Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) is a wonderful spice with a rich history and many uses in the kitchen and in the medicine chest. In Sanskrit it is known as Marich, one of the names for the sun, as it is thought to be filled with solar energy. It is currently the world’s most widely traded spice appearing on the tables of cafes and restaurants everywhere.
Native to India and Sri Lanka, I saw a black pepper plant in the flesh for the first time when I visited Kew Gardens last year, it was incredibly lush and attractive. In Ayurvedic medicine it’s actually the long pepper or pippali (Piper longum) that is most often used medicinally but we still see black pepper being used in remedies since antiquity. Black peppercorns are the dried fruit of the plant whereas white peppercorns, which have a milder flavour, are it’s seed.
Stimulating to the digestion, pepper is seen primarily as a remedy for indigestion, bloating, gas and malabsorption. Studies have shown that it not only increases the appetite and production of hydrochloric acid but improves digestion of many key nutrients such as the B vitamins, beta-carotene and selenium and various phytochemicals from other spices and green tea. This is primarily due to the piperine content which is also anti-carcinogenic, due both to this ability to increase absorption of other beneficial compounds and partly in its own right as it’s anti-oxidant and inhibits pro-inflammatory cytokines that are produced by tumour cells.
The taste is pungent and stimulating with heating and somewhat drying properties. As such it’s been used for treating colds and flus either as a decoction or as a powder mixed with a bit of honey or ghee. It is mucolytic and expectorant so helps break up congestion in the chest and sinuses. It’s a warming diaphoretic so best used when there is fever but without a productive sweat and with cold extremities. It boosts circulation throughout the system but is especially nice for people with cold hands and feet. It’s also thermogenic, increasing fat metabolism and helping weight loss.
Pepper is analgesic and has a history of traditional use for toothache where the powder is applied to the sore tooth. I sometimes like to add a little of the tincture to mouthwashes for its antibacterial effects and its ability to protect against tooth decay.
A decoction drunk several times a day is also thought to help with constipation though it would be best suited to chilly types whose constipation is not caused by constitutional dryness but by lax muscles, poor assimilation or low digestive ‘fire’.
In large quantities it can be irritating to the mucus membranes so I always stick to low doses; a few peppercorns in tea, a pinch of powder in honey or a good sprinkling on food. Because of this it’s contraindicated in very hot people or in conditions where there is a lot of inflammation in the GI tract, though externally it’s nice for inflamed joints or muscles.
The essential oil, in small amounts, is surprisingly gentle considering the nature of the plant. I tend to avoid many of the spice oils externally such as clove, nutmeg and cinnamon as they’re very potent, though I do enjoy them in my oil burner. Black Pepper, ginger and cardamon however are all lovely in salves and baths and pepper is especially nice for sore muscles, aches and pains, arthritis and pre or post sports rubs. It can be used with cardamon and chamomile diluted in a carrier oil to make a lovely stomach rub for indigestion, gas and bloating and to improve peristalsis. It’s also a lovely detoxing oil due to its stimulating and metabolism boosting properties, I like it with juniper and grapefruit oils for a detoxifying bath mixed with some epsom salts and a little carrier oil before being added to the water.
Here are some of the other ways I use black pepper:
Decoctions and Infusions- I always add some peppercorns to my chai spices either in decoction or infusion. I also like a few brewed with rose petals as an infusion. If I’m infusing rather than decocting the peppercorns I always grind them up in a pestle and mortar first to release the volatile oils and aid extraction of the other medicinal compounds.
Vinegars – A few peppercorns make a luscious addition to a fruit vinegar such as blackberry, raspberry, rosehip or hawthorn berry lending it just a little pungent kick.
Elixirs and Syrups- Again adding a few peppercorns to a winter elixir such as elderberry, hawthorn or sloe gives it a lovely warming boost and pepper in elderberry syrup is one of my all time favourite additions.
Infused oil- Pepper infused oil is gentler than the essential oil so is lovely used liberally over large areas such as in a sports massage oil or salve.
Tincture- I only make small quantities of tincture, using the folk method of infusing the peppercorns in vodka, as I don’t use it that often. I do like to add a small amount to people’s formulas on occasion and add it to my mouthwash as I mentioned above. It also makes a lovely liniment for achy muscles mixed with some rosemary infused oil and rubbed vigorously over the body. Perfect for grey January days when you feel a bit under the weather.
Hope you all had a lovely weekend!
The Yoga of Herbs – Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Vasant Lad
The Directory of Essential Oils- Wanda Sellar