If you’ve walked through any of Vancouver’s farmers’ markets, especially later in the summer and early fall, you may have been treated to the sight of bushels and baskets of peppers. You can find peppers of all colors and for a wide variety of uses. You can find bulky red, yellow-orange or green bell peppers that are perfect for roasting, eating raw or as an ingredient for a number of dishes. You may also find baskets of smaller hot peppers that can spice up a recipe or be made into hot sauce. And depending on the market, you may also find peppers that are used as spices.
What you may not know is that for centuries peppers also have their place in Chinese herbology for their healing properties. For the most part, when peppers are used as herbs, their primary function is to drive out cold from your body. While this may seem like a hard concept to actually have cold—not a cold—it’s actually considered as a pathogen in Chinese medicine. Internal cold can come from a sluggish metabolism, lack of circulation or a virus or bacteria that causes gastroenteritis (food poisoning). Typical symptoms of an internal cold include feeling cold to your core, cold hands or feet and wanting to bundle up, wanting soup or warm liquids or craving a hot bath. Internal cold also commonly affects your digestion, because your body needs a certain amount of warmth, called digestive fire, to digest and absorb the foods you’ve eaten. Therefore, internal cold can also cause nausea, vomiting, loose stools and diarrhea due to the lack of fire to complete digestion.
The Chinese herbs that come from peppers include:
- Black pepper fruit, or black peppercorns (Hu Jiao). As an herb, black pepper is hot and spicy. It’s added to formulas to drive out cold from your digestive tract and stop vomiting and diarrhea. It can also be used to relieve pain associated with cold conditions.
- Szechuan pepper fruit (Hua Jiao or Chuan Jiao). This herb is hot, spicy and slightly toxic. Like black pepper, it also warms your digestion, treats cold diarrhea, stops vomiting and can be used for cold-related abdominal pain. Additionally, Hua Jiao kills parasites and can be used to treat roundworms.
- Long pepper fruit (Bi Ba). Also used in formulas to drive out cold, Bi Ba warms your stomach and intestines. Research has also indicated that it has antibiotic effects, which may make it a helpful addition to formulas treating gastroenteritis.
- Kadsura pepper stem (Hai Feng Teng). While this herb can be used for cold in your stomach and intestines, it’s more frequently added to formulas that treat pain, stiffness, muscle aches and cramping due to cold in your joints and muscles.
In general, all of the pepper-derived herbs treat cold conditions by stimulating blood flow, especially in your digestive tract. They promote better digestion, increased absorption of foods and stop vomiting and diarrhea.
Interestingly, some of these herbs are also common spices used in cooking. As a spice, black peppercorns are hot, pungent and slightly sweet. Black pepper is also considered to be one of the earliest known spices. And similar to black pepper, long peppercorns are also an ancient spice with a flavor that’s a little hotter but similar to black pepper.
The fruit of the Szechuan pepper shouldn’t be confused with dried Szechuan chili peppers, which are hot and commonly used in Szechuan cuisine. Instead, Szechuan pepper fruit actually comes from the prickly ash shrub that produces a flower with red husks and black seeds inside. When it’s used in cooking, it has a flavor that’s described as pine crossed with citrus. Szechuan pepper fruit isn’t a hot spice, but it’s used in limited amounts because it creates a tingling and numbness in your mouth when eaten, which actually makes it useful in treating the pain from toothache.
The warming properties of the herbs from the pepper family make them somewhat drying, which is a good reason that these herbs should be prescribed by someone well-trained and knowledgeable in Chinese medicine and herbology. If you’d like to know more about Chinese herbs or if an herbal formula may help you, contact BodaHealth for more information.
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Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.