What Are the Health Benefits of Cayenne Pepper, Really?
Cayenne pepper (and other chili peppers including bell and jalapeño) contain capsaicin, a compound that science has found really can do some good things for your body—and your workouts. Still, peppers themselves are not exactly a miracle worker. We dug into the research and spoke with experts to get the facts on five common claims about the benefits of capsaicin in cayenne pepper. Here’s what it can (probably) do for you, and where it might fall short.
The Claim: It Eases Workout-Related Aches and Pains
Sore muscles or achy joints can throw off your workout routine. But capsaicin applied topically could help ease your discomfort, possibly by desensitizing nerve fibers so they transmit fewer pain signals. “Endurance athletes can benefit from the use of low-concentration topical capsaicin to alleviate muscle or joint pain after strenuous exercise,” says Medhat Mikhael, M.D., a pain management specialist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center.
Indeed, plenty of OTC pain creams (such as Capzasin Quick Relief Gel and Zostrix Maximum Strength Natural Pain Relief Cream) boast capsaicin as an active ingredient. For mild to moderate pain caused by sprains, strains, or bruising, try applying one to the affected area three to four times daily. (FYI: It’s normal for creams containing capsaicin to cause burning or itching at the outset, but it’ll ease up after a few applications.)
The Claim: Cayenne Pepper Could Boost Your Performance
If you want to push yourself a little harder on the bike, capsaicin supplements might be worth considering. Athletes who took 12 mg of capsaicin 45 minutes before running 1,500 meters ran faster andfelt less fatigued compared to those who took a placebo, found one recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The same supplement regimen was also shown to improve lower-body resistance training performance—suggesting that capsaicin just might give your quads a little more power to make it up those climbs. “The researchers concluded that capsaicin supplementation can be used as a nutritional strategy to improve performance,” says board-certified sports dietetics specialist Amy Goodson, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.
The Claim: It Could Help You Lose a Little More Weight
Ever hear about hot peppers boosting your metabolism and helping with fat loss? Well, it’s kind of true. Capsaicin acts as a stimulant, and some evidence shows that it could assist in your efforts to get leaner by dampening your appetite and giving your metabolism an extra nudge. But adding hot peppers to your food alone won’t get you to your goal weight. “They might help when consumed with a healthy lifestyle of diet and exercise, but they’re unlikely to make a difference on their own,” Goodson says.
The Claim: Cayenne Pepper Improves Digestion
It might seem counterintuitive, but eating a meal with hot peppers might actually be good for your stomach—as long as you time it right. Capsaicin stimulates the production of compounds that reduce acid in the stomach. “That makes food stay in the stomach longer for improved digestion and increased satiety,” says Joseph Feuerstein, M.D., director of Integrative Medicine at Stamford Health.
That can be a good thing in general, but not so much when you’re prepping for a long ride. “Since capsaicin slows down emptying in the stomach, I’d avoid consuming it before exercise,” he notes. So save the spicy chili for after your workout as post-ride recovery.
The Claim: Cayenne Pepper Makes Your Cold More Bearable
Sadly, there’s no cure for the common cold. But could hot peppers at least ease some of your symptoms and help you make it through your ride (or just make it through the day) with a little less misery? The answer isn’t quite clear. Capsaicin contains anti-inflammatory compounds, which a handful of studies have shown can help ease nasal congestion. But the evidence isn’t substantial enough to convince most experts to recommend it as a cold symptom remedy, says Feuerstein. Though, if you wanted to try a spicy meal to soothe your stuffiness, there’s probably no harm in trying—just don’t expect a miracle.