Black pepper is the most widely used spice in the world, and found in every kitchen cabinet side by side with salt. Known as the King of Spices, black pepper is actually a fruit. The pepper plant is a vine producing small berry size peppercorns which are dried prior to use. These spicy-dried-peppercorn-berries have been enticing taste buds and enhancing meals of many cultures for thousands of years. Peppercorns produce a sharp and spicy aroma enhancing natural flavours of seasoned foods. Besides livening up dishes, black pepper’s taste comes from active ingredients which possess immense healing properties used as natural remedies for many generations. In this article, we’ll discuss this marvellous ingredient and its ability to elevate flavours but, more importantly the vast number of health and wellness benefits of this potent spice.

black pepper on spoon

What is Black Pepper?

Belonging to the Piperaceae family, and scientifically called Piper nigrum, black pepper plant is a vine which produces small fruit peppercorns. The peppercorns are dried and used as spice and seasoning. Though black pepper is the most common type of spice used, there are actually four varieties of peppercorns:

  • Black peppercorns are the most common variety. These are first cooked and then dried.
  • Green peppercorns are the unripe version of the dried fruit.
  • White peppercorns are taken from nearly ripe peppercorns and the skin is removed.
  • Red peppercorns are fully mature fruit and are very rare. This is not a common type of peppercorns and often not mentioned in text.

As a fruit, peppercorns contain numerous phytonutrients including, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fiber. Pepper’s essential oils contain its main bioactive ingredient (alkaloid) called piperine, which produces uniquely strong and pungent smell, and taste flavour. [1]

Piperine can be considered as “the key that opens many doors”. In terms of health benefits, piperine products have been used to relieve pain of aching muscles and joints, ease digestive issues while improving brain activity and mood. Black pepper has also shown anti-bacterial, antioxidant and immune enhancing properties. As a stimulant, piperrine can increase metabolism while improving blood circulation and organ function. [1,2]

The second notable power of piperine is its unique ability to increase bioavailability—absorption into blood stream and effectiveness—of other bioactive compounds. This makes piperine an important research topic for many drugs, supplements and cosmetic products.

The history of Black Pepper

The king of spices’ long history of seasoning and medicinal usage is believed to originate from a native plant in Kerala state of South India over 4000 years ago. The pepper plant can grow throughout the year, and has been exported to neighbouring countries around Malabar Coast (of South India). Since ancient times, black pepper was one of the most widely-traded spices in the world. 

Records show that the ancient spice trade between India and the West dates back over 3000 years. Black pepper was transported by sea in ships, as well as the caravans through the “Silk Road”. Ancient Greece and Rome valued black pepper as currency and accepted it as payments for rent, taxes, and at times as ransom demands. The Romans loved black pepper, as the world’s oldest known cookbook contains 80 percent of pepper flavoured recipes.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Arabic traders took over the spice trade. By the 10th century, pepper was the most desired spice as its trade spread across Europe. The traders controlled the shipping lines, growing the demand for this lucrative spice and raising the peppercorn prices to luxury status. In medieval Europe, phrases like “black gold” or “pepper expensive” were used to describe this peppery fruit.

After 14th century, other countries began establishing their own trading routes by refusing to pay highly inflated pepper rates. This began the explorer’s age as Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Columbo), Vasco de Gama and Francis Drake were sent on missions of discovering the “black gold” sea routes. Columbus turned right instead of left, sailing to Americas and returning back to Spain with ships loaded with chilly peppers; which he thought were black pepper. This was the first introduction of chilly peppers to the world, but at the time were worthless, compared to lucrative black peppercorns. Vasco de Gama was successful in reaching India, bringing back the desired pepper and cinnamon (and later other spices) back to Portugal.

Black pepper was also regarded for its powerful health properties. Ancient folk remedies used this spice to treat a vast array of ailments. For example, Ayurvedic medicine used black pepper to treat various conditions, from vision problems, tooth and ear aches to gangrene. Pepper trading also reached far east to ancient Egypt. During archaeological digs, peppercorns were found stuffed inside the nostrils of Ramses the Great’s mummified remains.

Over time, other countries such as Netherlands, England, France and Denmark engaged in the open ocean spice trade, making black pepper more accessible and less expensive as the result. Lower prices led to the inclusion of black pepper in many recipes and blends of common Indian, Moroccan, French and Cajun dishes. [3]

Today, Vietnam is the largest producer and exporter of black pepper, contributing around 34 percent world wide. India, Brazil and Indonesia are the other top pepper developing countries.

