimples and scabies in Indonesia. In Venezuela, a poultice of leaves is placed on boils and pimples. Similarly, in the Philippines, chile leaves are pounded with lime juice and used as a poultice to reduce swelling and to cure skin ulcers. A combination of the pods and leaves is used to treat boils in Fiji, the Cook Islands, and Tonga in the Pacific Ocean. In Tonga, for example, the pods and leaves are crushed together with the hands and spread over a skin inflammation called kolokula. A similar treatment in the Bahamas is placed on a boil to draw it to a head, while in Venezuela, powdered chiles are mixed with animal fat and spread over boils. Paprika plasters are used to banish boils in Hungary while ringworm (a fungal disease) is thought to be cured by the juice of hot chiles in parts of Africa. Also in Africa, an ointment made with concentrated chile juice extracted from the hottest pods is used to treat skin infections of all kinds.

When an insect bites or stings you in the garden, what do you do? Pick some chile pods and appy them to the wound immediately, of course. Freshly crushed chile pods are applied to insect bites in Peru, and poultices of dried, toasted chile powder are also used to treat bee stings, spider bites, and scorpion stings in that country. The poultices are sometimes coated with honey before being applied. In a similar fashion, chiles are used to reduce the swelling and “draw out the poison” of bee stings among the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, a practice identical to methods applied in Southeast Asia to treat insect stings and bites of all kinds.

There are reports out of Colombia and India that chiles are used to draw out the venom of poisonous snake bites; however, we’d place bets on the cobras’ and bushmasters’ venom being triumphant in these circumstances. Also, I read a report of chile powder being applied to crocodile bites in India, but we feel that such a bite is more akin to a severe wound than a sting, which brings up chile usage in wounds of all kinds.

I ran across many instances of open wounds treated by chile powder to stop bleeding, and chile leaves are generally regarded in folk medicine to be antibiotic. In fact, the leaves, pounded with shark oil, castor oil, or lard, are a poultice for wounds and sores in Trinidad and other parts of the West Indies, including Curaçao and Jamaica.

Paprika powder has been sprinkled on wounds in Hungary for centuries to stop bleeding and as disinfectant, and cayenne has long been used as a styptic for minor cuts in England. Many varieties of hot chiles is used in the same manner along the U.S.-Mexico border for razor cuts in particular, which brings up images of switchblade fights in border town bars that end with the combatants dousing themselves with salsa to stop the bleeding. In Peru, dried crushed chiles are mixed with white corn flour and vegetable oil to treat wounds; this same remedy is used in Bolivia to cure boils. Hispanics in California split a long chile pod, boil it and use it as a poultice for swollen glands or to draw out pus from a tumor.

But as usual in the world of chiles as a medical treatment, stranger skin ailments are treated with Capsicums. Chile powder poultices were a powerful treatment used against gangrene by the Cherokee Indians of the U.S. The Kallawaya herbalists of the Andes treat facial paralysis by rubbing the inside skin of a chile on the inflicted area. Aches and pains from colds and arthritis are also treated this way.

In northern New Mexico, tumors on the fingers and toes are treated with a sequence of rehydrated red chile pods until the pus is drawn out; tumors and cancers are treated with crushed chiles mixed with tallow in Venezuela. Also in Venezuela, in a bizarre cure, lepra and lumbago are treated by the people of Elmina by making cuts in the shoulders of the patient and rubbing chile powder and lime juice into the wounds!

Indian Ayurvedic medicine calls for the entire chile plant–leaves, pods, stem, branches, and roots–to be boiled in milk and applied to swellings and tumors on the skin. And where else but India would the fumes from chiles roasting on smoldering cow dung cakes be used in the treatment of scabies, a disease of the skin caused by mites? Such usage recalls the use of chile smoke as a fumigant for vermin.

Tincture of Cayenne and Whiskey

This is a treatment for frostbite that is rubbed on the afflicted area several times daily.

  • 2 teaspoons cayenne

  • 1 teaspoon powdered ginger

  • 2 pints Scotch whiskey (Dewars preferred)

Combine the cayenne, ginger, and 1 pint of the Scotch in a jar and stir well. Allow to steep for an hour. While you are waiting, and during the treatment, sip on the remaining Scotch, preferably with a friend. Do not drive a motor vehicle after applying this remedy.

