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Aids digestion, eases muscle pain, relieves cluster headaches, reduces arthritis pain, lowers cholesterol, fights shingles pain, prevents heart disease, treats diabetic foot pain

A fiery taste and bright red appearance make cayenne pepper one of the world's most conspicuous spices. Recently, this herb has become as hot in healing as it is on the tongue. Cayenne has proved remarkably effective at relieving certain types of severe, chronic pain. It also aids digestion and may help prevent heart disease.

Cayenne comes from the Caribbean Indian word kian. Today Cayenne is the capital of French Guiana. But ironically, only a tiny fraction of the U.S. red pepper supply comes from South America or the Caribbean; most comes from India and Africa. Tabasco (Louisiana pepper), a close cousin of cayenne with all the same health benefits, grows along the Gulf Coast of the United States.

In India, the East Indies, Africa, Mexico and the Caribbean, red pepper enjoys a long history as a stomach-settling digestive aid. "I believe it works," says Varro E. Tyler, PhD, professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University School of Pharmacy in West Lafayette, Ind., and author of The Honest Herbal. Cayenne assists digestion by stimulating the flow of saliva and stomach secretions. Saliva contains enzymes that begin the breakdown of carbohydrates, and stomach secretions contain acids and other digestive substances.

But most Americans doubt the digestive benefits of cayenne, believing instead that the fiery spice causes ulcers. It doesn't. In one study, researchers used a tiny video camera to examine subjects' stomach linings after both bland meals and meals liberally spiced with jalapeno peppers, another close cousin of cayenne. Their conclusion: Eating highly spiced meals causes no damage whatsoever to the stomach. However, the finding relates only to people with normal gastrointestinal tracts. "I wouldn't recommend red pepper to anyone with an ulcer," Tyler says.

But what about the first-degree burns red pepper sometimes leaves in your mouth? The best treatment is a glass of milk. Milk protein washes away capsaicin, the chemical in red pepper responsible for its heat.

No pain, no gain!

For centuries, herbalists have recommended rubbing red pepper onto sore muscles and joints. Medically known as a counterirritant, this treatment causes minor superficial discomfort but distracts the person from the more severe, deeper pain. Heet, a capsaicin-based counter-irritant cream, is available over the counter.

Recently, however, red pepper has been shown to provide more compelling relief for certain kinds of chronic pain. For reasons still not completely understood, capsaicin interferes with the action of substance P — a nerve chemical that sends pain messages to the brain.

"Capsaicin has proved so effective at relieving pain that it's the active ingredient in the over-the-counter cream Zostrix," says James A. Duke, PhD, a retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture botanist and author of The CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs.

Doctors now recommend Zostrix for arthritis, diabetic foot pain and the pain of shingles, an adult disease caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox in children. The virus remains dormant in the body until later in life when, for unknown reasons, it can reappear as shingles, causing a rash on one side of the body that progresses from red bumps to blisters to crusty pox resembling chicken pox. In most adults, shingles clears up by itself within a few weeks. But many experience lingering, sometimes severe, pain.

Research suggests that capsaicin can also help relieve cluster headaches. In one study, people with cluster headaches rubbed a capsaicin preparation inside and outside their noses on the same side of the head as the headache pain. Within five days, 75 percent reported less pain and fewer headaches. They also reported burning nostrils and runny noses, but these side effects subsided within a week.

Finally, red pepper may help the heart. "It cuts cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of the internal blood clots that trigger heart attacks," says Daniel B. Mowrey, PhD, director of the American Phytotherapy Research Laboratory in Salt Lake City, and author of The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine.

Putting the herb to work

Perhaps the best way to enjoy cayenne's medicinal benefits is simply to season your food to taste. Even small amounts of red pepper can be therapeutic.

Remember to wash your hands thoroughly after using either cayenne or Zostrix. Cayenne may be kind to your stomach lining, but you definitely don't want to get any in your eyes.

To aid digestion and possibly reduce the risk of heart disease, experts recommend cayenne in capsules, available from most herbal stores. Follow the directions on the package.

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