You know that burning sensation you get when you bite into chili, cayenne, habanero or jalapeno peppers? That's capsaicin, the active component that irritates any tissue with which it comes into contact. (The amount of inflammation, which can vary from mild to blistering, depends on the capsaicin concentration in the particular chili pepper.) Recent studies have found this chemical may have some great health benefits. Talk with your doctor before using any capsaicin preparations. They can interfere with ACE inhibitors (medications used for high blood pressure and congestive heart failure), other anti-hypertension drugs, sedatives and theophylline.
The chemical can reduce pain from postherpetic neuralgia (lingering pain following a breakout of shingles), sore muscles, backaches, arthritis pain, sprains and strains. Native Americans rubbed hot peppers on their gums to relieve mouth pain, according to Dr. Christopher Noto, who is completing a fellowship in pain medicine at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine and has conducted a study on high-concentration doses of capsaicin on postherpetic pain.
Capsaicin is a main ingredient in low-dose, over-the-counter topical pain relief patches, and higher doses are available with a prescription. When put on the skin, capsaicin binds to nerve receptors involved in the generation of pain, Noto says. "When it is first applied, you get a burning sensation because the receptors are involved in causing pain," he says. "However, after several applications these neurons go into a desensitized state. If you have repeated applications of low-dose or a single application of a high dose, the nerve endings stop responding to further stimulation."
Over-the-counter transdermal patches such as Salonpas, Zostrix or Zostrich generally have a 0.057 percent capsaicin solution. To get an effect, it has to be applied several times over a period of days, and results are varied.
Noto and his research team tried an 8 percent prescriptive patch for 60 minutes to battle post-shingles pain and found that 40 percent of patients experienced significant relief for up to three months. Unless a person is allergic to peppers, in which case they should not use capsaicin, there are no side effects other than a possible rash or redness at the patch application site and no drug contraindications; you can use the patch at the same time you take oral medications such as Lyrica.
Capsaicin contains antioxidants, which protect the body against cell damage. Antioxidants fight free radicals, which may contribute to cancer, vision loss, atherosclerosis and other chronic conditions.
A study by the University of California-Los Angeles Center for Human Nutrition has found that capsaicin may help people lose weight. After eating peppers, people in the study were found to expend much more energy than a control group that didn't ingest capsaicin.
A capsaicin-based, zinc-free nasal spray, such as Sinol-M, has proved effective in helping with runny, itchy, stuffy noses caused by allergies.
Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong conducted an animal study that suggested capsaicin can help keep your heart in good working order. Capsaicin lowers "bad" cholesterol without affecting "good" cholesterol levels, and it may break down deposits already clogging arteries. It also blocks the activity of a gene that causes arteries to constrict, limiting blood flow to the heart and other organs.
— Beth Levine is a veteran writer whose work has appeared in Woman's Day, More, Good Housekeeping and more. She won the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeon's 2012 Media Orthopaedic Reporting Excellence Award.