Fevers, Diseases, and the Lungs

In many cultures throughout the world, chiles in various forms are used to treat colds and fevers, such as Russia, where the pods are a diaphoretic. For treatment of the common cold and fevers in general among the Mano people of Liberia, the root of suo longo (Ethulia conysoides) is chopped into small pieces, three hot chile peppers are added, and the mixture is boiled in a few cups of water. The concoction is removed from the heat and is allowed to steep all night. In the morning, a half a teaspoon of salt is added, and one cup is consumed. This cure is also considered to be a cathartic and diuretic. Salt also appears with crushed chiles among the Indians of the Vichada area of Colombia as a general tonic known as yuquitania.

Chile powder is commonly used to relieve general fever in Paraguay and malarial fevers in Jamaica and Costa Rica. Incidentially, the people of the Tapanti region of Costa Rica supposedly cured conquistadors of their fevers, and that was how the Spanish learned of the healing powers of peppers. In Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean, a concoction called mandram is believed to prevent attacks of malaria. It is made with cucumbers, onions, lime juice, and chile powder.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the external use of Capsicums to relieve some of the same maladies. In Mexico, to relieve fevers, the head is washed with a pepper leaf tea, while the Cherokee Indians utilized chile powder poultices placed on feet to relieve fevers.

More serious diseases than colds have also been treated with chile pepper concoctions in folk medicine. A treatment for flu in Peru is to eat large quantities of chiles with chicha, corn beer, primarily to induce sweating and “break” a fever. Chile powder was an early treatment for typhus and dropsy in India, when mixed with “Peruvian bark,” presumably quinine. Also in India, a decoction of chile pods with opium and asafoetida was used as a cure for cholera, and tincture of Capsicum was used against malarial fevers, although we found no connection with quinine with that usage. Other diseases treated with chiles include plague, where the Luo tribe of Africa applies the pepper leaf to the bubo; and cholera, malaria, and scarlett fever are treated by the simple consumption of chile pods in the Malay Peninsula.

Although chile powder is notorious for causing sneezing and coughing among those who inhale it, there is anecdotal evidence of the use of Capsicums in breathing and lung problems. For example, chile powder is used as a snuff when breathing is difficult among the Amazonian Indians around the Rio Apaporis.

The Aztec remedy for cough was to eat large amount of chiles to eliminate mucus and a similar usage occurs in modern-day Veracruz, Mexico with chiles as a decongestant. A chile soup was often the food used. It is well known that eating chiles causes gustatory rhinitis, which is a technical term for a runny nose. The ancient Maya treated asthma and “white phlegm” by combining five chile pods and a little salt in a pan with and boiling it well. It was put out “in the dew until dawn.” Then it was reheated and drunk as a tea before breakfast.

Pepper leaf tea is used in Trinidad and Honduras to treat asthma, coughs, and chest colds, while Hispanics in California eat chile to prevent tuberculosis. The Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico use Chiltepin tea to fight bronchitis, and an infusion of crushed chiles is a cure for cough in Venezuela.

Hot Herbal Cough Syrup

This is a remedy for persistent coughs. Take it in 1 tablespoon doses every hour as long as the coughing persists.

  • ½ teaspoon hot chile powder such as habanero, piquin, or cayenne

  • 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

  • 6 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 tablespoon grated ginger

  • 1/4 cup sugar or honey

Place all ingredients in a blender and puree. Store in a clean jar in the refrigerator.

Red Hot Muscles and Joints

One of the banes of mankind is back pain, but of course, there are herbal chile cures for this condition. Hispanics in California split a long green chile pod in half lengthwise, boil it, and place it on the back as a counterirritant to “neutralize” back pain. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, a plaster of chile powder with garlic, black pepper, and an herb called silaras (Storax officinalis) is applied to the back for relief of crippling pain.

A decoction of leaves and roots is placed in a hot bath to relieve general body aches and pains in Paraguay, and according to Whitelaw Ainslie, M.D., in his 1826 book, Materia Indica, “With hog lard, Capsicum forms a good liniment for paralytic limbs.”

