By Dr. Mercola
Chili peppers are a staple part of the cuisine in Central America, Asia, and India, while in the US you can find countless varieties of hot sauce, often with the words “inferno,” “insanity,” or “fire” on the labels.
It’s this heat, of course, that draws so many to add chili peppers to their meals, and it’s also the reason for their many medicinal properties, including pain relief.
Chili peppers’ heat comes from capsaicin, a compound produced to protect the peppers from fungal attack.1 Capsaicin is colorless and odorless, but when you eat it, capsaicin tricks your brain into perceiving heat where it touches your body.2
Birds, interestingly, are not affected by capsaicin, and this allows them to widely disperse chili seeds for the plants’ survival. Virtually every other mammal, however, is – although humans are believed to be the only animal that chooses to willingly eat them.
How Chili Peppers Trick Your Brain
Your nervous system contains heat-receptor proteins known as TRPV1 receptors. Located in cells in your skin and digestive system, these receptors remain inactive unless you’re exposed to temperatures above 107.6 degrees F (42 degrees C).
At this point, you’ll experience heat and pain, warning you to stay away from the source of heat. When you eat a chili pepper, capsaicin binds to and activates TRPV1, so even though you’re not actually in danger, your body thinks it’s being exposed to extreme heat.3
As explained by the New York Times:4
“…in mammals it [capsaicin] stimulates the very same pain receptors that respond to actual heat. Chili pungency is not technically a taste; it is the sensation of burning, mediated by the same mechanism that would let you know that someone had set your tongue on fire.”
The intensity of heat in peppers is measured by the Scoville scale, which was developed by pharmacist Wilbur Lincoln Scoville in 1912. While a bell (sweet) pepper has a score of zero, pure capsaicin can surpass 15 million Scoville Heat Units (SHU).
For comparison, jalapeno peppers range from 2,500 to 8,000 SHU, while Scotch Bonnet peppers can be upwards of 350,000. Ghost chilies, which are even hotter, have a potency of about 900,000 SHU. I am growing three ghost pepper plants and can confirm they are indeed very hot.
Chili Peppers’ Burning Sensation Ultimately Leads to Pain Relief
Capsaicin helps alleviate pain in part by depleting your body's supply of substance P, a chemical component of nerve cells that is involved in transmitting pain signals to your brain. It also works by de-sensitizing sensory receptors in your skin.5
This is why it’s used in topical pain-relieving creams and patches (some of which contain the equivalent of 10 million SHU). It’s actually the very intense burning sensation that–ironically–ultimately relieves pain. Gizmodo explained:6
“Applied externally, chilies cause a sensation of burning, as capsaicin activates TRPV1 in nerves in the skin. But, if exposed to capsaicin for long enough, these pain nerve cells will become 'exhausted', having depleted their internal chemical stores.
The nerve cells are no longer able to respond to capsaicin (or indeed, anything that might cause pain) and so you are no longer able to perceive pain. This is why chronic exposure to capsaicin acts as an analgesic.”
Most often, capsaicin has been studied for relieving postherpetic neuralgia, or pain associated with shingles, and HIV-associated neuropathy, although it has shown promise for treating other types of pain as well.
In one study, a man with persistent pain due to wounds from a bomb explosion experienced an 80 percent reduction in pain symptoms after using a capsaicin (8 percent, known as high concentration) patch.7
Topical treatment with 0.025 percent (low concentration) capsaicin cream has also been found to relieve pain associated with osteoarthritis, with 80 percent of patients experiencing a reduction in pain after two weeks of four-times-daily treatment.8
It’s also been shown to help reduce or eliminate burning, stinging, itching, and redness of skin associated with moderate to severe psoriasis.9 There’s even a nasal spray containing capsaicin that significantly reduced nasal allergy symptoms in a 2009 study.10
Capsaicin Also Has A Role in Weight Loss
Capsaicin’s therapeutic properties aren’t limited to pain relief. Researchers have also explored its role for weight loss, including using capsaicin to selectively destroy nerve fibers that transmit information from your gut to your brain. While this procedure was said to have a "remarkable" impact on weight,11 destroying these nerve fibers could have serious long-term implications on your health.
Fortunately, capsaicin may be effective for weight loss when added to your diet, as opposed to via surgery. Studies have shown the substance may help fight obesity by decreasing calorie intake, shrinking fat tissue, and lowering blood fat levels, as well as fight fat buildup by triggering beneficial protein changes in your body.12 Again, this was when capsaicin was used as a dietary addition… with no surgery required.
Part of the benefit may be due to capsaicin's heat potential, as it is a thermogenic substance that may temporarily increase thermogenesis in your body, a process where your body burns fuel such as fat to create heat, with beneficial impacts on your metabolism and fat-burning potential.
Research suggests that consuming thermogenic ingredients may boost your metabolism by up to 5 percent, and increase fat burning by up to 16 percent.13 It may even help counteract the decrease in metabolic rate that often occurs during weight loss.
