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Fiery Red Peppers May Lessen Indigestion

Plagued by indigestion? Adding a little spice to your life—red pepper spice, that is—may help. A study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that red pepper powder significantly reduced symptoms of indigestion in individuals with frequent indigestion (functional dyspepsia).

In this preliminary placebo-controlled trial, 30 men and women with functional dyspepsia were randomly assigned to receive either 2.5 grams of red pepper powder three times a day before meals or a placebo for five weeks. Individuals with a diagnosis of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or irritable bowel syndrome were excluded from the study. Daily, throughout the trial, the patients scored and recorded the severity of their dyspepsia symptoms, such as stomach pain, stomach fullness, nausea, and changes in appetite.

At the end of the trial period, the researchers found that those who were given red pepper powder had significantly lower symptom scores (which means they had fewer or less severe symptoms), compared to those given a placebo. In the group given red pepper, nausea, stomach pain, stomach fullness, and overall symptom scores were 38%, 50%, 46% and 48% lower, respectively, than the scores recorded by the placebo group.

Just how red pepper decreases the intensity of symptoms related to indigestion is not fully understood, but other studies suggest its beneficial effects may be due to capsaicin, the compound in red pepper responsible for its fiery reputation. It’s capsaicin that causes that burning sensation in your mouth, makes your eyes water, and may even set off the body’s built-in fire sprinkling system, cooling off your forehead with drops of perspiration when you consume spicy hot red peppers.

Applied topically, capsaicin is known to stimulate and then block small-diameter pain fibers in the tissues with which it comes into contact by depleting them of a neurotransmitter called substance P. Substance P, (think “Pain”), is thought to be the principal chemical mediator of pain impulses sent from the rest of the body to the brain. Depleting substance P therefore results in an analgesic effect in certain diseases, such as diabetic neuropathy. Capsaicin, again used topically, has also been shown to deplete inflammatory mediators in psoriasis, thus greatly reducing the itching, scales and redness of this inflammatory skin condition. When red peppers are eaten, the capsaicin they contain is released in the intestinal tract where it may deplete both substance P and inflammatory mediators, thus providing a mechanism through which red pepper helps lessen symptoms of indigestion.

A word of caution: After handling red pepper, be careful not to touch your eyes or an open wound, as capsaicin works by overstimulating and thus draining small nerve fibers of substance P and could cause an unpleasant burning sensation. Also, if you have GERD, IBS, ulcers, or gastritis, consult with your physician before using red pepper. Want to improve your digestion while spicing up your meals? To learn more about the nutritional punch packed by capsaicin-rich red peppers, among the most flavorful members of the World’s Healthiest Foods, simply click cayenne pepper or chili pepper. For recipe suggestions to help you enjoy these spices more frequently as part of your healthy way of eating, take a look at the World’s Healthiest Foods’ recipes. Created by George Mateljan, these delicious recipes take less than a half hour to prepare and maximize the flavors as well as nutrient value of the World’s Healthiest Foods. For a list of the World’s Healthiest Foods’ recipes containing cayenne or chili pepper, click on the Recipe Assistant, select the spice on the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all the World's Healthiest Foods' recipes containing the red pepper selected will appear immediately below.

Bortolotti M, Coccia G, Grossi G. Red pepper and functional dyspepsia. N Engl J Med 2002;346:947–8.
Reimann S, Luger T, Metze D. Topical administration of capsaicin in dermatology for treatment of itching and pain. Hautarzt 2000 Mar;51(3):164-72.
Rodriguez-Stanley S, Collings KL, Robinson M, Owen W, Miner PB Jr. The effects of capsaicin on reflux, gastric emptying and dyspepsia.Aliment Pharmacol Ther 2000 Jan;14(1):129-34.
Hautkappe M, Roizen MF, Toledano A, Roth S, Jeffries JA, Ostermeier AM. Review of the effectiveness of capsaicin for painful cutaneous disorders and neural dysfunction. Clin J Pain 1998 Jun;14(2):97-106.
Capsaicin study group. Treatment of painful diabetic neuropathy with topical capsaicin. A multicenter, double-blind, vehicle controlled study. The capsaicin study group. Arch Int Med 1991;151:2225–9.
Watson CP, Evans RJ, Watt VR. Postherpetic neuralgia and topical capsaicin. Pain 1988;33:333–40.

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