Black Pepper’s powerful health benefits

Black pepper is a versatile product capable of exciting the senses, tastebuds and positively affect numerous body systems. Its thermogenic properties enhance metabolic function and energy, while improving both physical and psychological abilities. Today’s science identified piperine as the main ingredient of the peppercorn responsible for its numerous health benefits. Lets take a closer look, into the power of this spicy black fruit-berry.

Antioxidant benefits

Free Radicals and Oxidative Stress

The body’s metabolism goes through millions of biochemical reactions, naturally producing free radicals and other byproducts that may be toxic or cause damage to our internal molecules and cells. Having some free radicals is not a bad thing, as our immune system keeps a balanced free radical/antioxidant reserve for protection against foreign invaders. However, when the body’s free radical levels rise, they react not only with available antioxidants but with all types of molecules that they can steal an electron from. Many of these molecules happen to be part of important cellular components and DNA; resulting in structural damage. The body imitates an immune response to repair the damage caused by free radicals through inflammation. This shift of free radical levels is often referred to as oxidative stress.

Antioxidant Power

Number of environmental factors such as diet, smoking, poor air quality, emotional stress or extreme physical exercise further increase our free-radical production and oxidative stress. Today’s science links chronic inflammation as one of the common causing ailments. From seasonal allergies to life threatening diseases such as dementia, metabolic syndrome and cancers; all have been attributed to elevated oxidative stress. This is where antioxidants play an important role by seeking out free radicals, neutralizing their harmful effects and protecting internal systems. 

Black pepper is full of powerful active compounds such as vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients; ranking it #24 on the ORAC top 100 list for antioxidant value among all of the foods and beverages across the world. [4]  The peppercorns’ potent antioxidants boost immunity, improve digestion and brain function; while decreasing and even preventing inflammation causing conditions including cancerous tumors. [5] 

High-fat diet is among the every day contributing risk factors of free radical production. Black pepper’s micronutrients have been repeatedly shown to reduce oxidative stress in high calorie diets. Piperine is the main compound responsible for much of the black pepper’s health and wellness glory. It protects against oxidative stress in several ways.

  • First, by directly seeking out and reacting with free radicals (like hydroxyl and superoxide) in the body. [6]
  • Secondly, by increasing enzymes which neutralize free radicals, like superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT), glutathione peroxidase (GPx), gluthatione-S-transferase (GST) and glutathione (GSH) in high-fat diet animals, thereby decreasing the oxidative stress. [7,8]

Detoxifies the Body

Black pepper’s phytonutrients including piperine have shown biotransformation abilities. This involves a minor chemical alteration of nutrients, amino acids, toxins and drugs, which improve the absorption or excretion process. [9] This makes black pepper especially valuable for increasing nutrient or drug absorption and bioavailability into our systems. [10]  Due to this unique power, piperine is often placed as one of the ingredients inside many digestive supplements. 

Piperine’s biotransformation potential has also been shown to detoxify the body by removing accumulated byproducts while reducing inflammation. These observations were again noted in animals on high-fat-high-sugar diet where piperine decreased blood pressure and inflammation while improving liver function and blood sugar tolerance. [11]

Improves Brain Health

Black pepper is a superfood containing many powerful bioactive compounds. These compounds produce a multitude of antioxidant responses within the most important organ in the body—the brain. Ancient Ayurvedic medicine used pepper in more than 150 remedies improving body function including brain activity. Modern research confirms black pepper’s positive effect of enhanced memory and cognition, even in neurodegenerative cases.

There is a growing body of research that shows how oxidative stress and increased levels of free radicals, negatively affect memory as we age. This decline is noticed by the damage of fats within cell structures (lipid peroxidation), decrease in antioxidant enzymes, while raising activity of enzymes which break down neural messengers (acetylcholine esterase (AChE)). [12] 

As previously mentioned, pipeline’s powerful antioxidant abilities directly react with free radicals, and increase activity of free radical fighting enzymes (such as SOD, CAT, GPx, GST and GSH). These protective skills not only effect animals on high-fat diets, but extend to degenerating age-related tissue, memory and cognitive malfunction. [8,13] Studies show, piperine fed animals with dementia symptoms retained longer memories and improved cognition and learning capacity compared to the non-piperine counterparts. [14,15,16]

[Designed as a morning-style tea, one of the many important benefits of our Arise Chai is its ability to improve focus and cognition. Black pepper combined with seven other ingredients in this blend works together to accomplish this very important task].