There are many folk cures associated with relieving the conditions of rheumatism. Peruvians massage areas sore from rheumatism with chile powder, as do Hawaiians. Tinctures and liniments made with chiles are used in Peru, while the pods are macerated in alcohol and used as a rub for rheumatism, lumbago, and sciatica in Paraguay. A poultice of pods is applied to sore areas of the body in Honduras, while a lotion made from the pods is used for rheumatism relief in Southeast Asia. In American Indian lore, chiles are soaked in vinegar, and a cloth steeped in the liquid is applied to the aching area.

In Bolivia, freshly ground locoto or rocoto chiles are mixed with the bark of uña de gato, or cat claw (probably an Acacia species) and used as a poultice on the afflicted area. A black cloth is wrapped around the poultice and is left on for three days. Similarly, poultices of leaves and crushed pods are a common treatment for rheumatism, lumbago, and “unbroken chilblains” in Africa and in Jamaica and Trinidad, where the leaves are used more than the pods for rheumatism relief.

A fascinating rheumatism treatment by the Mano people of Liberia calls for making a rubbing chalk from common white clay or preferably the clay from the mushroom-shaped anthills that are the nests of the termites Termes mordax. The clay is mixed with water, lime leaves and the seed of suo, or chile peppers, as well as the seed of Xylopia species, called “spice” by the Liberians. The chalk is made into cones and is dried in the shade. The afflicted area is wetted and the chalk is rubbed onto it.

Jules Rengade, in his book, Las Plantas que Curan (1887), wrote that a paper made from chile pepper extract in Spain was called Lardy paper. Crushed hot chiles were spread over absorbent paper and allowed to dry. It was then applied to the skin and the effect was similar to that of a mustard plaster. The skin would begin to heat up and the pain would diminish. Lardy paper was also used to treat sciatica, lumbago, bronchitis, and neuralgia.

Surprisingly, although arthritis pain is commonly treated with capsaicin cream today, I did not come across very many folk remedies for the condition involving chiles. However, from our friend Lorenzo Fritz, we learned of an unusual treatment in Bolivia. Arthritis pain is treated there with automobile grease mixed with finely ground hot ají chiles. The salve is placed on the sore spot, is wrapped in black cloth, and is left on for three days.

Infused Habanero Oil

This oil is used to treat arthritis pain and sore muscles. A couple of drops helps to soothe toothaches. It should be stored in the refrigerator, where it will last for a couple of weeks.

Some sources state that this combination will grow hair on the heads of balding men, but it didn’t work for me.

  • 2 tablespoons habanero powder

  • 2 cups sunflower oil

In a saucepan, combine the powder and the oil. Cook over a low flame for about 2 hours. Strain through cheesecloth into a clean glass jar. To make a salve, add 1 1/2 ounces of beeswax.

Spicy Assistance for Women

In many cases, the folk remedies for treating women are highly anecdotal and I don’t know precisely how the chiles are used. For example, I read that the juice from pepper leaves “stimulates childbirth” in Indonesian villages, yet details of the usage are unavailable.

On the other hand, some remedies are quite specific. In his 1931 volume, The Ethno-Botany of the Maya, Ralph Roys noted that delayed childbirth is treated by preparing a drink that contains crushed chile peppers, juice from a jicara gourd, water from the house, and water from the well. Less specific is the cure to hasten childbirth from the Andokes for the northwest Amazon, which calls for crushed chile pods mixed with the flowers of a species of the genus Urtica; apparently, the medicine is applied directly to the vagina, which would cause intense burning. Perhaps the simplest chile aid to induce childbirth comes from Sonora, Mexico where powdered Chiltepins are inhaled by overdue pregnant women to induce sneezing, which then induces childbirth. After giving birth, Guatemalan Indian women use a drink of chile powder and water as purge, and in African folk medicine, a poultice is made from the ground chile pods, kaolin, and bark of Newbouldia laevis as a postpartum medication.

Hispanic nursing mothers in California and other western states avoid eating chile while they are nursing for fear that their milk will become too hot and their babies will suffer from eating less of it. However, when it comes time to wean babies, many cultures depend on chiles. The Shushufinidi Indian mothers of the northwest Amazon smear pepper juice on their nipples to wean their babies, while the Navajo and Ramah Navajo mothers of New Mexico rub red chile powder on their nipples for the same purpose, as do Indians of various tribes in Arizona and Sonora.

