Nature – with her unparalleled array of antioxidant, vitamin, and mineral-packed plant-foods– is, indeed a true healer. Some of her most potent nutrients are probably sitting in your fridge or kitchen cabinet right now. You probably already know that herbs like garlic and spices like turmeric offer all sorts of health benefits. But did you know that plain old black pepper, that dinnertime staple for generations of Americans, is also more than just a tasty condiment? I’m happy to tell you that black pepper contains health-promoting nutrients and compounds, and supports healthy digestion.
Where Does Black Pepper Come From?
The pepper grains you sprinkle on your baked potato or steak actually begin life as the fruit of the pepper plant, Piper nigrum, a tropical vine native to India. Peppercorns are the vine’s dried berries, and they are ground into the finely grained pepper most people are used to. Peppercorns harvested at different stages of ripeness and processed in different ways will yield either black, green or white pepper. Since pepper adds a bit of heat and flavor to so many foods, it is used in some form just about everywhere in the world.
Why Is Pepper Healthy?
The humble peppercorn offers antioxidants (vitamin K) as well as several minerals, including manganese and calcium, that support general health and well being. Black pepper’s primary constituent is the powerful phytochemical piperine. Best known for it’s “heat,” piperine helps us better digest our food and might even help with weight loss. Here’s a roundup of the key ways I’ve found that black pepper promotes health.
Pepper Supports Digestive Health
Pepper is a carminative, which means it can reduce intestinal gas. That’s probably due to the fact that the taste of pepper appears to trigger the stomach to release more hydrochloric acid, a substance that’s necessary for breaking down foods, especially protein from meat and other sources. Pepper can also boost the production of digestive enzymes in the pancreas, which will help food break down more efficiently. See, food that sits in the stomach for too long can lead to heartburn and indigestion.
Black peppercorns contain a surprising array of essential vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin K, an antioxidant known for supporting healthy blood, as well as potassium, manganese, iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium. Pepper also contains small amounts of the B-vitamins pyridoxine (or B6), riboflavin, niacin and thiamin, as well as Vitamins A and E. It also includes flavonoids such as carotenes, zeaxanthin and lycopene. All these plant nutrients help you maintain healthy cells, and thus overall health.
But it’s piperine that’s really the life of this micronutrient party because it brings synergy to the table. Specifically, piperine enhances the bioavailability of various therapeutic drugs and herbs like curcumin (turmeric), which means that your body can better absorb them.
Pepper May Help Ease Congestion
Although you won’t find much scientific literature on this, many “home remedies” for colds, flu and other types of respiratory problems call for black pepper to help fight congestion. Next time you’re a little under the weather, try adding it to raw honey, hot apple cider, spicy chicken soup and other soothing concoctions; it just might help ease your upper respiratory symptoms.
Pepper May Support Healthy Skin and Hair
You can also mix pepper with ingredients like honey, yogurt or carrier oils like jojoba oil for topical use on your skin and hair – who knew? These homemade pepper mixtures may actually encourage a clearer, smoother, and softer complexion, and sleeker, shinier hair. Wendy Allred, the education manager at the NY-based Bliss Spa, attributes the skin improvements to pepper’s beneficial effect on circulation, which in turn results in more nutrients and oxygen getting delivered to skin cells. Pepper’s granular texture also acts as a scrub to help remove dead cells.
Don’t forget, though, that pepper can be an irritant – so before you use it on your skin or scalp for the first time, I’d recommend trying out a bit of the mixture first to see if it reddens or dries your skin.
Pepper May Help Support Brain Health
Some studies suggest that Piperine, the active ingredient in black pepper, might help keep your mind sharp and your mood steady. In rats, piperine extract has been shown to enhance cognitive function and have anti-depressant effects; researchers also note its antioxidant potential. Studies (of humans) have shown us that eating a Mediterranean diet, full of lots of antioxidant-rich veggies and fruits, and healthy fats like olive oil, can improve brain function. So, it makes sense that the beneficial compounds in pepper might support healthy brain function too. Pepper also supplies some magnesium, a mineral that helps to regulate mood.
What About Cayenne Pepper?
Cayenne, or red pepper, is no slouch in the nutrition department, either. Yet despite its name, it has no relation to black pepper whatsoever. Cayenne pepper is made from the fruit of a plant in the capsicum family, not from the berries of Piper nigrum. Still, because cayenne is widely known as “pepper,” I’m going to include it here because it has its own formidable health-promoting properties.
Cayenne pepper contains capsaicin, a substance that has a thermogenic effect on the body and promotes blood flow and the health of cells and blood vessels. Capsaicin is used to ease musculoskeletal pain, and is the key ingredient in various over-the-counter creams which ease muscle and joint pain. Capsaicin supports cardiovascular health by encouraging healthy circulation, and some research also suggests that cayenne pepper might even help make blood vessels more flexible.
Additionally, cayenne pepper is rumored to help with weight loss – the “heat” is thought to stimulate metabolism so the body burns calories faster. It also can slightly suppress the appetite, so if you consume cayenne pepper in the morning, you could feel less hunger – and thus eat less – throughout the rest of the day.
There’s one caveat with cayenne pepper: too much of it can harm DNA. I suggest limiting eating hot peppers to once a week and not supplementing with more than 2,000 IU a day.
Beyond the Pepper Shaker: New Ways to Use Pepper
Although people usually sprinkle pepper on food or add it to cooking, there are many other ways to take advantage of its beneficial properties. Many people take pepper mixed with lemon juice and water as a morning “tonic,” or they add a dash of pepper to a mixture of turmeric and milk for a “golden milk” drink, since the pepper can enhance the absorption of anti-inflammatory turmeric. And as I’ve mentioned, you can mix pepper with a variety of kitchen staples for topical uses.
I, myself, decided to mix black and white pepper with juniper berries when developing my signature pepper blend. Best known for infusing gin with distinctive flavor, juniper is also often utilized in Northern European cuisine to enliven meats and sauerkrauts with a slightly piney flavor that has fruity undertones. Like black pepper, juniper berries are also known for providing digestive support, and the distinguishing gourmet flavor they add is the perfect pepper compliment!
Available just about anywhere, pepper is an essential (not to mention, delicious) kitchen staple – but it does much more than add flavor. Boasting vitamins, minerals and age-defying antioxidants, pepper is one of Nature’s best kept health secrets…Hey, every little bit helps!
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