Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Pepper Panacea

As my interests on the chile chase lie more towards the medicinal/preventative health end of things, AND there seems to be an endless list of ailments that chiles will help to prevent and/or cure, I wanted to offer the following as an introduction to the amazing power of the pepper!

To begin with, all peppers are high in vitamins A, C and K, are a great source of fiber, and red peppers are well endowed with lycopene. Most of the beneficial medicinal properties in chile peppers come from the capsaicinoids found in all species in the genus Capsicum.

It is, as you loyal readers will of course know by now, the capsaicinoids that give chile peppers their heat. The hotter the chile pepper the more capsaicinoids and the greater the potential benefit (or harm!) of a given pepper. It is always possible to overdose of course, so it's no surprise that pepper power must not be over-used or abused when doing a body good.

To understand the amazing versatility of the chile pepper as a remedy or ingredient in a remedy, one must distinguish between the health benefits of eating (ingesting) peppers and the use of peppers in various forms as a topically applied curo - pultices, creams, gels, shampoos, powders, etc.


Research indicates a diet regularly including hot chile peppers may:
- help to reduce the negative effects of LDL cholesterol (Woo Hoo! Heather can eat butter again!!!)
- help to increase the efficiency of insulin production and use by the body
- help to protect AGAINST stomach ulcers caused by the bacteria H. pylori (by affecting the chemicals the stomach secretes in response to infection)
- help to reduce the risk of food-borne diseases caused by microbial contamination in foods that go unrefrigerated (another "Woo Hoo!" for Heather's endless cause to keep street tacos from wreaking havoc!)
- cause cancer cells to grow more slowly and even die
- increase the capacity to lose weight and therefore reduce obesity
- promote the production and efficient use of insulin, helping to prevent and maybe even combat diabetes

Capsaicin in various topical forms can provide relief from chronic joint pain and arthritis, increase blood flow and promote localized pain reduction at the site of a cut or wound, and help to ease the pain of cluster headaches (a type of migraine) when applied to the head as a cream.

As an ingredient in shampoos, Capsaicin is thought to help promote hair growth. We've consistently found chile shampoos all over Mexico anywhere that hair products/shampoos/soaps are sold, specifically targeted at those who want to have fuller, thicker hair and prevent hair from falling out!

When ground-up, hot chile powder is used to promote localized blood clotting (when applied to the site of a cut) and when applied to the gums on a cotton ball, can reduce the pain associated with some kinds of tooth aches.

As a frostbite preventative, sprinkling hot pepper powder into shoes and gloves can help to increase (and maintain) blood flow to the digits in cold weather.

To induce sneezing and help advance labor during childbirth, some midwives in Northern Mexico suggest inhaling chiltepin powder. In the same region, indigenous women of several tribes will rub chile powder on their nipples to help wean their little ones when the time is right.

Hot chile peppers, when eaten, are well known to be a pick me up. The pain response to eating/ingesting the phytochemicals (capcasianoids) that make chiles "hot" causes the body to release endorphins, having a similar effect as a "runner's high." This might explain Kraig's joie de vive!

In some parts of the Americas, pepper tinctures are drunk to keep the memory sharp and to maintain the proper balance of "hot" and "cold winds" in one's constitution. And gents, in Mexico in particular, it is well known that the more chile you eat and the hotter the pepper you can handle, the more macho and, eh hem, "fiery" you'll be with the ladies. We had an 80+ year old sesame farmer from Southern Oaxaca tell us about a "pepper shot" of chile del monte, garlic and lime juice that he drinks every single morning to "maintainer un hombre muy hombre" (to keep a man very manly)!


  • "The Healing Powers of Peppers: With Chile Pepper Recipes and Folk Remedies for Better Health and Living" (1998) by Dave Dewitt, Melissa T. Stock and Kellye Hunter. Three Rivers Press, pp224.
  • "Bush Medicine: Fold Cures with Chile Peppers" by Dave DeWitt ( with some great "recipes" for various kinds of pepper remedies
  • Billing J, Sherman PW (1998). "Antimicrobial functions of spices: why some like it hot". The Quarterly review of biology 73 (1): 3–49
**DISCLAIMER: Try all remedies/preventative uses at your own risk! ...and careful not to touch your eyes or other sensitive skin areas (!) after handling hot peppers, unless of course you're looking for a rush of pepper pain!!!

From the web...

I came across this video during some procrastination. This unsuspecting sideline reporter tries to eat a Bhut Jolokia, the world's hottest pepper, for a special interest piece to play during a telecast of a New Mexico State football game. His reaction when he asks how low long the hellacious burn in his mouth will last is priceless.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Chile Chase Nearly Stumbles Into Guatemala!

Its funny how things work out...

Last Sunday, we left the Yucatán peninsula for Oaxaca, where we had arranged a meeting with a chile researcher form the area. As we headed South and West from Tulum (on the Caribbean coast), the driving conditions rapidly deteriorated as rain fell steadily throughout the state of Tabasco. When we reached Villahermosa, streets were flooded, farms were under water, and the storm was in full force. This was to be the beginning of the worst floods in the region in 50 years( over half a million people are homeless and all the crops are lost). But back to the chase… once in Villahermosa and back in cell phone range, I get a call that our meeting had been canceled and that we would be on our own for tracking down wild peppers in Oaxaca. Rather than push through the bad weather, we decided to taka a small detour and head to San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas. Because of the rain, we made it to Tuxla Gutierrez, Chiapas, that night. After dinner and checking email, I found that my collaborators in Aguascalientes had tracked town some potential contacts in Chiapas after all. What great timing! Following this lead, the next day we walked into the state botanical and ecology museum and to the herbarium, where dried plant samples from all over the state are kept and catalogued. After a look at their Capsicum specimens and taking note where the plants had been found, the director of the herbarium volunteered to take us around Chiapas on a wild chile hunt, leaving the next morning. We spent the rest of Monday in the public market, learning about some of the local cultivated chile varieties and how chiles are used (and stored) locally. Here is a brief photo interlude…

Chile blanco in the market
Chile mira para arriba - literally looks up - a description of how the fruit grows on the plant.
In Chiapas, the pickled chiles are made with pure lime juice rather than vinegar. 
The ladies of the market love the chino loco who asks about chiles. 

Tuesday morning, we were off “on the chase” again. The director of the herbarium wanted to aprovechar (take advantage of, but in a benign way) this trip to run some papers to various offices around the state! Off we go to Comitán, near the border, and using the local name for wild chile, tempenchile, we ask about whearabouts. Down that road another 40 minutes – and we’re redirected again, further on.... another 40 minutes and we are 5 km from the border of Guatemala! Here we finally find what we’re looking for in the ejido of San Caralompia. A friendly older farmer takes us to his milpa (across a river on a great suspension bridge!) and offers us as many of his tempenchile as we can fill sample envelopes with.

Heather tests out the suspension bridge with apprehension!
These are the chiles we are looking for... after a long chase to the border. 

Over the next day and a half, we made a few more collections in Chiapas, seeing much of the state’s central valley in the process! And to think, none of this would have happened had the weather and a cancelled appointment not forced us to detour. Its hard to plan these things…

Guatemala is to your left, just off the picture.