Female Powder

This remedy is from Benjamin Colby’s 1846 book, A Guide to Health. The dosage is a half-teaspoonful in a tablespoon of molasses or honey three or four times a day. Colby wrote: “This compound is designed for obstructed or suppressed menstruation.”

  • 4 teaspoons powdered gum myrrh

  • 4 teaspoons cayenne

  • 4 teaspoons powdered false unicorn root

  • 4 teaspoons powdered tansy

  • ½ teaspoon aloe powder

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Use in honey or as an infusion.

Chiles as Stomachics and Beyond

Here is another instance where chiles are seen as a cure for the very conditions they are rumored to cause: stomach problems. “Taken moderately, chile helps and comforts the stomach for digestion,” wrote José de Acosta, the Jesuit priest and historian, in 1590, which is probably the first written indication of the use of chile as a stomachic, or digestive tonic.

In my research of worldwide chile folk cures, it was soon evident that chile pods were of great value in appetite enhancement. They are consumed for that purpose by the East Indian community of Trinidad, and the same usage is reported in Russia, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. In herbal medicine, cayenne has long been reputed to stimulate gastric juices.

Cayenne also is used as a cure in England for seasickness, which is a severe form of indigestion. In Southeast Asia, a decoction of the leaves is drunk to combat upset stomach, but in most parts of the world it is the pods that are used for this purpose. Bird peppers, also known as Chiltepins, are swallowed whole in Trinidad and Sonora, Mexico to combat indigestion, while in Russia the pods are steeped in–what else?–vodka before being swallowed.

Teas and pills for stomach disorders also contain chiles. A tea made from dried chile pods is used in Ecuador to treat stomach pains and colic, while in Ayurvedic medicine, a pill made from chile powder, ginger, and rhubarb is used to combat severe indigestion. The Bribri Indians of Costa Rica drink a root decoction of chile plants as a bitter tonic to overcome colic or stomach discomfort due to overeating. Some sources state that the root of chile plants is toxic, and that the current Maya Indians in the Yucatán Peninsula use it for deliberate poisoning.

Remember chiles being used as a vermifuge? Well, they are used internally for that purpose as well. In Mexican villages, jalapeño leaves and flowers are consumed in a infusion to eliminate worms, and in the French Antilles, dried pepper leaves mixed with milk and drunk in morning on empty stomach as a cure for internal parasites.

Chiles have long been reputed to cause ulcers but once again are used as a treatment for them. “Cayenne rebuilds the tissue in the stomach and heals stomach and intestinal ulcers,” wrote Diane Robertson in Jamaican Herbs (1982). Her view is upheld by Bolivian Indians who suffer from stomach ulcers. In what is probably an extremely painful treatment, the ulcerous patients are fed fresh locoto chiles (Capsicum pubescens), one of the hottest varieties in the world. For fourteen to eighteen days, patients are fed the chiles, beginning with one the first day, two the second day, and so on until they are cured. It is difficult to imagine consuming eighteen of these chiles raw in a single day. These cures have a logical basis, as we now know that most stomach ulcers are caused by a bacterium, and the that chiles have anti-bacterial properties.

What goes in must come out, so we would be remiss if we didn’t quote Diane Robinson again, who wrote: “Cayenne produces natural warmth and stimulates the peristalic motion of the intestines, aiding in assimilation and elimination.” She adds ominously, “It can be hot, going in and coming out for the first three days.” This condition, well known to lovers of red chile who live in New Mexico, has been dubbed “jaloproctitis.” No wonder chiles are considered to be a purge by the Guatemalan Indians!

Chiles may sometimes burn upon elimination, but they are reputed to cure a number of bowel disorders. The raw pods are consumed to fight flatulence among Amazonian Indians along the Rio Apaporis in Brazil; the same cure is used in many parts of Africa. (They don’t work for me!) In India, pills made of chile powder, rhubarb, aloe, and ginger in equal parts, are taken as a carminative, to expel gasses from the stomach and intestines.

