Updated 29 April 2010
Just as stimulating as a glass of whisky, fresh hot chillies and cayenne pepper can add spice to your meals and a new zest for life. Many people believe, wrongly, that all hot spices are irritants to the digestive system. Chillies and cayenne pepper have quite the reverse effect, they are both beneficial to digestion and are soothing to the stomach. This is good news for those deprived souls who believe that the ageing stomach needs bland food to survive. Recent studies have shown that hot peppers are not bad for you. In fact they are a positive help to the digestive system.
Do Chillies Cause Ulcers?
A major concern has been that hot peppers, and other spicy foods, may cause ulcers. This has been found to be an erroneous assumption as there is no higher incidence of stomach ulcers in areas, like Thailand, Brazil and Mexico, where the chilli forms part of the staple diet, than in areas where it does not. In an extreme study carried out at the Veterans' Administration Hospital in the USA, about an ounce of ground Jalapeño pepper was injected directly into the stomachs of volunteers. No subsequent test revealed any damage to their stomach linings.
Cayenne pepper comes from the red chilli, Capsicum frutescens. Its name is derived from the Greek kapto meaning 'I bite'. In fact, cayenne pepper is not a pepper at all. It was named by Christopher Columbus who, when he first bit into a chilli, thought he had found a new source for the highly valued spice, Piper nigrum - black pepper - and the name has stuck.
Today, Capsicum frutescens is called by a variety of names in different parts of the world. Red pepper, capsicum, Spanish pepper, chillies, chilli pepper and African Bird Pepper, among others, all refer to the same species of fruit from which cayenne pepper is made. There are over 30 different varieties of chilli peppers, each with a different degree of 'bite'. They range from the mild bell pepper to the blistering heat of the Habañeros, which is the hottest pepper known, so there is a pepper for every taste.
The Healing History of the Chilli Pepper
Since ancient times, chillies, both fresh and in the form of cayenne pepper, have been used by healers to cure a variety of ailments. They have been used externally to relieve pain and internally to cure anything from yellow fever to the common cold. The list of medicinal properties ascribed to the chilli include the following:
The active ingredient in hot red peppers is a compound called capsaicin, which gives it that unique sting. Capsaicin ointments have been found to relieve the pain of arthritis and shingles when applied externally, and, taken internally, capsaicin triggers the release of endorphins in the brain, which has a pain relieving effect similar to that of morphine.
The health-promoting properties of this plant are not confined to its pain relieving properties. A single pepper has been found to contain a full day's supply of beta carotene and nearly twice the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C, which makes the chilli an invaluable food in the fight against cancer and heart disease. Chillies may also help in weight loss by speeding up the metabolism. After eating hot peppers people tend to perspire, this is a sign that their metabolism is increasing and that food will be dealt with more efficiently.
One fascinating fact about Capsicum frutescens is that in Mexico, where people eat hot chillies as part of their regular diet, their bodies get thoroughly saturated with capsaicin. It is said that if a Mexican happens to die out on the prairies, the vultures will not touch the body because the flesh is too spicy for their taste.