Capsaicin May Help Kill Cancer Cells
Capsaicin has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and has shown some promise for cancer treatment. Research has shown, for instance, that capsaicin suppresses the growth of human prostate cancer cells while leaving normal cells unharmed.14
In one study, about 80 percent of the prostate cancer cells in mice were killed by capsaicin, while treated tumors shrank to about one-fifth the size of untreated tumors.15
Capsaicin has also been shown to be effective against breast, pancreatic, and bladder cancer cells, although you might need to eat unrealistically large amounts of capsaicin to get such benefits (such as eight habanero peppers a week).16
5 Additional Options for Natural Pain Relief
If you’re looking for natural forms of pain relief, capsaicin cream is only one option. Five other options that have equal promise include:
- Boswellia: Also known as boswellin or "Indian frankincense," this herb contains anti-inflammatory compounds. This is one of my personal favorites as I have seen it work well with many rheumatoid arthritis patients.
- Astaxanthin: Astaxanthin has been shown to be very useful against joint pain caused by inflammation. Studies have demonstrated astaxanthin reduces nuclear factor kappa beta; the master switch for the inflammatory response. It also reduces tumor necrosis factor and other pro-inflammatory cytokines that cause inflamattion and pain.17
- Medical cannabis has a long history as a natural analgesic.18 At present, 20 U.S. states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes. Its medicinal qualities are due to high amounts (about 10-20 percent) of cannabidiol (CBD), medicinal terpenes, and flavonoids.
Varieties of cannabis exist that are very low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the psychoactive component of marijuana that makes you feel "stoned"—and high in medicinal CBD. The Journal of Pain,19 a publication by the American Pain Society, has a long list of studies on the pain-relieving effects of cannabis.
- Devil's Claw. A South African herb found to be particularly effective against pain caused by inflammation, including arthritis, and muscle pain.
- K-Laser Class 4 Laser Therapy: If you suffer pain from an injury, arthritis, or other inflammation-based pain, I'd strongly encourage you to try out K-Laser therapy. It can be an excellent choice for many painful conditions, including acute injuries. K-Laser is a class 4 infrared laser therapy treatment that helps reduce pain, reduce inflammation, and enhance tissue healing—both in hard and soft tissues, including muscles, ligaments, or even bones. These benefits are believed to be the result of enhanced microcirculation, as the treatment stimulates red blood cell flow in the treatment area. Venous and lymphatic return is also enhanced, as is oxygenation of those tissues.
You’re Wise to Seek Natural Pain Relief…
Given the risks associated with commonly prescribed NSAIDs and other pain-relieving drugs, including narcotic painkillers (which now kill more people than murders and fatal car accidents in the US), I strongly recommend investigating safer options. And there are many. In addition to capsaicin and the alternatives already mentioned above, the following options can also provide pain relief.
- Eliminate or radically reduce processed foods, grains, and processed sugars from your diet. Avoiding grains (especially wheat) and processed sugars (especially concentrated fructose) will lower your insulin and leptin levels and decrease insulin and leptin resistance, which is one of the most important reasons why inflammatory prostaglandins are produced. That is why stopping sugar and sweets is so important to controlling your pain and other types of chronic illnesses.
- Start taking high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat. My personal favorite is krill oil, due to its high bioavailability and naturally occurring astaxanthin which protects it against rancidity, among other health benefits. Omega-3 fats are precursors to the anti-inflammatory class of prostaglandins, which regulate inflammation. (In fact, that is how anti-inflammatory, painkilling drugs work; they manipulate prostaglandins, but in ways that can have devastating and even life-threatening side effects.)
- Optimize your production of vitamin D by getting regular, appropriate sun or safe tanning bed exposure, which will work through a variety of different mechanisms to reduce your pain.
- Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) is a drug-free approach for pain management of all kinds. EFT borrows from the principles of acupuncture, in that it helps you balance out your subtle energy system. It helps resolve underlying, often subconscious, negative emotions that may be exacerbating your physical pain. By stimulating (tapping) well-established acupuncture points with your fingertips, you rebalance your energy system, which tends to dissipate pain.
- Chiropractic. Many studies have confirmed that chiropractic management is much safer and less expensive than allopathic medical treatments, especially when used for pain, such as low-back pain. Qualified chiropractic, osteopathic, and naturopathic physicians are reliable, as they have received extensive training in the management of musculoskeletal disorders during their course of graduate healthcare training, which lasts between four to six years. These health experts have comprehensive training in musculoskeletal management.
- Acupuncture can also effectively reduce many kinds of pain. Human clinical research has discovered a "clear and robust" effect of acupuncture in the treatment of back, neck, and shoulder pain, osteoarthritis, and headaches.
- Physical and massage therapy has been shown to be as good as surgery for painful conditions such as torn cartilage and arthritis.
- Astaxanthin is one of the most effective fat-soluble antioxidants known. It has very potent anti-inflammatory properties and in many cases works far more effectively than anti-inflammatory drugs. In order to get an analgesic effect, higher doses are typically required; you may need 8 mg or more per day to achieve this benefit.
- Ginger: This herb has potent anti-inflammatory activity and offers pain relief and stomach-settling properties. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea or grated into vegetable juice.
- Bromelain: This enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form but eating fresh pineapple, including some of the bromelain-rich stem, may also be helpful.
- Cetyl myristoleate (CMO): This oil, found in fish and dairy butter, acts as a "joint lubricant" and an anti-inflammatory. I have used this for myself to relieve ganglion cysts and a mild annoying carpal tunnel syndrome that pops up when I type too much on non-ergonomic keyboards. I used a topical preparation for this.
- Evening primrose, black currant, and borage oils: These contain the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful for treating arthritic pain.