Natives of the state of Sonora in Mexico not only treat indigestion with wild Chiltepins, they eat them whole to treat diarrhea, which of course, chile is reputed to cause. But perhaps they don’t use chiltepins for chiltepin-induced diarrhea. In Gold Coast, Africa, the fruits of the nsatea chile are crushed and mixed with lime juice to make an enema to cure constipation. In Senegal, the long hot foronto chile is a remedy for piles.

The ancient Maya treated a condition known as “yellow stools” (dysentery) by combining nine chile pods with the seed of the yellow fruit, Mamea americana (a mamey), together with the bark of Spondeas lutea. These are all mashed together and then soaked in–get ready–urine, overnight. The afflicted person drinks the concoction with chocolate or wine and the yellow stools will cease.

Cayenne-Based Indigestion Remedy

This formula is said to combat stomach flu symptoms as well as indigestion. Chiles are commonly used for stomach relief by many indigenous peoples of North and South America.

The dosage one capsule before meals or as needed until the symptoms are gone.

  • 3 tablespoons powdered goldenseal

  • 3 tablespoons powdered slippery elm

  • 3 tablespoons cayenne

  • 3 tablespoons powdered cinnamon

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Add the mixture to #00 capsules.

Heating Up Your Hemorrhoids

One of the most pervasive uses of chiles I found at this end of the body was as a treatment for hemorrhoids. I know it sounds excruciating, but here’s the story. In 1956, L. Stevenel, a French Army officer, noted an interesting medicinal usage of chiles in Africa. Writing in The Bulletin of the Society of Exotic Pathology, Stevenel attributed the absence of varicose veins and hemorrhoids in the natives to the constant use of red chile in their diets.

“Native workers on the railroad always carry a supply with them and consider them as a panacea necessary for good health,” he wrote. Stevenel claimed that he had cured his own hemorrhoid problem and that of his fellow officers by adding red chile pulp to the food. The cure worked quickly–in a matter of days–but only with red chiles; green chiles were ineffective. Although Stevenel did not state why red chiles worked and green did not, I suspect the reason could be connected with the high concentration of vitamin A in red chiles.

Internal cures for hemorrhoids are used all over the world. In Cuba and Guadeloupe for example, the pods are eaten in salads to combat hemorrhoids. In Argentina and Cuba, powdered chiles are mixed with honey and made into pills to treat hemorrhoids, and tinctures of chiles are taken internally for hemorrhoids and flatulence in Venezuela. However, we were surprised to find so many external cures. Crushed chiles are used as a rub for hemorrhoids in Colombia. In Peru, the leaves and the pods are macerated together and applied to the hemorrhoids.

These days, Dr. Richard A. Wright, chief of the gastroenterology/hepatology division of the department of medicine at the University of Louisville is designing a trial study to examine the association of chile peppers and hemorrhoidal symptoms. He is just one of hundreds of researchers who are investigating the healing powers of peppers as used by folk practicioners.

Herbal Hemorrhoid Helper

This combination of herbs is said to shrink and relieve the pain of hemorrhoids. The dosage is two capsules every two hours.

  • 2 tablespoons powdered bayberry

  • 1 tablespoon powdered wild alum root

  • 1 tablespoon powdered shepherd’s purse

  • 1 tablespoon powdered licorice root

  • 1 teaspoon cayenne

Combine the herbs in a bowl and mix well. Place in #00 capsules.


Brazilian folk healers who create herbal medicines containing chile peppers are called pimentologos. They are members of a unique group of herbalists who use chiles regularly as part of their regimen. By studying their methods with modern science, someday we may be able to examine the preceding folk cures and to answer some of the following questions.

How effective are chiles as a gargle and a rub to treat angina in China, Cuba, and Bolivia? Why do chile leaves work as a poultice to combat back pain in Trinidad? Does cayenne really counteract diabetes in Jamaica? Can the wild Texas chilipiquins fight rabies, as the cattle drivers believed? Does hot chile powder work as a cure for nose cancer in Gabon? Can the huge amounts of chile powder the Taiwano Indians of the northwest Amazon use in their food successfully treat appendicitis? Is chile really an antidote for food poisoning involving fish or fruit in Africa? And can pills made with equal parts chile powder, rhubarb, and ginger really fight gout, as they believe in the Philippines? Modern medical science will eventually answer these questions.

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