Health Benefits of Cayenne Pepper

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 20, 2023
6 min read

If you like spice, you’re probably familiar with cayenne peppers. The long, thin, bright red chili pepper (Capsicum annuum) is a member of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family. It’s related to other capsicums, including sweet bell peppers, jalapeños, poblanos, serranos, and the notoriously spicy ghost peppers.

While cayenne pepper's not nearly as hot as ghost pepper, it still packs quite a punch on the Scoville scale, which measures the heat of chili peppers in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Cayenne peppers have a heat range of 30,000-50,000 SHUs, while ghost peppers have a higher heat level, ranging from 855,000 to 1.04 million SHUs.

Cayenne pepper is commonly dried and ground into a fine powder and has been important for centuries, in both cooking and medicine. It's very common in Cajun and Creole cuisines and widely used in traditional Ayurvedic and Eastern medicines, mostly for digestive and circulation problems.

The pepper grows on the cayenne shrub that likely originated in Central and South America, but today it's cultivated around the world in tropical climates such as India, East Africa, Mexico, and certain areas of the United States.

Not only are cayenne peppers delicious, but they also have capsaicin, which provides some remarkable health benefits.

Cayenne peppers can provide a variety of health benefits. These include:

Pain relief

The capsaicin in chili peppers, such as cayenne peppers, is what gives them their spice and “heat.” But it's also a pretty potent pain reliever. When you apply it topically to your skin, capsaicin can help with pain by reducing the amount of a chemical messenger known as substance P, which travels to your brain to signal discomfort. With less substance P, you feel less pain. The FDA has approved topical capsaicin treatment for certain kinds of nerve pain, and research on capsaicin injections to relieve arthritis pain is promising.

Psoriasis treatment

Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that makes your skin itchy, scaly, and covered with red patches. While there is currently no cure, topical capsaicin creams can help reduce itching and improve skin inflammation related to psoriasis.

Metabolism boost

Capsaicin increases the amount of heat that your body produces, giving a slight boost to your metabolism and causing you to burn slightly more calories. It’s also somewhat effective in reducing hunger, which might help you eat less throughout the day.

Digestive health

It might seem ironic because you probably associate spicy foods with heartburn. But the capsaicin in cayenne pepper actually stimulates the nerves in your stomach that produce digestive fluids, which helps your digestion. Research shows it may even help prevent the most common type of stomach ulcers, which are caused by the H. pylori bacteria.

Reducing heart disease 

Studies on animals have shown that the capsaicin in chili peppers may help reduce heart-related problems such as high blood pressure by calming inflammation, but we need more research to know if it translates to people.

Lowering cancer risks

Research is still in the early stages, but some studies show that capsaicin has strong anticancer abilities. It's been shown to target tumors and slow the growth and spread of cancer cells. It may even be able to kill certain types of cancer cells, including prostate, skin, and pancreatic.

Cayenne peppers, both fresh and dried, are safe to eat and can spice up many foods. But if you eat too much, you can have some unwanted side effects, such as upset stomach or heartburn. If you’re sensitive to spicy foods, you might feel a burning sensation in your mouth or on your lips, especially if you're eating raw peppers with seeds. 

The oily capsaicin in fresh cayenne peppers doesn't wash off easily, either. So be careful when you're chopping the peppers because it will be hard to clean off of your hands with soap and water. Try using vinegar instead, or wear gloves.

Don't rub your eyes after cutting fresh cayenne peppers. The capsaicin will cause burning, redness, and tearing. The symptoms will go away eventually.

Capsaicin can also interact with certain medications, including:

  • Blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin) and clopidogrel (Plavix)
  • Aspirin
  • Stomach acid reducers such as cimetidine (Tagamet), esomeprazole (Nexium), famotidine (Pepcid), omeprazole (Prilosec), and ranitidine (Zantac)
  • ACE inhibitors such as captopril (Capoten), enalapril (Vasotec), fosinopril (Monopril), and lisinopril (Zestril)

You might not be able to each too much at once, but you'll still benefit from all of cayenne pepper's nutrients packed into even the smallest portions.

For example, cayenne peppers are full of antioxidants, including:

In addition to these nutrients, cayenne peppers also have:

Nutrients per serving

Half a cup of fresh chopped cayenne pepper has about:

  • Calories: 30
  • Protein: 1.5 grams
  • Fat: 0.33 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 6.5 grams
  • Fiber: 1 gram
  • Sugar: 4 grams

Fresh peppers are better for you than the dried spice, but the powder is still a good source of nutrients like vitamin A.

 

You shouldn't have a problem finding fresh or ground cayenne pepper at your local grocery store. When you're buying fresh peppers, choose those that are bright, shiny, and firm. Avoid ones that are wrinkly, soft, or have dark spots.

To store fresh cayenne peppers, put them in a paper bag or wrap them in paper towels and place them in your refrigerator’s vegetable drawer. Don't use a plastic bag because it can hold in moisture and cause your peppers to get moldy and spoil faster. Only wash them when you’re ready to use them.

You can use fresh cayenne peppers or cayenne pepper powder in a variety of ways:

  • Add a dash of ground cayenne pepper to soups and stews.
  • Sprinkle chopped fresh cayenne peppers over your scrambled eggs, quiches, or egg salad.
  • Mix a teaspoon or two of ground cayenne pepper into hummus.
  • Add a pinch of ground cayenne pepper to your hot chocolate or homemade lemonade.
  • Add fresh chopped cayenne peppers to your next batch of sautéed vegetables.
  • Mix chopped fresh peppers into your favorite cornbread batter.
  • Combine fresh peppers and lemon juice with cooked greens such as collards or kale.

If you want a punch of flavor like that of cayenne peppers, but you're out of the spice and fresh versions, try one of these substitutes.

Paprika: It's one of the best options. Paprika is also made from chili peppers and is available in many different varieties, such as smoked. Hot paprika is the closest you'll get to the heat level of cayenne pepper. Just remember, cayenne pepper and paprika are made from different pepper varieties. Paprika has a mild, slightly sweet taste compared to cayenne pepper, which is deep and spicy.

Red chili flakes: These make another good choice, but you won't get the dark red color you'll get from cayenne pepper or paprika. Also, red chili flakes have less intense heat and flavor because they are dried flakes of red chilis without the seeds. You'd need to use about twice the amount of red chili flakes as cayenne pepper to get the same mouth heat. Just don't confuse red chili flakes with crushed red pepper, which does include the seeds, so it's seriously hot.

Chili powder: You can also grab some chili powder. It's not as hot as cayenne pepper, and it definitely has a very distinct flavor. So don't go overboard or your dish could wind up tasting, well, like chili.

If all else fails, hit your dish with some black pepper or hot sauce. They're not the same as cayenne pepper, but both will add a bit of spice and heat to whatever you're cooking.