The Health Benefits of Black Pepper

Ground pepper, or black pepper, is a woody, flowering vine native to southern India and cultivated throughout the Caribbean and tropical regions of Asia. It is a staple seasoning in virtually every cuisine in the world, and is most notably a companion to table salt. This ancient spice also has a long history of use in folk medicine to aid digestion. There are no significant side effects associated with pepper beyond making people sneeze, but consult your physician if you have a history of peptic ulcers or take other medications.


Botanical Background

Ground pepper is the dried, ground, berry-like drupes of Piper nigrum commonly known as peppercorns. Different colored peppercorns are the result of harvesting the fruits of the plant at various stages of maturity and processing them differently. Black pepper has been used for centuries in traditional medicine systems to counter gastrointestinal complaints. In Chinese medicine, pepper is used to treat nausea, bloating and vomiting, and in Ayurvedic medicine to reduce flatulence.


Chemical Composition

Pepper contains up to 45 percent polysaccharides and 10 percent fatty oils, as well as the volatile oils limonene, alpha-pinene, caryphyllene and sabinene. The pungent substances that lend pepper its spicy flavor are known as acid amides, the most prominent of which is an alkaloid called piperine. Pepper also contains a trace amount of safrole, a compound also found in sassafras, nutmeg, cinnamon and basil. This substance was once used to flavor root beer, but was banned in the United States in the 1970s upon the discovery that it was a low-grade liver carcinogen in rats.


Biological Actions

Piperine produces thermogenic effects, meaning it increases metabolism and the rate in which the liver breaks down fats. It also increases the production of saliva and gastric secretions. Piperine also demonstrates antimicrobial properties and, according to a study published in “Phytomedicine” in July 2011, reverses multi-drug resistance in cancer cells, making chemotherapy agents effective again. Although safrole was included in the 12th annual report on carcinogens published under the United States National Toxicology Program, a study published in the June 2011 issue of “Molecules” shows that several safrole derivatives isolated from pepper inhibit two human breast cancer cell lines without toxicity.


Safety Issues

You may not be able to tolerate ground pepper if your doctor has instructed you to adhere to a bland diet due to ulcers or while recovering from abdominal surgery. In addition, according to a study published in the “Journal of Ethnopharmacology” in August 2011, piperine may prevent intestinal absorption of pharmaceutical drugs that are metabolized by the same enzymes.

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