You may think of black pepper as merely a common kitchen spice, but it's actually one of the oldest and most revered medicinal spices. Many health benefits of black pepper have long been valued in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. Others have been discovered by modern research.
Here's more about the fascinating history of this everyday spice, plus the top health benefits of black pepper.
What Is Black Pepper?
Black pepper comes from the dried fruit of a plant known as Piper nigrum. The unripened fruit, which looks like a small berry, is called a peppercorn. Peppercorns are harvested and dried until they become black and slightly wrinkled. They can then be sold whole or ground into black pepper.
Though they share the same name, black pepper plants and peppercorns are nothing like chili peppers or sweet peppers. In fact, they are completely unrelated plants.
In ancient times (as long as 4000 years ago), black pepper was a valuable trading commodity. It was at least as valuable as pearls were and was even used as a form of money. Of course, at the time, peppercorns were in much shorter supply than they are today.
Christopher Columbus hoped to find black peppercorns on his journey to the New World, but instead found only chilies. He nevertheless brought them back and named them peppers, leading to much confusion later on.
In both traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, black pepper is viewed as a warming spice with benefits for digestion, cleansing, pain, circulation, and nutrient absorption. As far as scientific research is concerned, the main compound in pepper, piperine, has many health-promoting effects. (1)
Health Benefits of Black Pepper
Anti-Inflammatory and Antioxidant-Rich
Two of the health benefits of black pepper are closely linked. It's known to be high in beneficial antioxidants, which in turn gives it anti-inflammatory properties. (2)
Antioxidants are important for fighting free-radical damage in your body. Free radicals come from exposure to things like too much sun (UV radiation), cigarette smoke, and environmental pollution. They can cause a lot of damage that leads to diseases like cancer and heart disease. Too much free radical damage also leads to chronic inflammation. (3)(4)
Ongoing inflammation in your body opens you up to even more diseases, so consuming lots of anti-inflammatory antioxidants is important. Animal studies also indicate that piperine may help with inflammation associated with arthritis and asthma. (5)(6)(7)
Supports Healthy Digestion
One of the most traditional uses for black pepper is as a digestive aid. It warms your digestion and gets your body ready to start digesting food. Both Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine use black pepper to treat indigestion, sluggish digestion, and sometimes constipation.
Boosts Nutrient Absorption and Bioavailability
Black pepper is often combined with other herbs because it's known to increase their absorption and make them more effective. It can boost the absorption of certain nutrients like selenium and calcium as well as specific plant compounds. (9)
The most well-known example of this is the combination of turmeric and black pepper. Turmeric contains curcumin, which has major health benefits but is poorly absorbed by your body. The addition of black pepper to a turmeric supplement or food can increase the absorption of curcumin by as much as 2000%. (10)
Black pepper can further support your overall health because of its antibacterial properties. Studies have found that the extract is effective against bacteria that cause food spoilage as well as some common food-borne pathogens (like E. coli). It's also particularly effective against oral bacteria that can cause teeth problems. (11)(12)
Other research indicates that black pepper essential oil may prove important in the fight against drug-resistant bacteria. The frequent, long-term use of antibiotics has led to the evolution of bacteria that are highly resistant.
Black pepper is one of a handful of essential oils that can break down the defenses of specific bacteria, allowing antibiotics and other drugs to be more effective. (13)
May Improve Brain Health & Function
The active compound in black pepper, piperine, appears to help your brain function better. Though no human studies have been done yet, other research indicates that piperine can improve memory and brain impairment. In may even be able to help with symptoms of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. (14)(15)(16)
Boosts Mood and May Help with Withdrawal Symptoms
One of the biggest benefits of black pepper essential oil is its ability to boost your mood. The oil is often used in aromatherapy blends for stress-relief. There's also strong indication that piperine from black pepper can effectively combat symptoms of depression. (17)(18)
Another potential use for black pepper essential oil is as an aid to quit smoking. One study found that inhaling black pepper oil significantly reduced cigarette cravings and other withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety. (19)
May Be a Natural Pain Reliever
In addition to being anti-inflammatory, black pepper extract also has pain relieving abilities. This is another benefit that still needs more research in human applications, but the results so far are promising. (20)
Keep in mind that the amount of pepper you'd normally put on food isn't enough to have a pain-relieving effect. For aches and sore muscles, try using the essential oil diluted with a carrier oil to massage painful spots. Also, check out these other herbs for pain and inflammation for more help.
May Lower Blood Pressure, Blood Sugar, and Cholesterol
So far, black pepper has shown a positive effect on several markers of good health. Studies have shown that it can lower blood pressure and decrease spikes in blood sugar after consuming glucose. It may also improve insulin sensitivity. (21)(22)(23)
Other studies indicate that black pepper extract can lower bad LDL cholesterol levels. (24)
Using Black Pepper for Your Health
You likely already have black pepper in your cupboard, so don't be afraid to use it liberally on your food! It's thought that grinding peppercorns right before adding pepper to a meal keeps more of the beneficial essential oils intact. You may want to start using a pepper grinder to get the most out of this spice.
Black pepper is also available as an extract and essential oil. The oil is great for diffusing and topical use (just dilute with a carrier oil before using).
Also, don't forget to use black pepper with other herbs and spices to get the most out of them. Enjoy it in something like this Chai Tea blend for a delicious, comforting, and healthy drink.
Black pepper doesn't have any known side effects. It usually doesn't cause irritation like capsaicin from chili peppers can, but very large amounts can still upset your stomach.
Do a patch test on your skin before applying the essential oil and be sure to dilute it properly.
Use More Black Pepper
Black pepper is one seasoning you don't need to be afraid to use more of. It's full of powerful antioxidants and can support your brain, mood, and whole body. Black pepper also has known benefits for helping with digestion and nutrient absorption.
To get the most flavor and health benefits, grind peppercorns onto your food or into recipes. Don't underestimate the power of this seemingly simple spice!