To Bite Our daughter Caitlin started to call cayenne pepper "red shoes" when she was about three years old, and therein lies a tale that indicates the imaginative versatility of this beloved condiment. But before I tell you that tale, let me give you an idea of the range of health uses for "red-bird" pepper.
Its official name, Capsicum, is derived from the Greek word "to bite," and a single use will convince you that the herb is indeed to be treated with delicacy and respect. The surprise, then, is that cayenne, so pungent and biting to the tongue, is nonetheless benign and gentle within the body and is considered by some to be a reliable restorative and internal stimulant.
My personal experience with cayenne goes back to the time when I myself was but three years old and recuperating from a series of children's diseases, topped by a devastating mastoid infection. Having brought me back from death's door by some bold natural cures, Grandma took over the job of building my health back up again.
One of Grandma's edible invigorators was a chutney like preparation for which I developed quite a fondness at that time. It consisted of thinly sliced, unpeeled cucumbers, crushed shallots and chives, as well as several mashed "bird peppers," all soaked together in lemon juice and then in Madeira wine. I found out years later that this is essentially the recipe for West Indian "Mandram," an Island appetite stimulant and an aid for weak digestion.
Much of the best Capsicum comes from Zanzibar. But a good grade of this red pepper is said to also come from Louisiana. At any rate, this pungent herb was originally brought to Britain in the late 1500s as a condiment from India, where it was also used as one of the many medicinal herbs in Ayurvedic medicine.
StimulantMy own investigations into the historical use of cayenne in Western culture all seem to lead to Vermont born Samuel Thompson, one of the first ardent proponents of cayenne. Thompson was an interesting lay healer who developed a complete system of herbal and water cures, as well as other natural cures. In a burst of pride (and down to earth business sense), he sought to actually patent his herbal cures in the early 1800s, and to everyone's astonishment was given a patent! I don't know how he discovered the stimulating effects of cayenne or if its use as such was already known by local herbalists, but cayenne pepper did come to figure as one of the important herbs in his system.
Despite Thompson's patents, his herbal program leaked out and became a general part of the American materia medica of the 1800s. One part of that program usually included, as the second step, a dash of cayenne in a drink to insure internal stimulation.
Swinburne Clymer, in The Medicines of Nature, succinctly sums up the distinguished character of our condiment:
Capsicum increases the power of all other agents, helps the digestion when taken with meals, and arouses all the secreting organs. Whenever a stimulant is indicated, Capsicum may be given with the utmost safety, and should have first consideration, It is indicated in low fevers and prostrating diseases. Capsicum is non poisonous, and there is no reaction to its use. It is the only natural stimulant worthwhile considering in diarrhea or dysentery with bloody mucus, stools and offensive breath.
Digestive Aid The way to use cayenne as a digestive aid is simply this: Add a tiny pinch (remember that a little goes a long way) to cooked or raw foods, or add a dash to any hot soup or hot tea.
The herb is a source of vitamin C, and I know that some adventurous souls have learned to add as much as a third of a teaspoon to their daily diet. However, even an infinitesimal amount of cayenne, in food or drink, has an effect on the body, and thus your first experimentations with cayenne dosages should be conservative.
One very effective energizing drink is the combination of grape juice with cayenne. I usually add about a quarter of a teaspoon to a quart of unsweetened grape juice, and take this tangy drink on long trips to sustain us 'on our drive. It is also a delicious, nontoxic drink that can be helpful during school exam periods or at other times when alertness must be maintained for a prolonged period.
Remedies To combat sore throat, here is a sherry gargle. In this wine I steep everyday kitchen herbs, including cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a little cayenne pepper. It is an aromatic, tasty, and effective antiseptic gargle.
There is also an easy to make antiflu cayenne concoction which is a sure winner. Our family has been using it for some time, and it is one of the preparations I demonstrate in the "History and Uses of Herbs for Health" classes I conduct at several colleges. Personally, I like the taste of this cure, but my family does not. Therefore, at the very first school presentation I was surprised to discover that every one of the students in the class not only liked, but loved, the preparation. Perhaps several of them were on the verge of catching a cold that evening, because they seemed to crave the taste. One young woman, Amy, who was indeed coming down with a cold or flu, said that the preparation made her feel better almost immediately. Amy took the leftover preparation home with her that night and later told me that it worked almost miraculously.
