No evidence cayenne pepper will heal a stomach ulcer

25 September 2023
What was claimed

Cayenne pepper will heal an ulcer.

Our verdict

There is no evidence to suggest this is true. Eating spicy foods with an ulcer may make symptoms worse.

What was claimed

Cayenne pepper is from a different family to chilli pepper.

Our verdict

Cayenne peppers are a type of chilli.

A video about the supposed healing properties of cayenne pepper has been liked more than 50,000 times on Instagram.

The video features a naturopath called Barbara O’Neill, who we have fact checked before, falsely claiming that cayenne pepper “will heal a stomach ulcer”, among other things.  

In 2019, Mrs O’Neill was banned for life from providing any health-related services by the New South Wales Health Care Complaints Commission, which said in its findings that she “poses a risk to the health and safety of members of the public”.

Bad information about treatments for diseases can cause harm by undermining medical professionals and influencing patient decisions. We have written many times about alternative cures or treatments, including false claims about foods curing diseases.

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Cayenne vs chilli

In the video, Mrs O’Neill says “Cayenne pepper is a remarkable herb” while holding up a jar of the spice. She goes on to say: “Cayenne pepper is not chilli. Chilli comes from the chilli family and cayenne pepper comes from the capsicum family.” This is incorrect.

Chilli peppers are part of the capsicum family, and cayenne peppers are considered a type of chilli pepper.

Both contain capsaicin, the chemical that causes the burning sensation we recognise as ‘heat’. It is used medically for topical pain relief as a cream or ointment.

Mrs O’Neill says “chilli is an irritant to the lining of the gastrointestinal tract [...] but cayenne pepper will heal a stomach ulcer”.

Capsaicin—friend or foe?

Spicy food is generally understood to be an irritant to the gastrointestinal tract, especially for those with symptoms already, though there’s little evidence it causes ulcers in the first place.

We can find no evidence that cayenne pepper or capsaicin heal stomach ulcers. The NHS does not list either as a treatment, and advises avoiding spicy foods to try and reduce symptoms while the ulcer heals.

The recognised treatments are medications to reduce the acid levels in the stomach, and antibiotics if the ulcer is thought to be caused by the H. pylori bacteria.

Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, an emergency medicine and toxicology doctor at the National Capital Poison Center in the US, told Lead Stories for its fact check on a clip of the same video: “Capsaicin[...] can definitely cause gastrointestinal irritation when consumed” and that “Capsaicin (and cayenne peppers) can cause gastrointestinal damage when high doses are consumed.”

She referred to a case report of a 25 year old patient who had a heart attack potentially caused by his taking cayenne pepper pills for weight loss.

Lead Stories also spoke to Dana Hunnes, a senior clinical dietitian and an adjunct assistant professor of community health sciences at UCLA. She told them: “I would not recommend eating cayenne pepper if you have a stomach ulcer as it potentially could be very painful and irritating to the lining of the stomach, which is already harmed and in pain from the ulcer. I would not recommend it.”

Full Fact has contacted Mrs O’Neill but we have not received a response at the time of writing. We also contacted the account that posted the video, and they also have not responded.

Another account that had posted the video appears to have deleted it, after we made contact with them. In correspondence, the account shared some studies on capsaicin and H. pylori in cell and animal studies. None of these substantiated the claim in the video about cayenne pepper supposedly healing stomach ulcers.

The information included in this article contains the latest evidence and official guidance available at the time it was written. This is not a substitute for medical advice. If you require specific medical advice please consult your GP.

Featured image courtesy of Ashoka Jegroo

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