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Green Chile for Medicinal Purposes

By Mike Ratchett

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  Through the centuries, the chile pepper has been prescribed to treat ailments ranging from jaundice and malaria to ulcers and gonorrhea. The Mayans made a potion derived from chile called ic, which was ingested to treat diarrhea and cramps and used externally on the gums to relieve toothache. The Aztecs used mashed hot peppers to relieve muscle and skeletal ache in much the same way as people today use products like Icy Hot and Ben-Gay.

The active ingredient in chile-as-medicine is the very same chemical that makes it hot: capsaicin (often mistaken for the word capsicum, which is, in fact, the genus to which chili peppers belong). And capsaicin, it turns out, behaves like no other known chemical. For instance, its ability to relieve pain topically is something of a mystery. Rubbed on the skin, capsaicin attracts the body's pain messengers selectively, then diffuses the neurons that carry those messages to the brain. That it does so discriminatingly makes it unique. Based on this property, researchers developed a capsaicin cream that is the only accepted effective treatment for herpes zoster, commonly called shingles, a viral infection that manifests itself as a painful rash along nerve lines and affects tens of thousands of people each year. Recent studies have also hinted that green chile may reduce the risk of heart attack and prevent some forms of cancer.

But, as anyone who regularly indulges in green chile-laced cuisine will tell you, the hot fruit is unquestionably the best cold remedy going. Again, capsaicin is the key. In the unafflicted respiratory tract, mucus travels happily through the sinus system by way of hairlike structures called cilia which propel thin, healthy mucus from the lower lungs to the breathing passages and into the throat and sinuses. Everybody wins. When struck with a cold, however, mucus becomes thick, sticky and therefore impossible for the tiny cilia to move. Expectorant drugs are employed, basically, to loosen mucus and get it moving again. One such drug, Robitussin, contains an ingredient called guaifenesin, derived from guaiacol which has the same chemical structure as capsaicin. Both work the same way: In the stomach, the chemicals stimulate receptor cells which stimulate the Vagus nerve, sending the vagus reflex to the bronchial glands, asking them politely to secrete more water into the mucus. And thin mucus is good mucus. So the next time you reach for that overpriced bottle of nasty-tasting cough syrup, consider a hot bowl of green chile stew instead--it's cheaper, tastes better and does exactly the same thing without the numbing effect of alcohol and other depressants.

Think carrots contain the highest concentration of beta carotene, the hydrocarbon that is converted into vitamin A in the liver? They actually contain only a fraction of what chile stores up. And chiles contain plenty of vitamin C as well. Spanish sailors ate chile for the same reason European sailors ate limes: to prevent scurvy.

Surprisingly, capsaicin appears to have no adverse effects on the digestive tract, including the stomach lining, likely because it appears to stimulate mucus rather than acid production. Studies have shown that low concentrations of the chemical can prevent stomach ulcers in rats and, more recently, in humans. And, as the Mayans knew, capsaicin is effective in the treatment of diarrhea.

Currently, studies are underway to explore medicinal uses for the chile pepper in the treatment of asthma, bronchitis, hemophilia, obesity, alcoholism, heart disease and some forms of cancer. Very soon, the chile pepper may emerge as the most useful fruit on the planet. But until then, Nurse Ratchett highly recommends that you just keep eating it.

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