When fiery cayenne takes the pain away - Home Medicine Cycle 37

It's counter intuitive. If you've ever bitten into a cayenne pepper or even eaten something with too much dried cayenne powder in it, you surely are no stranger to pain. And yet cayenne pepper can also take pain away and combat some of modern medicine's most distressing foes.

Creative Commons image by Chris Vaughan

Creative Commons image by Chris Vaughan

Many herbalists carry cayenne tincture in their first-aid kits to stop heart attacks. Some go so far as to say that if you want to know only one herb, you should know cayenne because it simply saves lives. Here is a recipe for tincture which can be used with cayenne.

In emergencies patients have also been saved from heart attacks by a teaspoon of cayenne pepper from the spice shelf mixed in a cup of hot water to make a kind of cayenne tea. Cayenne pepper has been used by doctors for heart disease and as a supplement for cardiovascular health.

Several studies have shown cayenne to be effective in preventing heart attacks, managing diabetes and mitigating painful symptoms caused by chemotherapy treatments. One study in 2005, even showed cayenne killing cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed. 

On the tongue cayenne may burn, but on unbroken skin or even the lining of the stomach the burning turns to a soothing, tingling warmth. Certain types of stomach discomfort--including dyspepsia and ulcers--can be quieted with capsules of cayenne pepper powder taken both immediately for first aid and as a regular supplement for people suffering from chronic conditions.

One of the most widespread uses of cayenne as an herbal medicinal is for the treatment of joint pain, including arthritis. Rubbed on the skin, cayenne juice or ointments made with it feel warm or even hot. The sensation is generally soothing but the skin technically registers pain from the burning of the cayenne and a neurological process causes the nerves under the skin to suppress the sensation of pain in the joints below. 

With it's heating properties, cayenne also breaks up congested mucus. Cayenne can thus be effectively used to treat viral infections like the flu whenever there is a lot of mucus congestion. The spicy juice or tea made with cayenne can also sooth a swollen and painful throat when sweet lozenges have a much smaller effect. And some of the most irritating dry coughs can be stopped with cayenne. Some use it to prevent migraine headaches. 

Cayenne has been found to be effective against some fungal pathogens. Still I must bust a few myths here. An old globetrotter's legend claims that cayenne and other hot peppers kill food-born bacteria and parasites and thus eating spicy food may be a way to stave off traveler's diarrhea or even food poisoning in areas where the sources of food may be sketchy. Unfortunately, this myth is baseless. Cayenne, despite all its fire is much less effective as a disinfectant herb than many humbler plants. 

However, the rumor may have been started by the fact that many cultures have used cayenne as an aid to digestion for hundreds of years. The hot peppers in your food, particularly cayenne, do provide health benefits to the stomach, but this has much more to do with aiding metabolism, relieving intestinal gas and encouraging the healthy motion of the intestines. That feeling you may have that bland food makes you stuck and some hot peppers tend to get things flowing... well, that actually is based on some amount of fact.

The fact that cayenne boosts metabolism hints that it might be helpful in maintaining a healthy body weight but the issue goes further than that. A study at he Laval University in Quebec found that test subjects who included cayenne pepper in their breakfast later felt less appetite for further food and thus had a lower calorie intake over the whole day. Cayenne appears to suppress appetite over a matter of hours, although many people enjoy the taste of it initially.

Cayenne can be eaten in food. The dried powder can be added to water or tea or put into capsules and taken as a supplement. For joint and muscle pain a massage oil can be made from 1 tablespoon cayenne, 2 tablespoons crushed mustard seed, 1 tablespoon fresh ginger and 1 cup olive or almond oil. Set the mixture in the sun in a glass jar to infuse for two weeks. Then strain the oil and use it to massage painful joints and muscles. DO NOT use this oil on broken or raw skin. Even so, it may sting initially but is often found to relieve pain better after multiple uses. 

The painkiller, anti-inflammatory and first-aid herb: Home Medicine Cycle 17

I must have been thirteen when I was away at summer camp and I was first assailed by crippling cramps. Then every month for twenty years I spent a few hours in excruciating pain, while waiting for my heavy doses of Ibuprofen to kick in. I had to take the maximum dose for two or three days just avoid writhing on the floor in pain. It wasn't a matter of being pain free, but of having less pain.

