May 25, 2004 (Orlando, Fla.) -- The ingredient that gives red peppers their fire shows promise for helping people with asthma breathe better, wheeze less, and generally feel better, a small study shows.
The substance, capsaicin, first stimulates, and then blocks, tiny nerves that can induce coughing, shortness of breath, and other asthma symptoms, says Virendra Singh, MD, professor of medicine at S.M.S. Medical College in Jaipur, India.
Red Pepper Paradox
Speaking here at the American Thoracic Society Meeting, a major meeting of lung specialists, Singh tells WebMD that capsaicin acts on the nerve endings, setting off a chain reaction in the body that eventually leads to inflammation of the airways -- the hallmark of asthma.
So wouldn't that cause an asthma attack?
Perhaps, but here's the interesting twist: Given in increasing amounts over a period of time, capsaicin desensitizes those same nerves, thereby reducinginflammation, Singh explains.
E. Neil Schachter, MD, the Dr. Maurice Hexter Professor of Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, calls the work "interesting."
The approach makes sense from a biological point of view, he tells WebMD. "Presumably what is happening is that when you first give it, capsaicin is irritating [the lungs], people cough more, and so on. But if you keep taking it, it washes [inflammation-causing] chemicals like histamine out of the system. So you have a period when none of these chemicals are around and you feel comfortable.
Which is just what happened to Singh's patients?
Capsaicin Halves Release of Lung Irritating Chemical
Compared with the placebo treatment, capsaicin cut in half the amount of histamine that was released -- a chemical that is released when the lungs are irritated. Reduced histamine means reduced airway inflammation, Singh reports.
The participants also had improved breathing with the capsaicin treatment versus placebo.
It wasn't all pleasant: Five patients had a bout of coughing after the capsaicin treatment, while two had watery noses and a burning sensation in their throats. But all the side effects resolved within a few minutes, Singh says.
The next step: larger, longer studies to see if the hot, new treatment actually reduces the number of asthma attacks.