The Healing Powers of Hot Peppers: Part 3, Chile for Your Head

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by Melissa T. Stock and Kellye Hunter


Treat your head with something hot.


While the thought of eating chile may make your mouth water, the idea of chiles in your eyes or nose is enough to make you cry–even though it can be good for you. In the West Indies, for example, the pressed juice of chiles is used to treat inflammatory eye disorders, and the water of boiled chile leaves is used as medication for asthma, cough, chest colds and tuberculosis. Because it causes sweating, chile is included in many folk remedies for alleviating fever, and because it kills both germs and pain, a capsaicin-based spray is used by some doctors to combat sore throats. Currently in the United States and Europe, doctors are studying capsaicin, the chemical that makes chile hot, as a way to alleviate symptoms of the head, nose, mouth and respiratory tract. One study at the Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital in Chicago found that a pinch of pepper in baby food helped stroke patients (who are having difficulty swallowing) ingest their food more easily.

One theory is that capsaicin is a counter-irritant, an irritation to an irritation, that stimulates the nerves it contacts directly. One theory is that this stimulation depletes the nerves of Substance P, a neuropeptide that transmits pain signals to the brain, which then reduces pain and irritation in a treated area. Capsaicin irritation also helps the body work more efficiently by causing a protective reaction, particularly in the digestive and respiratory tracts, in which excess fluids are produced to flush out an unwanted invader. In this article we will explore some of the ways doctors and researchers are using capsaicin to soothe your head and help you breathe easier. Never before has it been so good to be so irritated.


Your Mom Was Right: Eat Your Chicken Soup

Millions of dollars and thousands of hours have been dedicated to finding a cure for the common cold. And to most people, the sick sentence remains the same: it takes about a week to get over a cold if you just suffer through it, seven days if you take over- the-counter medicine.

But don’t despair! There’s definitely a pecking order when it comes to fighting respiratory problems. According to much recent research, the powerful poultry/pepper one-two punch may be just what you need when battling bronchitis or combatting a cold. Add in a little garlic, and you’ve got a soup and a cure fit for a king, a doctor, and a researcher or two.

Dr. Irwin Ziment, a pulmonary specialist at the University of California at Los Angeles says that chicken soup does work to fend off a cold, and that there is sound medical reasoning behind his claim.

According to Ziment, as reported in Health Magazine, “Chicken, like most protein foods, contains a natural amino acid called cystine, which is released when you make the soup.” Ziment says that this amino acid, “bears a remarkable chemical similarity to a drug called acetylcysteine, which doctors prescribe for bronchitis and respiratory infections.” Added proof is that acetylcysteine was originally derived from chicken feathers and skins.

But just not any old chicken soup will do, says Ziment. The spicier the better, with lots of chile peppers, hot curry and as much garlic as you or your co-workers can stand. Mix this together and you’ve got a “potent pharmacological brew,” he says. However, it’s not just the chicken which makes this remedy work. The chile peppers help to flush out the cold virus by causing your eyes to water, scalp to sweat, and nose to run. This rush of fluids actually starts in the mouth, throat and stomach where their secretions help thin the respiratory mucus, so it’s easier to cough up and expel. In short, says Ziment, “spicy foods act something like classic cough syrups known as expectorants.” Daily intake of this decongestant soup is advisable until you’re feeling better. But at the very least make sure you eat a pepper or two daily. All that vitamin A and C is sure to help chase even the nastiest cold away. And best yet, peppers don’t cause any side effects, says Ziment. “I am convinced that ninety percent of all people can tolerate hot foods and get a benefit.”


Relief For Sore Mouth Suffering

In what often must seem like a wicked twist of fate, most patients who receive radiation or chemotherapy to the head and neck develop serious oral lesions. The treatment necessary to make them better, at least initially, can make them feel worse. These sores of the mouth, or oral mucositis, are not only painful but “also can limit adequate nutritional intake and can decrease willingness of patients to continue treatment,” according to the study Capsaicin for the Treatment of Oral Mucositis Pain, which appeared in the bulletin Principles & Practices of Oncology in January 1995.

The use of capsaicin as a reliever of mouth pain has a long history. A sixteenth century Franciscan monk living in Mexico found that the Aztec Indians used chiles as a “remedy to an injury to the tongue; biting of the tongue; laceration of the tongue.” The treatment was to cook chiles with salt, and then spread the mixture on the tongue. Next bee honey or thickened maguey syrup was spread on. Whether they knew it or not, the Aztecs were on to something big.

Fast-forward to the twentieth century. In 1994, Yale University Ph.D. candidate Tracy Karrer had the idea to study the effects of capsaicin on desensitization of the mouth in relation to taste, touch and temperature in human beings. Working in conjunction with Yale professor Linda Bartoshuk Ph.D., they tested how much capsaicin it would take to desensitize the mouth mucous membranes. What they found was a relationship between the number of tastebuds a person has and the amount of burn from capsaicin they feel. Specifically, they determined that people fall into three basic groups; 25 percent are non-tasters, who have the fewest amount of tastebuds, and feel the burn the least. About 50 percent are medium-tasters, who have a medium amount of taste buds, and feel some heat. And last, 25 percent are classified as super-tasters, who have the most tastebuds, and feel the most burn from capsaicin. This study was significant because it helped to confirm that different strengths of capsaicin applied to the tongue in specific intervals would be necessary to desensitize the mucous membrane of the entire mouth.

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