Pharmacognosy and Health Benefits of Capsicum Peppers (Bell Peppers)

Introduction:

Capsicum was first described by a physician named Chanca in 1400′s on his voyage accompanying Columbus to West Indies. They were introduced by the Portuguese and Spanish in India and Africa. The name was coined from the latin term ‘Capsa’ meaning box which signifies the partially hollow, box-like fruit. They are commonly also called as cayenne pepper, green pepper, red pepper, African chillies, Mexican chillies, tabasco pepper, paprika, etc.  In the USA it is also known as bell peppers. Peppers fall in the category of being most widely used spices in the world. The medicinal properties of capsicum and bell peppers arise from the active ingredient capsaicin which is otherwise used as counter irritant to relieve rheumatism, shingles etc and also as an analgesic in cases of post surgical neuralgia, osteoarthritis etc. The drug also is highly used in cases of gastro-intestinal (GI) disorders. Due to its intolerable burning sensation when in contact with moist mucous membranes it has widely gained used in self defense sprays. The black and white peppers obtained from piper nigrum are different from capsicum peppers and thus should not be confused.

Capsicum

Biological Source Capsicum consists of dried fruits of Capsicum annuum and also of small sized dried fruits of Capsicum frutescens.
Family Solanaceae
Geographical Source Capsicum is native to tropical America. They are grown commercially in Africa (mainly Zimbabwe and Malawi). They are sold as chillies in England and the variety grown in Bombay and Natal is less pungent and is known as Capsicum. The larger variety which are totally non pungent are grown in Europe. In the USA capsicum is also known as bell peppers.
Morphology/Macroscopical Characters
  • They are perennial bushes growing as tall as 2m and may survive upto 10 years.
  • The fruit on ripening can either be yellow, orange, red or green and either elongated or berries in shape.
  • The pungency of the drug not only depends on the genetic make but also the soil and weather conditions. It is said that the pungency is directly proportional to the environmental stress. The African chillies are 12-25 mm long and upto 7 mm wide being oblong-conical in shape and are highly pungent.
  • The fruit is made up of two cells separated by a membranous dissepiment to which the seeds(around 15-20 in number) are attached.
Microscopic Characters -
Chemistry Capsaicin: a phenolic compound (0.02%) is the major component of the oils present and is mainly responsible for the pungency of the drug. The other molecule responsible for pungency as well in lesser fractions is 6,7-dihydrocapsaicin. Capsicum also contains around 1.5% of oleoresin. Capsianosides are also present.

Capsaicin

Capsaicin

Chillies also contain thiamine, ascorbic acid, capsanthin and capsorubin which are carotenoids and fixed oils. The Hungarian variety is a good source of Vitamin C.

Chemical Tests For quantitative determination of capsaicin, colorimetric assays can be used. The drug uses UV absorption at 248 and 296nm for the ointment and oleoresin.
Adulterants/Allied drugs/ Substitutes Allied Drugs:

  • Bombay capsicums assigned to Capsicum annum have pericarp thick and tough than the chillies with less pungency than the African chillies.
  • Japanese chillies (3-4 cm long) which are probably derived from Capsicum frutescens and possess only 1/4th of the pungency of the African chillies.
  • Natal Capsicums (8 cm long) have a bright red and transparent pericarp with pungency less than chillies.
Uses Capsicum is useful in many ways in many conditions as follows:

  • As a spice: the sweeter variety are called as bell peppers and the hot ones as chillies.
  • In GI disorders: Intestinal gas, upset stomach, cramps, stomach pain, diarrhea etc
  • In cardiovascular disorders: Prevents heart disorders and improves blood circulation and helps decrease blood cholesterol.
  • In skin disorders: Due to its counter irritant property it is used in the form of ointments, plasters etc to treat rheumatism, shingles, lumbago etc.
  • In neuronal disorders: It is used to relieve nerve pain associated with diabetes, HIV, fibromyalgia and back pain.
  • As an analgesic: It is used to reduce pain associated with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, migraine, sinusitis etc.
  • In self defense sprays- Due to the unbearable burning sensation when in contact with mucous membranes it is used to spray in the eyes to protect one self. It can cause intense irritation and immediate blindness for atleast 30 mins with no permanent damage.
Other Notes (life cycle, extraction etc.) Extraction of Capsaicin: Capsicum is macerated with petroleum ether. The organic layer is then extracted with aqueous alkali to pull capsaicin in the aqueous layer by ionizing the phenolic hydroxy. The drug is then precipitated from the aqueous layer by passing carbon dioxide through it to acidify the aqueous layer.
Adverse reactions Mucosal, topical and GI irritation(heart burns/acidity) is possible. The most common side effect of peppers is unbearable burning sensation when comes in contact with moist mucous membranes. People with predisposed allergy to bananas, kiwi, chestnut, avocado etc are highly likely to be allergic to capsicum.

References:

  1. Trease and Evans’ Pharmacognosy, 16e (Evans, Trease and Evans Pharmacognosy)
    Elsevier: New York, 2009.
  2. Ara DerMarderosian, et. al. The Review of Natural Products 4th Edition.
  3. Kokate, C. K.; Gokhale, S. B.; Purohit, A. P. A textbook of Pharmacognosy, 29th ed.; Nirali Prakashan: Pune, 2009.

About Sweety Mehta

Studied B. Pharm. at Mumbai Educational Trust Institute of Pharmacy (Mumbai). Worked at Cipla, Mumbai as Marketing executive for 2 years and 9 months. Earned a diploma in marketing from Welingkar's Institute of Management Development and Research.