Combats Neurological Disorders

Black pepper’s antioxidant abilities were further tested against number of neural disorders including depression and various forms of dementia. Piperine is again at the research forefront showing great benefit for people suffering from depression. Piperine inhibits an enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) which breaks down serotonin and dopamine—the calming and feel-good neurotransmitters. [17]  Low levels of both of these neurotransmitters are the key markers of several neural diseases including depression, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. The treatments often focus on increasing dopamine and serotonin in the brain, resulting in greater cognition, better mood and increased ability against neurological decay. [18] Animal studies showed that piperine was able to do just that, and decrease depression symptoms by significantly elevating serotonin levels in hippocampus, hypothalamus and frontal cortex portions of the brain. [19,20]

Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases are the two largest neurodegenerative disorders.  Scientific data shows that piperine improves motor coordination, learning capacity and brain activity of Parkinson’s diseased animals. Piperine triggers biochemical processes which further protect dopamine nerve cells, maintaining their integrity and preventing cell death. [21]  With Alzheimer’s disease, scientists identified the build up of several neurotoxic proteins in the brain leading to neuro-degeneration and dementia. Tests show that piperine protects nerve cells while reducing brain plaque formation seen with Alzheimer’s cases. [22] 

May Help Fight Cancer

What is Cancer?

Our body continuously needs to upkeep itself due to general wear and tear (old cells in need of replacements) or growth (adaptation requiring the body to build more of particular tissues, compounds, etc). Because of this cyclical requirement, our cells—depending on the type—regenerate themselves through replication process called mitosis. Mitosis is one of the three phases of a cell cycle, consisting of five steps where a cell divides into two identical cells.  Mitotic steps are done in sequence, ensuring that the mother cell has all necessary materials, resources, and information prior to final division. Like with anything in life, mistakes do happen. Mitotic errors where non-identical cells have been produced are called mutations. The body has a contingency plan for this kind of thing in form of programmed cell death (apoptosis), or destruction through the immune system response. But, sometimes the mutated cells do not self-destruct and begin to multiply at an alarming rate. Certain types of cancers come from such mutations.

Now, because cancer cells can replicate suddenly and without control, most of the research is done either in the test tubes, or animal models where tumor behaviour can be better analyzed and understood. Piperine and other phytonutrients of peppercorns showed numerous health benefits including cancer fighting abilities. This is a fast developing research which has been predominantly separated into two major areas.

  • One research area focuses on piperine as a cancer fighting agent.
  • The other, investigates piperine’s (and black pepper in general) capacity to improve transport of various ingredients from digestive track into bloodstream (bioavailability), thus amplifying overall health benefits.

Black pepper is identified as a potent anti-tumor compound. The active ingredient piperine revealed its powerful antioxidant abilities by directly seeking out free radicals and engaging cancerous growth and development. [5,10]

Animal studies showed that piperine prevented skin cancer (melanoma) tumour cells from spreading (metastasizing) to other parts of the body, improving overall survival rates. [23]  Similar results regarding piperine were also observed in breast cancer, where animal tumors were decreased and prevented from spreading. [24,25]  Piperine also decreased tumor growth in test tube and animal experiments using colon and prostate cancer cells. [26,27]

Piperine research identified messaging network within several pathways leading to decrease or prevention of tumor growth. For instance, piperine has been noted to cause apoptosis (programmed cell death) in number of cancer types, and it does this in several ways. Being a powerful antioxidant, piperine has an ability to create free radicals (also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS)) like hydroxyl which attack cancer cells. The same free radicals that piperine protects against in normal cells, it produces and sets loose inside cancer cells. These piperine made ROS’ strike down internal components including DNA inside colon and skin cancers. Damaged DNA initiates the failsafe destruct mechanism through a sequence of protein-protein messaging pathways—apoptosis. [26,28] 

