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Cayenne; Food or Medicine?

Nutrition Review

By Dan Houdeshell CVCP
Copyright 2005 - 2011 Sierra Gold Nutrition - All Rights Reserved

Cayenne pepper has been used both as feed and externaly on horses for many years. Is there true benefit to this practice or is it more folk lore than science? A closer look reveals applications in maintaining good health for horses and their riders.

Native Americans have used cayenne (or red pepper) as both food and medicine for thousands of years. The hot and spicy taste of cayenne pepper is primarily due to an ingredient known as capsaicin. Although it tastes hot, capsaicin actually stimulates a region of the brain that lowers body temperature. In fact, many people in subtropical and tropical climates consume cayenne pepper regularly because it helps them tolerate the heat.

The popularity of cayenne pepper has spread throughout the world, and it has become an important spice, particularly in Cajun and Creole cooking, and in the cuisines of Southeast Asia, China, Southern Italy, and Mexico. As well as being an important spice in many ethnic cuisines, cayenne has also been used in traditional Indian Ayurvedic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean medicines as a remedy for digestive problems, appetite stimulation, muscle pain, and frostbite. Today, topical preparations of cayenne are used in the United States and Europe primarily to relieve pain associated with certain conditions such as arthritis, shingles (Herpes zoster), and cancer. Capsaicin is also a key ingredient in many personal defense sprays.

Plant Description

Cayenne is a shrub that grows in subtropical and tropical climates. Its fruit grows into long pods that turn red, orange, or yellow when they ripen. The fruit is eaten raw or cooked, or is dried and powdered into the spice that has been used for centuries in certain meals and medicines.

Pain Control

Capsaicin in cayenne pepper has very powerful pain-relieving properties when applied to the surface of the skin. Laboratory studies have found that capsaicin relieves pain by destroying a chemical known as substance P that normally carries pain messages to the brain. This appears to be true when applied topically for the following conditions:

Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid arthritis, as well as joint or muscle pain from other causes.
Shingles and other painful skin conditions
Pain from Peripheral Neuropathy (nerve damage experienced in the feet and/or legs)
Low back pain: Homeopathic gels of capsaicin are available for this purpose.

Gastric and Circulatory Benefits

Early evidence is encouraging regarding the possible use of capsaicin for stomach ulcers. Capsaicin is under investigation for the possible use to help treat cystitis (bladder inflammation). Very preliminary test-tube and animal studies suggest that capsaicin may have some value in improving blood flow to the heart (for example, in the case of heart disease from atherosclerosis [plaque] blocking the arteries to the heart) and reducing risk of an irregular heart rhythm.

The use of cayenne in performance horses has been studied over the past eight years with verying degrees of success. Enhanced circulation seems to be one of the predominant benefits. This is especially noticed in horses that have hoof problems related to laminitis (founder) and navicular disease. Cayenne has also demonstrated itself to be anti-microbial especially when combined with garlic and yucca. Horses with gastric ulcers have shown marked improvement in pain reduction and the eventual healing of the stomach lining. Studies that are being conducted at the present time will shed more light on the subject.

What's it made of?

Capsaicin is the most active ingredient in cayenne, but other important ingredients include carotenoids, vitamins A and C, and flavonoids.


The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, contain active substances that can trigger side effects and that can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of a practitioner knowledgeable in the field of botanical medicine.

Wash hands well after use and avoid touching the eyes. Cayenne does not dissolve easily in water, so vinegar should be used to remove this substance from the skin.


One study found that capsaicin (when taken together with aspirin) reduced irritation and damage to the stomach normally associated with this medication.

Blood-thinning medications and herbs

In theory, capsaicin may increase the risk of bleeding associated with certain blood-thinning medications (such as warfarin and low molecular weight heparin) and herbs (such as ginkgo and garlic). However, this theory has not been tested. Until more information is available, extreme care should be taken if considering use of capsaicin when on a blood thinning medication, in a class known as anticoagulants, or blood thinning herb.

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