Other men and women in my classes have used it to offset the blah feeling that comes on just before a cold or flu, claiming that they feel well the morning after taking the preparation. However, it is strong stuff, and two women with delicate stomachs reported slight stomach cramps on the day after its use. Since this has never happened to me, I don't know if it indicates that they produce more histamine or if the preparation should be buffered with an herbal antispasmodic such as chamomile. But if you have a delicate digestion, take tiny doses and spread them out during the day.
Ointment While cayenne can sometimes smart on the skin, a form of cayenne, oleoresin of capsicum, is often used in professional ointments designed to alleviate rheumatic and other such pains. An early 20th century physician, Dr. W. T. Fernie, reports that such a paste or cayenne ointment "never fails to relieve chronic rheumatism attacks." Since any ointment with cayenne will also stimulate the surface of the hand you use to rub on the ointment, it is wise to use a glove of some kind to apply it.
Persons with sensitive skin, delicate skin, or with known allergic response to stimulating substances should avoid such application.
BleedingCayenne has a sharp effect on the tongue, and will smart on the skin, so it seems like an unlikely candidate as a styptic. For bleeding, I actually prefer calendula (pot marigold) petals either in the form of expressed juice (Succus calendula), or calendula lotion, ointment, or tincture (use a few drops in water for cuts); but a few grains of cayenne will also stop bleeding almost immediately. I once used it on a gushing cut and it arrested the blood flow. American folk use also includes the use of a small amount of cayenne in hot water internally to staunch internal bleeding, even from bleeding ulcers; but I have had no personal experience in this regard. I did mention this once while lecturing at a health convention in Madison Square Garden, and asked people to comment on their own experience. One young man said he had drunk the cayenne with cold water, as it was a dire emergency, and that it had worked almost immediately. "It was fantastic," he reported. This use of cayenne for internal bleeding may be useful as a last resort in a crisis on a camping trip, or in some other case where help is remote. But it will be necessary to consult your physician about internal bleeding.
Toothache A few grains of cayenne will smart on the gum, and in a cavity, but will act as a temporary pain alleviator, until you get to your dentist.
Reaction to Alcohol Dr. W. T. Fernie reports that diluted tincture of capsicum (cayenne pepper) a few drops of the tincture plus water in doses of a half teaspoon at a time will calm agitation from extreme reaction to alcoholic beverages within a few hours, and even promote a calm sleep.
Add sixteen grains of cayenne to every fluid ounce of brandy, gin, or vodka to make your own tincture. This must be steeped for a week or more. Professional tinctures may be purchased from one of several excellent botanical sources. "Nature's Herbs" in Utah has a group, of medicinally useful tinctures, including tincture of capsicum (cayenne).
Cold Feet Now I want to explain why, when my daughter was a youngster, she called cayenne "red shoes." It's all so simple: during the bitter cold weather, and for ice skating, I sprinkled a combination of cayenne pepper and an inert dusting powder into our shoes. While it may stain the shoes, it protects the feet with a glow of warmth.
Sore Throat The United States Dispensatory notes one of the most important uses for cayenne is during a malignant sore throat, and in scarlet fever where it is used internally and as a gargle.
Doses Because of its sharp effect on the tongue, for internal use it is often useful to roll between five to ten grains of the cayenne pepper in some bread or cream cheese to create a pill. For a gargle, add an eighth of a teaspoon of the pepper to a pint of boiling water, or add a few drops of the tincture to rose water. It is a powerful stimulant on the surface of the body, and may be used in small amounts if a mustard plaster is not available, mixed either with apple cider vinegar, or heated whiskey, gin, or vodka, or spirits, to create circulation, in some forms of rheumatism.
Summing Up Cayenne pepper (capsicum) is one of the most important food herbs, and should be in constant use in your pantry, and always available in your medicine chest. It is a powerful stimulant, producing a sense of heat in the stomach, and a general glow over the body without a narcotic effect. A few grains in hot herbal tea especially peppermint, chamomile, or linden will instantly correct sluggish digestion and flatulence. In my experience, cayenne is not only a styptic, but an entirely remarkable body restorative. A few grains added to a herbal tea or water will help reduce many low fevers. A few grains of cayenne in boiling hot water which is then cooled, or added to a combination of common salt and apple cider vinegar, are useful as a gargle, and in tiny doses during the day as a preventative during epidemics of flu or other contagious diseases.
In epidemics and in cases of acute respiratory illness be sure to consult your own physician: cayenne's use as a control for internal or external bleeding is for those health emergencies where no medical or nursing help is immediately available.
In addition to powder form, cayenne (capsicum) may be purchased in tincture or extract form. Use only a few drops in water (up to fifteen drops in a glass of water).