People know that salt is injurious to health. However, adding another element to the list is black pepper. For centuries people have thought that black pepper has some effect on the body. Black pepper has been a part of traditional Indian (Ayurvedic) medicine for thousands of years. These are dried berries of Piper nigrum vine.
Ayurvedic practitioners believe it to have “carminative” properties – that is, it relieves flatulence. And in traditional Chinese medicine, black pepper is used to treat epilepsy.
Modern science shows that black pepper does indeed provide health benefits, primarily as a result of an alkaloid called piperine – the chemical that gives black pepper its pungent taste, and a powerful antioxidant.
Antioxidants are molecules that remove harmful substances called “free radicals”.
An unhealthy diet, too much sun exposure, alcohol and smoking can increase the number of free radicals in your body. An excess of these unstable molecules can damage cells, make people age faster and lead to a number of health problems, including heart disease, cancer, arthritis, asthma and diabetes.
Laboratory studies in animals and cells have shown that piperine counteracts these free radicals.
In one study, rats were divided into several groups, with some rats fed a normal diet and other rats fed a high-fat diet.
One group of rats was fed a high-fat diet supplemented with black pepper and the other group of rats was fed a high-fat diet supplemented with piperine.
Rats fed a high-fat diet with either black pepper or piperine had significantly fewer markers of free radical damage than mice fed a high-fat diet only. In fact, their markers of free radical damage were comparable to that of mice fed a normal diet.
Piperine also has anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic inflammation is associated with a variety of diseases, including autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Here again, animal studies have shown that piperine reduces inflammation and pain in rats with arthritis.
Black pepper may also help the body better absorb certain beneficial compounds, such as resveratrol — an antioxidant found in red wine, berries and peanuts. Studies suggest that resveratrol may protect against heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.
However, the problem with resveratrol is that it breaks down before the intestine can be absorbed into the bloodstream.
Black pepper, however, has been found to increase the “bioavailability” of resveratrol. In other words, much of it is available for the body to use.
Black pepper may also improve the absorption of curcumin, which is the active ingredient in the popular anti-inflammatory spice turmeric.
Scientists found that taking 20 milligrams of piperine with 2 grams of curcumin improved the availability of curcumin in humans by 2,000 percent.
Other studies have shown that black pepper can improve the absorption of beta-carotene, a compound found in vegetables and fruits that your body converts into vitamin A.
Beta-carotene acts as a powerful antioxidant that can fight cellular damage. Research has shown that consuming 15mg beta-carotene with 5mg piperine leads to a much greater increase in blood levels of beta-carotene than taking beta-carotene alone.
piperine and cancer
Black pepper may also have cancer-fighting properties. Test-tube studies found that piperine reduced the reproduction of breast, prostate and colon cancer cells and encouraged the cancer cells to die.
Researchers compared 55 compounds from different types of spices and found that piperine was most effective in increasing the effectiveness of a specific treatment for triple-negative breast cancer — the most aggressive type of cancer.
Piperine also shows promising effects in reducing multi-drug resistance in cancer cells, potentially reducing the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
A word of caution though. All of these things are fairly uncertain, as most studies have taken place in cell cultures or animals. And these kinds of experiments don’t always “translate” to humans.
However, you can be absolutely certain that adding a few extra grinds of black pepper to your meals isn’t likely to harm you – and may even be beneficial.