Capsaicin is an active compound found in chili peppers that has pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties.
Its also found in some joint supplements.
The compound that gives chili peppers their mouth-burning spiciness is also what helps fight pain, namely rheumatoid arthritis pain, osteoarthritis pain, psoriasis and neuropathic pain such as diabetic or shingles-related nerve pain. Researchers are also carefully studying capsaicin’s ability to improve cardiovascular health and fight cancer.
Capsaicin relieves pain. So how can a compound that causes such pain to the mouth, tongue and throat when eaten also provide pain relief related to certain conditions? According to Harvard Women's Health Watch, it is believed that capsaicin depletes substance P, a chemical that sends pain signals from sensory nerve fibers to the brain. After repeated applications of topical capsaicin, substance P becomes depleted, and the nerve fibers in that area transmit fewer pain signals (1).
Capsaicin acts as an anti-inflammatory. Researchers in Africa found that capsaicin has an anti-inflammatory effect comparable to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory analgesics (NSAIDS). The study was performed on rats with induced inflammation in their hind paws (2). As a result of their findings, the researchers remain hopeful that capsaicin may be as effective an option for treating inflammation as NSAIDS, but with fewer side effects.
Capsaicin may promote heart and blood vessel health. In 2012, a team from the Chinese University of Hong Kong performed an experiment on hamsters and found that capsaicin benefited the heart in two ways. One: it lowered LDL cholesterol levels (a.k.a. bad cholesterol) by reducing the buildup of cholesterol in the body and helping it breakdown. Two: it blocked the action of a gene that makes the muscles around blood vessels contract. The blocking action allowed more blood to flow through blood vessels (3).
In a different study, female rabbits fed cholesterol rich diets and supplemented with capsaicin, showed decreased plasma total cholesterol, triglycerides and total cholesterol to HDL-C ratio (4).
Capsaicin raises low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. Low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Researchers performed a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial on 42 volunteers in Chongqing, China with low serum HDL-C levels. After three months of intervention, it was noted that supplementation with capsaicin capsules, containing powders of chili skin, significantly increased serum HDL-C levels and decreased serum triglyceride levels (5).
Capsaicin has shown to have anti-cancer properties. There has been growing interest among researchers in learning more about the chemopreventive potential of phytochemicals found in fruits, vegetables, spices and teas. Capsaicin is one of those phytochemicals.
A March 2106 issue of Anticancer Research indicated that capsaicin has significant anticancer benefits, specifically its ability to target multiple signaling pathways and cancer-associated genes in different tumor stages including initiation, promotion, progression and metastasis.
A recent review also noted that capsaicin appears to induce apoptosis (cell death) in over 40 distinct cancer cell lines, including pancreatic, colon, prostate, liver, esophageal, bladder, skin and leukemia (6).
Researchers from Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, have found that capsaicin inhibits the growth of triple-negative breast cancer cells — a particularly aggressive and difficult to treat form of breast cancer (7).
While there is mounting evidence that capsaicin has the potential to fight cancer, there have also been studies showing the exact opposite. Some animal studies suggest capsaicin may actually act as a carcinogen or co-carcinogen. A study from The Hormel Institute at the University of Minnesota found long-term topical application of capsaicin increased skin cancer in mice (8).
There are differing views on whether the primary effect of capsaicin is cancer preventing or cancer inducing. With the jury still out, more well-controlled studies are needed to evaluate the safety and efficacy of capsaicin use.
Capsaicin cream can be very irritating to mucous membranes (mouth, nose and eyes) and broken skin. Wear gloves when applying it and avoid spreading it to sensitive areas; wash hands with soap and water after applying (9).
Both creams and patches may also cause mild redness and swelling, soreness at the application sight, dryness and mild burning and itching.
Although very rare, capsaicin may cause serious burns and blistering.
Capsaicin will make your skin sensitive to sunlight. Be sure to wear sunscreen before exposure to sunlight (10).
Capsaicin can cause stomach pain and upset. Ingesting large amounts has been reported to cause erosion of gastric mucosa (the mucous membrane that lines the inner surface of the stomach) and hepatic necrosis (tissue cell death in the liver) (11).
Capsaicin is a blood thinner. People who take blood thinners such as Warfarin should be aware that this compound can cause problems like thinning the blood too much.
Capsaicin cream is available in 0.025 percent, 0.075 percent and 0.1 percent concentrations and is typically applied three to four times per day, or as directed by a treating physician (12).
Capsaicin cream has a cumulative effect and must be used regularly to reap the full pain-relieving results.
Single-application, high-dose patches (eight percent capsaicin) are available and are applied by a medical professional. Each patch is applied for about 60 minutes and then removed. Up to four patches may be applied at one time, and repeated as often as every three months (13).
Cayenne supplements, which contain capsaicin, can safely be consumed at 0.5- to 1-gram dosages three times a day; they should be taken before meals.
In addition to turning up the heat and spice in recipes, capsaicin, the active compound found in chili peppers, also has great pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties. When applied topically, it treats pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, psoriasis and diabetic or shingles-related nerve pain.
Capsaicin works by depleting substance P, a chemical that sends pain signals from sensory nerve fibers to the brain. With the depletion of substance P in the nerve endings, local pain impulses cannot be transmitted to the brain.
Researchers have found promising early results in the ability of capsaicin to fight certain cancers, especially breast cancer. Current findings are based on laboratory and animal studies, prompting more studies to be performed to learn more about its efficacy in cancer prevention and treatment in humans.
This compound can also help promote heart and blood vessel health and lower bad cholesterol and triglycerides.