The Healing Power of Pepper

by Dr. Julian Whitaker
Filed Under: General Health
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

I love pepper. In restaurants I routinely unscrew the lids of pepper shakers to get more on my food. After salt, black pepper is the most popular seasoning in the world. The “king of spices” comes from Piper nigrum, a flowering vine native to India that has been prized throughout history. Pepper was also valued by traditional healers, who used it to treat a number of ills.

Today, pepper is primarily used for culinary purposes—but it does contain one phytonutrient that is garnering attention in medical research: piperine. This alkaloid is responsible for pepper’s pungent flavor and its annoying ability to cause sneezing. A potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, it increases the activity of pancreatic enzymes required for digestion and boosts thermogenesis, or energy burning. It also significantly increases the absorption and bioavailability of nutrients and other substances.

When piperine is taken with certain supplements, it increases blood levels of those nutrients. For example, adding 5 mg of piperine to 120 mg of coenzyme Q10 for two weeks resulted in a 30 percent higher blood level of CoQ10 than when CoQ10 was taken alone. Beta-carotene, vitamin B6, and selenium have been shown to be similarly affected. Piperine is often added to curcumin supplements (an anti-inflammatory phytonutrient from turmeric) because it can increase their bioavailability by as much as 2,000 percent!

Piperine does this by stimulating the transport of certain substances across the intestinal walls and inhibiting enzymes involved in metabolism and detoxification. As a result, these nutrients are able to reach target tissues and remain there longer.

But there’s a downside. Piperine has similar effects on a fairly extensive list of drugs, including beta blockers, barbiturates, Dilantin, theophylline, and sildenafil (Viagra). It makes them stay in the system longer and at higher levels, which may increase toxicity. This could also be used to advantage, allowing for lower dosing and increased effectiveness. I believe we’re going to be hearing a lot more about piperine in the future.

For now, enjoy some freshly ground black pepper, and don’t worry about interactions—you won’t get enough piperine to do any harm.

Now it’s your turn: What’s your favorite food to sprinkle pepper on?


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