Chili Peppers and Pain Relief

Capsaicin, the heat-producing component in chili peppers, is widely available in pain-relieving creams, patches, gels, and pills. You also can add it to your diet by mixing a teaspoon or less of cayenne pepper or hot sauce into your favorite smoothie blend or other nutritious drink. Or you can try the recipes featured here, which include cayenne and red pepper or chili powder.

The reason is not simply to add a kick to a meal or snack. Capsaicin has proven pain-fighting capabilities, so if you live with pain, it may help reduce your inflammation. Researchers at the University of Bologna, Italy, for example, found that patients with irritable bowel syndrome who were treated with red pepper powder pills had significantly improved abdominal pain and bloating after six weeks of treatment.

Articles published by PubMed Health, The Clinical Journal of Pain, and other journals have shown that topical creams and patches containing capsaicin are effective in relieving pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis, neuralgia (associated with shingles), muscle sprains and strains, cluster headache, fibromyalgia, post-mastectomy pain syndrome, oral mucositis, cutaneous allergy, and osteoarthritis. And the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology has reported much less skin discomfort and scaling in psoriasis patients who used a capsaicin cream.

Capsaicin works by reducing the amount of substance P, a chemical that delivers pain messages to the brain, in the body. When you eat a chili pepper, capsaicin binds to and activates heat receptor proteins called TRPV1. In the moments after biting into a hot pepper, the resulting heat and pain are the TRPV1 receptors’ response, suggesting that you’re being exposed to extreme heat. If you consume capsaicin often enough, your pain nerve cells will become desensitized to the painful stimulus.

The Scoville scale rates chili peppers by measuring their pungency. The scale ranges from very mild (sweet bell peppers) to medium (poblano, Hatch, and ancho chili) to hot (jalapeño) and extremely hot (serrano, de árbol, and habañero). Don’t let the chocolate habañero fool you — it can be 140 times hotter than the jalapeño pepper!

If you’re not accustomed to eating spicy foods, start with milder peppers to build up your tolerance to capsaicin. Doing so may help you avoid the peppers’ possible side effects, including sweating, upset stomach, and flushed skin.

The recipes here will turn up the heat deliciously. If you have a spiralizer still in the box, it’s time to get it out, or now you have a good reason to purchase one. After trying out the zucchini noodle recipe above, let your imagination be your guide: Make noodles with other vegetables such as carrots, beets, sweet or Yukon Gold potatoes (peeled), butternut squash, or broccoli stems. Steam or sauté dense vegetables and then toss them with unrefined coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil, sesame seed oil and minced ginger, or pesto sauce. Try combining more than one vegetable for a colorful and extra nutrient-dense meal.

Want more pepper recipes? Try our Roasted Red Pepper Hummus and Cajun Rub.

Susan Ojanen is an integrative nutrition coach in Bristol, Tennessee, and owner of She is passionate about helping clients worldwide achieve their health goals by creating sensible and maintainable lifestyle changes.

Learn more about the health and medical experts who who provide you with the cutting-edge resources, tools, news, and more on Pain-Free Living.
About Our Experts >>

Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.