Creative commons image by Randi Hausken

Creative commons image by Randi Hausken

Doctors told me it was just something I had to live with. I knew the pills weren't good for my liver, but there was no hope in sight.

So, you can bet that I was ready to try just about anything. I tried various home remedies (heat packs, special diets and so forth), but nothing worked appreciably, until I discovered yarrow.

This was at the very beginning of my experimentation with herbs, so I had no real belief that it would work. I originally started studying herbs out of a romantic enthusiasm for fantasy books with herbalists in them. For real life, I had been taught that herbs are mild, gentle and only slightly effective. They might smooth out rough skin, but they couldn't touch extreme pain. .

When I read that yarrow could help with menstrual cramps, I hoped that it might mean I could cut back a few of the ten toxic, maximum strength Ibuprofen I was taking every month. That would be well worth the effort. 

Creative Commons image by  O. Pichard of Wikipedia

Creative Commons image by  O. Pichard of Wikipedia

An herbalist friend taught me to make tincture (like this). I already knew very well that yarrow isn't poisonous and that I'm not allergic to it, because my brothers and I used to use yarrow leaves to pretend we were smoking when we were kids. I had chewed up quite a few of yarrow leaves pretending to be a farmhand with tobacco in my cheek. I'm not sure why we chose the excruciatingly bitter yarrow plant for this, but that was the rule of the rural kid-mafia back then.

In any case, I knew the plant was safe, so I made my first tincture and swallowed some before my next attack of menstrual cramps. I was too chicken not to take Ibuprofen as soon as I felt the first twinge. I knew that if I left it too long, I would be acting like a worm on a fishhook for the next few hours. Usually about four hours after I took the Ibuprofen it would start to wear off and the dull ache would give way serious cramps again. Then it would be time to hastily take another pill. 

Warnings: You don't get heavy-duty healing effects without heavy-duty medicine. Herbs are real medicine and it is a good idea to consult with doctors about your health and about taking herbs. 

People who are allergic to plants in the Aster family (including ragweed) may have allergic reactions to yarrow. Pregnant women should not take yarrow because the relaxing effects on the uterus could theoretically contribute to miscarriage. Yarrow can conflict with medications meant to thin the blood or drugs that reduce production of stomach acid. 

But this time, I forgot to take the Ibuprofen again for the simple reason that I didn't feel the cramps returning. I didn't even feel the dull ache for a few hours. When I did remember, I took more tincture cautiously. That month I only needed two Ibuprofen. Within a year, I had figured out the dosage so that I only needed one Ibuprofen every month and then often none at all.

Now that is herb power!

Here's how yarrow tincture works to quell menstrual cramps. It's an anti-inflammatory, it slows bleeding, it stimulates the uterus and estrogen in the body, and it relaxes the large flat muscles. That means that it may not work this well for some types of cramps. It will work best for cramps in large flat muscles (including strained muscles in the back). It's worth a try for any type of menstrual cramps and it can  help to regulate overly heavy menstruation (and prevent anemia). 

Creative Commons image by Curtis Clark

Creative Commons image by Curtis Clark

In order to control cramps as bad as mine, I have to take half a teaspoon of tincture every two hours, starting as soon as I know the cramps are coming (before they've actually started.) If I don't take it within the first few hours and the cramps get going, I'm in for a bad few hours. I don't have to wake up at night to take the yarrow tincture every two hours but I do have to have it by my bed and take it immediately before rising during the night or in the morning. 

Yarrow tincture works so well for this that it has quickly become indispensable. If I was to be banished to a city wasteland and I could only take one herb with me, it would be yarrow, and not just for issue of menstrual cramps. It is one of the most versatile and powerful herbs in general. 

Here are just a few uses:

  • I have seen yarrow ease painfully strained back muscles a number of times, converting several skeptical backpackers to herbalism.
  • It is one of the best herbs for slowing bleeding, both in wounds and internal bleeding.
  • It has strong anti-microbial and disinfectant qualities. The tincture can be used to disinfect cuts and the salve will help to keep dirty scrapes or cuts from getting infected (while helping to staunch bleeding).
  • Yarrow has been used for gastrointestinal problems that involve inflammation.

Happy herb gathering! It's the height of the wildcrafting season. Remember to be careful of correct identification and note that an herbal guide isn't the same as a prescription from a doctor or professional herbalist who has seen you personally.

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