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6 health benefits of cayenne pepper

This pantry staple contains capsaicin, a powerful plant extract with lots of benefits

Key takeaways

  • Cayenne pepper contains an extract called capsaicin, which makes it spicy and gives the pepper various health benefits.

  • Eating cayenne pepper may help improve your metabolism and circulation, support liver health, and promote digestive health.

  • Some people should be cautious with cayenne pepper and capsaicin, like those taking blood thinners, diabetes medications, and certain other drugs or supplements. People with stomach ulcers should ask a healthcare provider before taking cayenne.

If you can tolerate a bit of heat in your favorite soups, stews, and chilis, you likely have a bottle of cayenne pepper (derived from the chili pepper) in your pantry. Just a little bit of this bold, bright seasoning is all it takes to give your food instant heat, but if you’ve never thought of this unassuming spice as healthy, think again.

In addition to being chock full of nutrients, cayenne pepper contains a plant compound called capsaicin, which is best known for its analgesic or pain-numbing properties. Topical capsaicin products can relieve joint pain and other arthritis symptoms, but even when taken orally—as a supplement or added to your recipes—capsaicin has the potential to enhance many of your body’s normal functions, like digestion, circulation, detoxification, and immunity to disease.

Here are 6 ways that cayenne pepper can benefit your body, along with how to add more of it to your diet and who should exercise caution when turning up the heat.

6 health benefits of cayenne pepper

Though most people know cayenne pepper as a flavorful spice, Amy Burkhart, MD, RD, founder of The Celiac MD, says some cultures have used this antioxidant-rich spice for thousands of years to treat stomach ailments, manage pain, boost the immune system, and improve circulation problems.

While much of the research that exists on the health benefits of cayenne pepper focuses on its heat-giving extract, capsaicin, Dr. Burkhart says it’s important to note that cayenne pepper as a whole ingredient shouldn’t be overlooked: the pepper itself contains antioxidants and flavonoids that have additional health benefits, plus vitamin A, vitamin C, and carotenoids like beta-carotene.

1. Improves heart health

According to Kimberley Wiemann, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian from Long Island, adding cayenne pepper to your meals can help promote heart health for a few different reasons. First, she notes, it can reduce the amount of salt you use in your recipes by increasing a food’s overall flavor—and lower sodium may help reduce blood pressure. Second, Wiemann says some research shows cayenne may have anti-inflammatory properties, which may help reduce your risk for heart disease.

Furthermore, says Angela Ginn-Meadow, RD, certified diabetes educator and founder of Real Talk Real Food, cayenne pepper may promote better circulation and regulate blood flow, which can also lower the risk of heart disease. More studies are needed to make this connection, though fully, says Ginn-Meadow, so while cayenne pepper won’t literally unclog your arteries, it can help you consume more heart-healthy meals and avoid clogged arteries in the first place.

2. Aids in weight management

Capsaicin is the part of a cayenne pepper that makes your mouth feel like it’s on fire when you eat it, but the good news is that this kind of heat may help support organ function. Wiemann says capsaicin is a thermogenic food, which means it may help speed up your metabolism: “A faster metabolism would help promote weight loss because the body burns more calories both at rest and during exercise.”

In addition to speeding up metabolism, Dr. Burkhart says capsaicin may also have a hunger-suppressing quality, increasing satiety and making you feel fuller with less food. This can help you lose or manage weight more easily.

That said, the research still isn’t clear on all of capsaicin’s potential effects on weight, explains Dr. Burkhart, who also warns against relying on cayenne pepper supplements to lose weight in lieu of regular exercise, a healthy diet, and good quality sleep (i.e., the basics!).

3. Supports a healthier gut

The science here is mixed, but it’s important to mention that many researchers have found a positive association between capsaicin and gut health. It may be able to increase the number of healthy bacteria in the gut, reduce the amount of acid in your stomach, and even play a role in the prevention or treatment of some inflammatory GI conditions like inflammatory bowel disease.

However, Wiemann adds that one 2022 study did not find an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting this. Researchers noted that cayenne pepper had only a “minimal” effect on increasing the number of healthy gut bacteria and little impact in reducing inflammation in the intestines. That study was quite small, though, and more research is needed before the effects of capsaicin on gut health can be confirmed either way.

Although high doses of capsaicin can be harmful to your digestive system, the myth that spicy foods cause ulcers is just that: a myth. In fact, capsaicin may even be good for preventing ulcers, especially those caused by an infection with H. pylori.

4. Relieves pain

If you’ve come across capsaicin medicinally before, it was probably in the form of a topical product designed to relieve joint pain. Dr. Burkhart says that capsaicin shows potential for treating pain caused by several conditions, including arthritis and fibromyalgia.

The mechanism by which capsaicin relieves pain is complex and related to how our bodies receive pain signals and send them back to our brain; in simple terms, capsaicin can disrupt that messaging system in various ways, essentially short-circuiting the usual pain response.

