A blacksmith who never touches horses, a musician with only music paper, a physician who sees no patients, a theoretical ballet dancer, a pharmacist reduced to counting pills, an herbalist who gathers no plants.”
― Michael Moore, Southwest School of Botanical Medicine
You’re probably familiar with Black Pepper as a popular seasoning for food but did you know that Black Pepper is actually a great medicinal herb as well? Like many of our culinary herbs, Black Pepper is an important herb that has been used far back in history for medicine.
Black Pepper is a tropical plant in the Piperaceae family, known botanically as Piper nigrum. Peppercorns were once used as a form of currency when exotic trades were hard to come by. Today, Black Pepper can be purchased rather cheaply and is a staple in just about every household. Ancient Egyptians used Black Pepper in their mummification process! Piper longum, or Long Pepper, is closely related to Black Pepper and is used as well, especially in Ayurvedic medicine.
Have you ever seen a mixed jar of peppercorns? Black, white, and green, they all come from the same plant. The color is determined by the time of harvest and the process method. Black peppercorns, the most commonly used, are harvested before they are ripe, boiled and then dried in the sun. The next most common is the white, they are harvested when the berries are fully ripe and then the outer skin is removed. Green peppercorns are harvested before they are ripe and then preserved through freeze drying, brining or in vinegar and served in pickle form. When dried, they do not last long. Pink peppercorns, though often combined with black and white, are not actually a true pepper, they are harvested from the Brazilian Pepper Tree, Schinus terebinthifolia, and have a mild pepper taste.
Ready for a fun Black Pepper experiment? Lets see what he tastes like! If you happen to have the various colored peppercorns, try this with each of them and compare their tastes. Get a peppercorn from the pepper grinder. If you only have ground Black Pepper, that will work too, though it won’t be as potent. Put the Black Peppercorn between your front teeth and crack it open. What do you notice? It’s probably very warming on your tongue! Don’t spit it out yet, keep chewing with your front teeth and notice the energetics. It has a sharp taste, very pungent. When that hits the back of your throat, do you notice the acrid taste? Acrid grips at your throat. If you have a cold when you try this experiment, you may start coughing, and bringing up a lot of phlegm. We’ll talk about this action later. One final thing to note, does he seem to dry out your mouth? Moisten it? Or does it seem to be neutral? I find Black Pepper to be warming, pungent, acrid and neutral to mildly drying. OK, go ahead and spit it out now!
Black Pepper’s main constituent is the alkaloid piperine. Piperine contributes an important role in the use of Black Pepper by making the food and herbs we consume with him more bioavailable. Piperine does many other things as well, such as offering pain relief, increasing our brain’s production of serotonin, increases our adrenal glands’ production of epinephrine, decreases stomach ulcers, increases the pancreas’ production of digestive enzymes, reduces inflammation when caused by irritation and allergies and relieves asthma symptoms. Black Pepper also contains volatile oils and oleoresin, which are often used in perfumery. Other constituents include chavicine, an isomer of piperine, coumaperine, and piperidine. Black Pepper can render astringents inert so caution should be used when taking Black Pepper with other herbs for their astringent properties.
Nutritionally, Black Pepper contains several vitamins and minerals: choline, thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6), folic acid (B9), vitamins A, C, E and K as well as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and zinc. He also contains carbohydrates, protein, fat and fiber.
Medicinally, Black Pepper is considered to be analgesic, antibacterial, anticonvulsant, antidiarrheal, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antimutagenic, antioxidant, antipyretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, aromatic, carminative, diaphoretic, expectorant, hepatoprotective, immunostimulant, rubefacient, stimulant and vasodilator. Let’s take a look at what we can do with Black Pepper…
As an expectorant and stimulant, Black Pepper is great to get mucus flowing when it is thick and stuck. If you have a hot, irritated, dry cough, it’s best to stay away from Black Pepper as he will only make the condition more hot and dry. When congestion is present, Black Pepper helps to stimulate and clear it away.
Black Pepper is helpful as a stimulating diaphoretic for colds and influenza, especially when there are fevers with cold chills, raising the body’s temperature to help reduce fever through sweating. Asthma sufferers may benefit from Black Pepper’s actions as well.
Like Cayenne, Black Pepper’s rubefacient action is stimulating to the extremities, making him useful for cold hands and feet.
Black Pepper is best known for his use as a carminative and all things digestive. He stimulates the appetite, improves digestion and eases digestive disorders including indigestion, diarrhea and flatulence while at the same time is a gentle laxative, stimulating bowel movements when constipated. Traditionally, Black Pepper was used to treat cholera.
For those dealing with anxiety, Black Pepper can be helpful in reducing anxiety. Chewing a peppercorn, taking a whiff of some essential oil or having a cup of spicy chai with Black Pepper in it can all assist with anxiety.
Research has shown that Black Pepper’s constituent piperine has been effective in improving the bioavailability of substances in our foods such as beta carotene, pyridoxine (B6), selenium and amino acids. The bioavailability of Turmeric, Goldenseal and Juniper are also increased when combined with Black Pepper. Black Pepper will also increase the bioavailability of many pharmaceutical drugs as well so use with caution and consult a healthcare provider before using medicinal doses if you are on medications.
As an anti-inflammatory and analgesic, Black Pepper has been found helpful for reducing pain and inflammation from arthritis. Black Pepper oil and peppercorns have been used to help ease the pain of a toothache.
Black Pepper shows promise with antimutagenic actions in suppressing cancerous tumors.
Large doses of Black Pepper can cause gastric reflux problems to increase. Black Pepper is also considered a mild contraceptive, interfering with egg implantation when taken long term in large doses as well as decreasing fertilization in men and decreasing testosterone.
With all that Black Pepper has to offer, it’s kind of hard to refuse adding him to your meal!
Want to learn more about using Black Pepper medicinally? Check out the ebook of Herbal Roots zine, Benevolent Black Pepper.