Furthermore, piperine appears to reduce Cyclin B1 protein—the main protein which activates mitosis (or division) of a cell. Cyclin B1 is a regulatory protein and acts like a switch, and once turned-on, the mitotic phase begins, and cells goes through division. In normal cells, cyclin B1 levels are strictly regulated through intracellular safety mechanisms. However, in caner cells, there’s a lack of such regulations and cyclin B1 levels accumulate fast—leading to metastasis. [29]  Studies have shown that piperine reduces cyclin B1 levels, even in highly aggressive breast cancer cells, thus decreasing overall tumor growth. [23]

The other main cancer research area converges on black pepper’s bioavailability—the aid in absorption/transport of active compounds or drugs from intestinal tract into bloodstream. Piperine increased bioavailabitily of several cancer treating drugs within small animals, enhancing overall treatment against prostate, breast and ovarian tumors. [27,30,31]

Piperine also increases bioavailability of other phytonutrients such as selenium, curcumin, beta-carotene, and several types of vitamins—all of them containing health benefits and cancer fighting abilities. [32]

For example, in small animals, curcumin (active ingredient of turmeric) has been identified as a strong suppressor of lung cancer. [33]  Curcumin has a low bioavailability, as it’s rapidly broken down in the liver and intestinal wall, before getting a chance to be absorbed into bloodstream and delivered to target areas. Piperine has been shown to increase curcumin’s bioavailability (faster absorption into bloodstream and remained in the blood longer) by 154 percent in animals and a whooping 2000 percent in humans. This potent mixture greatly decreased many oxidative stress markers, while improving antioxidant enzymes, cognition and energy. [34,83]

Improves heart health by lowering blood pressure

Black pepper’s impressive anti-inflammatory phytonutrient profile can also improve heart health by lowering blood pressure and overall cholesterol levels. An antioxidant master, piperine is shown to decrease overall blood pressure and several other markers often seen with hypertension. To improve overall circulation and heart health, piperine appears to effect several biochemical pathways. Some studies show piperine enhancing vasomodulation (neuronal regulation of blood flow) by interacting with Calcium (Ca2+) ion channels and relaxing aorta walls in the same manner as the high blood-pressure medications. [35] 

Ayurvedic and other traditional medicines have utilized black pepper as a remedy to increase blood circulation while lowering high blood pressure. Often these historical tonics were made by mixing peppercorns with essential oils of cinnamon and/or turmeric to enhance the warming properties. [Our Fortify Chai is a similar tonic containing: cinnamon, ginger, turmeric and black pepper amongst other potent ingredients]

Modern science confirms the power of spice of these ancient remedies through black pepper’s ability to improve bioavailability of other ingredients. Feeding piperine to small animals lowered blood pressure and controlled it from rising just after 3 weeks. [36]  When combined with curcumin (active ingredient in turmeric), the positive effect on cardiovascular system greatly amplified. With boosted curcumin’s bioavailability, piperine improved nitrogen oxide (NO) levels and other active proteins responsible for arterial elasticity. [37]  NO is a multi-purpose molecule for the immune, nervous musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems, that uses connecting nerves to relax smooth muscles, including blood vessels via vasodilatation (relaxation). [38]

Lowers Bad Cholesterol

With antioxidant properties, black pepper and its main active compound have been tested for overall lipid management. Black pepper is often recommended by medical practitioners to patients suffering from various forms of heart disease.

What is bad about cholesterol?

Modern diet often contains high fat content which negatively impacts blood circulation and some metabolic processes. High levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL)—sometimes referred to as “bad cholesterol”—have been associated with number of problems including increased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and coronary artery disease. LDLs carry fats (such as cholesterol, triglycerides and phospholipids) around the body to designated cells. However, LDLs can be damaged through oxidation when they enter endothelium (a thin cell line that covers interior of blood vessels). Oxidized LDL particles get stuck in these arterial cell walls, and if not cleared, begin to gather more debris, eventually progressing into full atherosclerosis (a type of blood clot). [39]

Black pepper is an excellent source of manganese, vitamin K, and great source of dietary fiber and iron—all important components in managing high blood sugar and body lipid levels. Manganese has been found to possess great potential in combatting early signs of diabetes, by reducing blood sugar levels as well as LDLs. Animal studies show black pepper has great hypolipidemic (lipid-lowering) properties even when fed high-fat diets. Peppercorn’s phytonutrients lowered total cholesterol levels, free fatty acids, phospholipids and triglycerides. Numerous animal models on high fat-diets confirmed that black pepper reduced blood lipid levels. In just three weeks of eating black pepper, the animals experienced an overall cholesterol drop, including reduced LDL and very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) while maintaining HDL levels in blood plasma. [40,41,42,43]