Though capsaicin is widely available in OTC creams and gels, there are other ways to receive its pain-relieving benefits. For example, a patch can be applied to the skin to deliver a high amount of capsaicin to a targeted area. Wiemann also points to a 2016 study that showed that topical or injectable capsaicin was beneficial in treating nerve pain and pain from arthritis.

5. Improves liver function

Can cayenne pepper detox your liver? Maybe! The truth is, says Dr. Burkhart, there’s no direct supporting research on cayenne’s detoxification capabilities—but the liver is the body’s detoxification powerhouse. Cayenne increases blood flow throughout the body, which could potentially help the liver do its job more efficiently.

She says capsaicin has also been shown to help protect against fatty liver, boosting the metabolism of fatty acids and allowing liver cells to digest them more quickly so they don’t build up. However, Dr. Burkhart also cautions that capsaicin may be toxic to the liver in extremely high doses, so it’s important for people to adhere to clinically studied dosages.

6. Relieves congestion and fights illness

Adding a dash of cayenne pepper to your favorite food or cup of tea when you’re sick provides temporary relief from congestion, clearing up a stuffy nose and loosening mucus in your airways to quiet a cough.

But some research shows cayenne could also help ward off some illnesses thanks to its potential antimicrobial and antiviral properties; a 2015 in vitro study found that capsaicin limited the activity of Group A streptococci (the bacteria that causes strep throat) in cells, even in the case of some antibiotic-resistant strains.

Cayenne pepper side effects

Most people can have cayenne pepper as a part of their daily diet, but it can cause mild side effects, and some people should limit or avoid their intake.

  • Cayenne can cause an upset stomach or heartburn; if you’re sensitive to it, says Wiemann, you can reduce the amount you’re consuming.
  • People with gastritis or stomach ulcers may need to limit their consumption of cayenne. Still, Dr. Burkhart adds that some research shows cayenne pepper can actually help people with gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) by stimulating digestion and improving digestive blood flow. A 2016 study, for example, found that while initial exposure to red pepper sauce containing capsaicin caused an increase in heartburn in participants with GERD, repeated exposure to capsaicin decreased heartburn symptoms.
  • Cayenne has blood thinning effects, so it shouldn’t be used for several weeks after surgery, says Dr. Burkhart.
  • The use of topical capsaicin creams is generally safe, but it hasn’t been studied in children. Plus, Dr. Burkhart says it’s more likely that kids will spread the cream to other parts of their body, like their eyes, which may cause a painful, burning sensation.
  • Cayenne doesn’t have a hormonal effect, per se, but women going through menopause are often advised to avoid it since it has a warming effect and can add to the frequency and intensity of hot flashes.

Does cayenne pepper interfere with medications?

While cayenne is generally safe, Dr. Burkhart says there are some drug interactions people should be aware of before consuming a lot of cayenne pepper or using capsaicin to treat a health condition.

  • Diabetes medications. Cayenne can lower your blood sugar too much if you take it with a diabetes medication, notes Dr. Burkhart. If you’re looking for a non-pharmaceutical way to lower your blood sugar, dietary capsaicin may be worth adding to your daily routine.
  • Blood thinners. People who take a blood thinner like warfarin bleed more easily, and Dr. Burkhart says cayenne can further increase the risk of bleeding, as capsaicin may reduce blood clotting.
  • Other medications. Certain medications for high blood pressure called ACE inhibitors, the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, and an asthma medication called theophylline may interact with cayenne. However, Dr. Burkhart says these interactions are rare and unlikely.
  • Some supplements. Any supplement known to lower blood sugar, like curcumin or ginger, or increase blood thinning, like fish oil, should be used carefully alongside cayenne, says Dr. Burkhart—the cumulative effect of cayenne combined with these other supplements may cause problems.

There are fewer possible interactions with topical capsaicin (for treating joint or arthritis pain, for example). However, it’s still important to make sure your skin is in the right condition for topical application. “It’s essential to be sure there are no cuts or open sores in the area where capsaicin cream is placed,” says Dr. Burkart, “[since] applying it to open skin would be incredibly painful.”

How to add cayenne pepper to your diet

Cayenne pepper is typically added to foods or beverages, while capsaicin is usually found in supplemental or topical form. To use cayenne pepper more in your diet, Ginn-Meadow suggests adding it to grilled vegetables, roasted meats and potatoes, stews and soups, eggs, and even sweet fruit like mango or melon (for an unexpected but tasty kick!).

And you don’t need much to make an impact: “Remember, capsaicin is the active ingredient in cayenne [and] gives it a spicy flavor profile—a dash or two is filled with benefits,” she notes.

Bottom line: Is cayenne pepper healthy?

For most people, cayenne pepper is safe to use medicinally. It may have potential health benefits for your heart, gastrointestinal system, and liver. Still, some people—like those with hypertension, stomach ulcers, or taking blood thinners—should be cautious and talk to their provider first.

Dr. Burkhart says there’s no widely recommended dosage. The typical dosage used in studies of cayenne is around two to eight milligrams of capsaicin, although up to 150 mg has been used in some cases.