In a study "Secretion, Pain and Sneezing Induced by the Application of Capsaicin to the Nasal Mucosa in Man," researchers found that if we cut a hot pepper and rub it inside our nostrils, our nose will start running, hurting, and we’ll start sneezing (capsaicin is the burning component of hot peppers). Why would anyone do this experiment? Anyone who’s handled hot peppers knows if it gets up your nose it causes an intense burning sensation. However, the researchers noted, “this phenomenon has not been formally investigated.” So they decided it “appeared worthwhile to study the effects produced by the topical application of capsaicin in the human [nose].” It appeared worthwhile because… it had never been done before.
So they took some medical students, dripped some in their nose and the poor students started sneezing, burning, and snotting — describing the pain at about eight or nine on a scale of one to ten. No surprise, but here’s the interesting part: What happened when they repeated the experiment the next day? You’d think they might be sensitized to it, still all irritated, so it might hurt even worse, but no–it hurt less. Then they did it again the next day and the next. By day five it hardly hurt at all, they didn’t even get a runny nose. Day ten, and still nothing.
Were they permanently numbed? No. After a month or so the desensitization wore off and they were back in agony whenever they tried rubbing it in their nose. What the researchers think is happening is that the pain fibers, the nerves that carry pain sensation, dumped so much of the pain neurotransmitter (called substance P) that they ran out. Day after day of this, the nerves had exhausted their stores and could no longer transmit pain messages until they made more from scratch, which took a couple weeks. This gave researchers an idea.
There’s a rare headache syndrome called cluster headache. It has been described as one of the worst pains humans experience. Few, if any, medical disorders are more painful. It’s nicknamed the “suicide headache" because patients often consider taking or have taken their lives over it.
It’s thought to be caused by arterial dilation putting pressure on the trigeminal nerve in the face. Treatments involve everything from nerve blocks to Botox to surgery. But that same nerve goes down to the nose. What if we cause the whole nerve to dump all its substance P?
Same as before, daily capsaicin was applied in the nose and by day five, they could hardly feel it any more. As seen in my video, Hot Sauce in the Nose for Cluster Headaches?, what the wimpy medical students rated as an eight or nine on the pain scale, those used to the violence of the cluster headache attacks rated a three or four. So, after having achieved desensitization, what happened to their headaches?
Cluster headaches are one-sided headaches; there's only pain on one side of the head. Those who rubbed capsaicin in the nostril on the opposite side of the head had nothing happen. They started out having around 40 attacks a day, and a month later the headaches were still going strong. Those that rubbed capsaicin in the nostril on the side of the head where the headaches were, cut the average number of attacks in half, and in fact half the patients were cured–the cluster headaches were gone completely. All in all, 80% responded, which is at least equal to if not better than all the current therapies out there.
This extraordinary effect reminds me of the findings in Lavender for Migraine Headaches.
Headache sufferers may additionally want to experiment with avoiding potential triggers such as aspartame (see my video Diet Soda and Preterm Birth). Saffron may also help with headaches (Saffron for the Treatment of PMS), and so might avoiding certain parasites (Pork Tapeworms on the Brain and Avoiding Epilepsy Through Diet). A note of caution, though: Pregnant migraine sufferers seeking natural remedies should be wary of advice they may get (Dangerous Advice From Health Food Store Employees).
Those eating healthy diets are less likely to be on pain medications in general (Say No to Drugs by Saying Yes to More Plants). See, for example:
- Flax Seeds For Breast Pain
- Cholesterol and Lower Back Pain
- Plant-Based Diets For Breast Pain
- Potassium and Autoimmune Disease
- Fibromyalgia vs. Vegetarian & Raw Vegan Diets
- Fibromyalgia vs. Mostly Raw & Mostly Vegetarian Diets
Might the consumption of hot peppers also successfully desensitize the gut? Find out in my video, Cayenne Pepper for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Chronic Indigestion.
-Michael Greger, M.D.
Image credit: Soumayadeep Paul / Flickr