Combats Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster or, an umbrella term for several conditions including: high blood pressure, high blood sugar, abdominal obesity, high blood triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia) and low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL)—sometimes referred to as “good cholesterol”.  HDLs remove not needed fat molecules like cholesterol, triglycerides and phospholipids from cells and transport them to liver where these lipids are reduced, reused and recycled. HDLs also decrease plaque buildup inside arteries (atherosclerosis), a condition that can lead to vascular diseases, cardiovascular disease (CVD) and stroke. Metabolic syndrome is closely associated with insulin resistance and excessive weight gain, placing such individuals at higher risk of developing CVD and type 2 diabetes (T2B). [44]

Scientific studies discovered that piperine’s powerful antioxidant properties improve metabolic syndrome conditions. Feeding piperine to metabolic syndrome animals (due to high-fat and high-carbohydrate diet) improved their heart condition and function while lowering overall oxidative stress and inflammation. The blood work of these animals also showed lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels while improving glucose tolerance. Also, piperine improved liver health by combating influx of oxidative stress, and preventing fibrosis (tissue damage and inflammation). [45]

Improves Digestive Health

Black pepper improves digestion by messaging pathways that raise hydrochloric acid (HCl), also known as gastric acid. HCl is part of the gastric juices inside the stomach which breaks down our food, preparing it for greater digestion and absorption. Using stronger acids improves digestive process and can eliminate some negative effects like indigestion, heartburn and bloating. Being a warming spice, peppercorns also stimulate excretion of toxins through sweating and urination. [46]

There are other methods in play that allow black pepper to improve digestion, but not all of them are yet fully understood. It is believed that the main active compound, piperine interacts with the inner membrane of small intestine, making it easier for nutrients to pass through during absorption. Another mechanism of this process focuses on piperine interacting with various enzymes embedded in inner intestinal layer, resulting in increased surface area and absorption efficiency. [47]  Mixing black pepper with other spices like coriander, turmeric, red chilli and cumin further improves levels of three digestive enzymes while doubling bile acid secretion, resulting in better digestion. [48] 

Black pepper is known to relieve flatulence, expelling gas in the downward motion, decreasing strain on chest cavity and organs within. Test tube (in vitro) and animal (in vivo) models confirm that black peppercorns show anti-diarrheal and anti-spasmodic activities which can ease symptoms of constipation, diarrhea and gas. Piperine displayed similar results as some diarrhea and high-blood pressure medications, and has potential to treat gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). [49] 

As previously seen, piperine is able to improve overall serotonin levels which has a positive effect on brain activity and neurodegenerative conditions. Researches looked at possible brain-stomach signalling activity in IBS diseased animals. Piperine supplementation improved animal behaviour and serotonin regulation within their brains and colons. [50] The mechanisms are not well understood, but existing data suggests that serotonin plays a bigger role within the brain-gut signalling. [51]

Final Thoughts

We are at the half-way point of discussing black pepper and its powerful health benefits.  So far we looked at black pepper’s ability to:

  • antioxidant powerhouse
  • detoxify the body
  • improve brain health
  • help fight cancer
  • improve heart health
  • combat metabolic syndrome
  • improve digestive health

The above bioactive qualities were specifically considered during the creation of our morning blend Arise Chai. Designed to boost your metabolism with energy, nutrients, improve blood circulation while providing the body with host of antioxidants to protect against oxidative stress and fight inflammation. 

As we continue onto Part 2, we learn one of black pepper’s mightiest skills is to help the availability of other nutrients. This is a very unique ability, which improves phytonutrient absorption by significant amounts. We took this into consideration when creating our nightly, restoration blend Fortify Chai. Fortify Blend is designed to enhance body’s natural restorative process in terms of cell regeneration, repairing tissues and topping up utilized energy compounds and hormones.

Now, lets continue to Black Pepper Part 2 here, as well as the reference list.

If you enjoyed this post, feel free to share with others. Keep the conversation going by leaving us a comment!

Drop by our Shop page and treat your body and soul with our chai blends.

Have a fantastic day!