"Functional foods," "nutraceuticals," "designer foods" and "medicinal foods" are terms that describe-foods, and key ingredients isolated from foods, that have supra-nutritive or tertiary functional properties. Researchers, healthcare practitioners, laypersons, and the popular media use these words interchangeably. The purpose of this column is to detail valid scientific information available on the physiologic actions of known constituents and combinations of constituents, as they naturally occur in "functional foods," highlighting theft medicinal and nutritive mechanisms of action in the body.
The cayenne pepper (Capsicum) is indigenous to tropical America, and has existed as a medicinal food for at least nine thousand years. (1) Today this fruit is cultivated throughout the world for its nutritional and pharmacological properties. (2-11)
Known Medicinal Constituents
Cayenne pepper's pungent nature has captured the attention of physicians, researchers and connoisseurs throughout history. The compounds responsible for its pungent nature, namely, capsaicin, dihydrocapsaicin, and their derivatives, possess well-documented health benefits. The fruit's degree of pungency, calculated in Scoville (heat) units, determines its primary use as a potent medicine, a functional food or an accessory spice. In 1912, William Scoville, a Detroit pharmacologist, measured capsaicin by having a panel of hardy souls sip a sweetened solution of dried chile peppers dissolved in alcohol. The concoction had decreasing amounts of capsaicin until it no longer burned. The results were successfully converted into Scoville units, though no one is quite sure what happened to the tasters. A chemical process has replaced this subjective test, although the results are still expressed as Scoville units. Scoville units can range from zero to more than half a million. (12) The following list includes cayenne peppers tertiary functional components, including those responsible for its pungency, in addition to its primary, or nutritional components.
* Capsaicinoids (0.05-1.5%): phenolic amides, largely capsaicin, dihydrocapsaicin and their derivatives
* Steroidal alkaloids, including solanidine and flavonoids
* Carotenoids: carotene and capsanthin
* Vitamins A and C, proteins, and coumarins
* Trace volatile oils
Indications for Use
Healthcare practitioners use the fruit, both internally and externally, to treat numerous conditions including arthritis, bleeding, chills, colds, coughs, digestive disorders, dysentery, headache, high cholesterol, migraine headaches, pain, poor circulation, and sinus congestion. (2,13-16) The pepper's primary indications for use, that are substantiated by research, include:
* Superfluous fat and obesity (17-22)
* Peripheral circulatory insufficiency (23-26)
* Gastric disorders, including poor appetite and digestion, atonic dyspepsia, gastric flatulence, impaired gastric secretion, and peptic ulcer. (27-32) There is a small amount of evidence suggesting that large amounts of capsaicin may impair healing of acute gastric mucosal damage. (42)
* Migraines and cluster headaches (33,34)
* Elevated plasma triglycerides and free fatty acids (35,36)
* Depressed immune function (37)
* Zosteriform herpes simplex II (shingles) and genital herpes -- to inhibit the spread of the infection. (38,39)
* Myalgias and Neuralgias (40,41)
Mechanisms of Action
Cayenne is a thermogenic agent as it stimulates metabolism and aids in weight loss. (17-22) It also stimulates adrenal catecholamine secretion (primarily epinephrine) (21,43) and vasodilation, consequently promoting peripheral circulation. (23-26) Specifically, cayenne has the following internal and external mechanisms of action:
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