Natural Healing: Herbal Research Updates

Recent studies in the herbal world.

| March/April 2003

Hot answer to back pain

Everyone knows that cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum) is hot stuff. However, when its active compound, capsaicin, is applied to the skin, it relieves pain rather than producing it. Unlike many pain relievers, capsaicin doesn’t work by reducing inflammation. Instead, the compound blocks production and transport of “substance P,” a chemical that carries pain messages from nerve endings in your skin to control headquarters in your central nervous system. Double-blind clinical studies indicate that it helps relieve the nerve and muscle pain caused by conditions such as osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, whether or not there is inflammation. To test the efficiency of capsaicin on back pain, a double-blind, parallel-group, placebo study applied a capsicum plaster on the backs of 154 volunteers who had been dealing with chronic back pain for at least three months. Nearly one-third of them found that their pain was quickly reduced. After three weeks, another 31 percent were feeling less pain, and it was easier for them to get around and to function in general. Tolerating the treatment was actually easier for those using capsicum rather than the placebo group because it provided so much pain relief, although some volunteers reported discomfort. Previous studies have shown that a burning sensation can last for up to three days in some people. In another recent study, when an analgesic balm made with capsaicin and methyl salicylate (aspirin) was applied on the skin, it decreased muscle contraction and the resulting discomfort. This suggests that capsaicin relieves pain by signaling muscle receptors. While a capsaicin or cayenne plaster is effective, an easier way to treat back pain is with the over-the-counter capsaicin cream sold to treat shingles. In clinical trials, it gave 75 percent of the people with shingles who tried it complete or substantial pain relief and it is also being tested on other painful skin problems, such as diabetic neuropathy, psoriasis, and pain after surgery.

Selected sources: Ichiyama, R. M., et al. “Effects of topical analgesics on the pressor response evoked by muscle afferents.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2002, 34(9): 1440–1445.

Surh, Y. J. “More Than Spice: Capsaicin in Hot Chili Peppers Makes Tumor Cells Commit Suicide.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2002, 94(17): 1263–1265.

Heart-healthy hawthorn increases energy

The hawthorn tree (Crataegus spp.) is admired throughout its native Europe for its attractive spring blossoms and its deep-red berries in the fall. Preparations made from its leaves, flowers, and berries are also a favorite of many European doctors as a nontoxic remedy to relieve symptoms of congestive heart failure. In Germany, some doctors prescribe hawthorn instead of drugs such as digitalis for mild cases of heart disease. It is also used there to reduce the dose of prescription heart medications. (Don’t take hawthorn with prescription drugs without the guidance of a health practitioner—hawthorn can make the drugs you’re taking too potent.) Most modern studies have been conducted with hawthorn flowers, leaves, or twigs, although traditionally, herbalists use the berry. A recent German study of eighty-eight people with congestive heart failure gave participants a standardized extract made from the fresh berries. The berry extract not only decreased their difficulty in breathing while exercising 11 percent (compared to only 4 percent with a placebo), it also improved their energy level and quality of life. The three-month randomized, double-blind placebo study showed that exercise time on a stationary bicycle went up nearly 50 percent in those taking hawthorn compared to the placebo. The study’s researchers declared hawthorn is an effective and safe treatment. Long-term use may also lower blood pressure, according to a British study. Thirty-six people with mildly high blood pressure took a hawthorn extract (500 mg) or magnesium supplements (600 m.), a combination of both, or a placebo. Blood pressure dropped in all of the groups, including those taking a placebo, but resting diastolic pressure fell the most with hawthorn after ten weeks of use. The extract was also found to reduce feelings of anxiety.

Sources: Rietbrock, N., et al. “Actions of Standardized Extracts of Crataegus Berries on Exercise Tolerance and Quality of Life in Patients with Congestive Heart Failure.” Arzneimittelforschung 2001, 51(10): 793–798.

Walker, A. F., et al. “Promising Hypotensive Effect of Hawthorn Extract: A Randomized Double-blind Pilot Study of Mild, Essential Hypertension.” Phytotherapy Research 2002, 16(1): 48–54.

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