Before everyone was doing liver detoxes and drinking celery juice, there was the Master Cleanse—you know, that diet that involved consuming nothing but lemon water, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper for 10 days. Although we’d never (!) recommend you try this (or any cleanse, really), it did get one thing right: Each of the ingredients in the signature drink does have some legit health benefits, cayenne pepper included.
“Cayenne pepper has long been used for its medicinal properties and as a bold spice for cooking,” says BZ Nutrition founder Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD, CDN. She notes that cayenne originally hails from Central and South America—in the US, it’s most readily found in the spice aisle in dried, powdered form.
According to Zeitlin, cayenne’s wellness cred lies mainly in capsaicin, the compound in chili peppers that makes them hot. (It has certain other powers too—more on that in a sec.) And cayenne has more capsaicin than both jalapeño and serrano peppers. So perhaps that’s why we’re seeing it all over the health-food scene today, from Dirty Lemon tonics to organic chocolate to energy bars. But what, exactly, can cayenne do for us—besides making us sweat more than a barre class? Read on to find out.
4 cayenne pepper benefits you should know about
1. Cayenne pepper may help boost metabolism
Yep, this is exactly why cayenne was included in the Master Cleanse mix. “Since these peppers are hot, they increase the heat your body produces,” explains Zeitlin. “That, in turn, makes you burn more calories—this process is called diet-induced thermogenesis.” A few small studies have backed this up, with energy expenditure and fat oxidation both increasing after subjects ate hot pepper-infused meals (although these were both extremely small studies, so more research needs to be done before anything is super-conclusive).
One other note: It’s possible to build up a cayenne tolerance. “As you consume more cayenne over time and your body becomes used to the new temperature, the metabolic boost decreases,” says Zeitlin. So you may want to rely on other strategies besides mainlining cayenne for long-term metabolic lifts.
2. Cayenne is high in antioxidants
Not only do hot peppers like cayenne contain a lot of the same antioxidants as other veggies (like vitamins A and E), but capsaicin is actually an antioxidant itself. And, as you may have heard, antioxidants are super critical for staving off diseases caused by free radicals—unstable molecules that our bodies create in response to the daily stresses of living. “Antioxidants stop free radicals from causing damage in the body that leads to chronic illnesses, like cancers and inflammation,” explains Zeitlin.
3. Its capsaicin could be helpful for pain
You’ll often see capsaicin as an active ingredient in topical pain-relief products prescribed for things like nerve damage, osteoarthritis, and back pain. But why? “Capsaicin helps to reduce the amount of substance P produced by the body, which is a neuropeptide that the body sends to the brain to signal pain,” explains Zeitlin. “The less substance P there is, the less feelings of pain the brain registers.” That said, these products can sometimes cause pain, inflammation, itching, and other gnarly reactions, so if you have sensitive skin, you may want to stay clear.
4. Cayenne may help clear up congestion
In some medical traditions, capsaicin-containing peppers like cayenne are used to help thin out mucus when someone’s got a cold. (There’s a reason why cayenne’s usually an ingredient in those wellness shots you see at juice bars.) One study found that a capsaicin nasal spray did, in fact, help reduce nasal congestion, sinus pain, and headache in a sample of 20 people. However, that research was funded by the nasal spray brand used in the study—and it’s not known whether consuming cayenne pepper or using a different nasal spray preparation would have a similar effect. (So please don’t snort cayenne thinking it could cure your cold.)
Is there anyone who shouldn’t have cayenne pepper?
While cayenne’s generally considered safe, there are a few instances in which it may leave you feeling not-so-hot.
“If you suffer from heart burn or indigestion, you may want to avoid spicy foods in general, cayenne included,” says Zeitlin. “Also, if you are on any medications for blood pressure or blood thinners, you want to check with your doctor first before adding any cayenne pepper to your diet. And if you have any open wounds or broken skin, you should not use capsaicin cream on that area.”
6 easy (and delish!) ways to get your cayenne pepper fix
The first rule of eating anything spicy, per Zeitlin? “Start with a little bit first, as overdoing it with your spicy foods can cause an upset stomach,” she says. A small pinch on your food should be plenty to begin with.
From there, however, you’d be surprised at how versatile cayenne can be. “You can add it to your stir-fries, stews, sandwiches, dressings, and marinades,” suggests Zeitlin. “Personally, I love to add some to my eggs for an extra kick, throw some on my tacos or burgers, and sprinkle some into my water with a little lemon for a spicier twist to my traditional H2O.” Here are a few more recipes to get you started—curated from wellness and food experts who know their way around a spice rack.
1. Massy Arias’ ACV-cayenne tonic
Before she starts her day, the trainer downs her signature inflammation-fighting tonic—one that involves apple cider vinegar, cayenne powder, turmeric, lemon, and raw honey. Think of it as an updated take on that Master Cleanse concoction. (Except in this case, an actual breakfast is totally encouraged.)
2. Bowl of Delicious’ Crispy Spicy Roasted Chickpeas
Consider this the ultimate antidote to the 3 p.m. slump—simply toss together chickpeas, cumin, cayenne, and a little olive oil and S&P, and roast in the oven. The recipe’s developer, Elizabeth, says these crunchy chickpeas are a great sub-in when you’ve got a Hot Cheetos craving, and you can also toss them into trail mix or on top of a salad.
3. Deliciously Ella’s Miso Mushroom Noodles
Food blogger Ella Woodward uses cayenne as an unexpected ingredient in her miso mushroom noodles, stirring it in with ramen, coconut milk, and peanut butter. “It’s my new obsession. It’s the perfect 10-minute meal,” Woodward writes on Instagram.
4. Nutrition Stripped’s Mexican Chocolate “Zoats”
Cayenne for breakfast? Oh yes, it’s a thing. Nutrition Stripped founder (and Well+Good Council member) McKel Hill includes a dash of the hot stuff in this chocolatey take on “zoats”—a zucchini, egg, and oat mixture that’s served warm like oatmeal. “I love using chocolate, cinnamon, and cayenne together,” she says, praising the combo for its “sweet heat.”
5. Cookie + Kate’s Redeeming Green Soup with Lemon and Cayenne
Fact: There’s nothing better than a warming bowl of soup in the winter. This one will make you extra toasty, thanks to the cayenne, and it’ll give you a big hit of leafy greens. Blogger Kathryne Taylor suggests serving it as a side with your avo toast, or turning it into a full meal with a base of basmati rice and chickpeas.
6. Eat Real Food’s Spicy Goji Smoothie
Feeling the morning-after effects of a giant meal? Blogger Heather Cox suggests throwing mango, oranges, goji berries, cayenne, and turmeric into your blender. Never mind the fact that this smoothie might give your metabolism a temporary lift—doesn’t it just sound straight-up refreshing?
Did you know you should freeze spices before storing them in your pantry? Here’s the gross reason why. And if prefer your spices in liquid form, get the 411 on whether sriracha’s healthy or not.
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