Cyprus Mail

Plant of the week: Component of pepper spray used to reduce pain

Name: Cayenne (Capsicum frutescens)

Otherwise known as: Capsicum Minimum, Chilli, Red Hot Pepper

Habitat: A perennial member of the Solanaceae family growing to 1m in height with long-stalked, spear-shaped leaves producing white/green flowers in the axils that transform into the familiar conical shaped fruit that change from green to red as they mature. Native to central America, it is now cultivated throughout the tropics where it flourishes in hot steamy conditions. It was introduced into Europe by the Spaniards in the l6th century.

What does it do: The name is believed to derive from the Greek, kapto – I bite.

The active ingredient of cayenne is capsaicin which is responsible for the pungent and irritating effect of the pepper. Regarded by professional herbalists as the safest and purest stimulant, it opens up every tissue in the body to an increased flow of blood, producing natural warmth and equalising circulation in the aged.

Cayenne contains more vitamin C than citrus, also vitamin A and B complex, iron, calcium and phosphorus. The carotene molecules exert a strong anti-oxidant effect.

The plant has a number of beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system: studies show that cayenne reduces the likelihood of developing arteriosclerosis by lowering blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. It also combats platelet aggregation.

When applied topically, either in the form of ointment or infused oil, it is known to stimulate and then block pain fibres by depriving them of a neurotransmitter known as substance P, which is thought to be the main conduit of pain impulses; this is also the substance responsible for activating inflammatory mediators in joint tissues in cases of osteo and rheumatoid arthritis. Capsaicin is claimed to give relief from the pain associated with shingles (herpes zoster) and from the severe pain arising from ‘tic doloureax’ (trigeminal neuralgia). Experiments conducted on post-mastectomy patients indicated that considerable relief from pain was attained by application of capsaicin cream.

An interesting aspect of capsaicin is that while hot to taste, it actually lowers body temperature. It does this by stimulating the cooling centre of the hypothalamus in the brain. The consumption of hot peppers by cultures that live in the tropics helps them to cope with very high temperatures.

Cayenne will give relief from chilblains, and by blocking substance P levels in skin, is now thought to be helpful in the treatment of psoriasis.

Taken internally, it will relieve wind and colic and stimulate the digestive process, it will also prevent infections of the digestive system. As a gargle it is specific against throat infections.

Concentrate of capsaicin is a component of pepper sprays now used by some security forces, and a full blast in the face will render the receiver immobile for up to ten minutes.


Alexander McCowan: Author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants. Available from Lulu and Amazon


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