Contrary to standard reactions of heat or discomfort, a team of researchers has found direct evidence that chili peppers may have anti-pain properties. Specifically it was found that capsaicin, a particular component found in chili peppers, helps reduce pain by binding to the lipid PIP2.
This is not the first time that capsaicin has been linked to pain relief, and in fact there are capsaicin creams widely available, which are considered to relieve muscle pain, and even help with arthritis. The novelty of the current study lies in the observation that when capsaicin binds to the receptor of the PIP2 lipid, a process known as desensitization occurs, which leads to the pain relief. This observation could lead to more effective capsaicin utilization for pain relief, and a better understanding of how chili pepper consumption might help diminish pain through dietary consumption.
Study author Dr. Feng Qin describes the process by which capsaicin binds to the lipid receptor, leading to desensitization: “The receptor acts like a gate to the neurons. When stimulated it opens, letting outside calcium enter the cells until the receptor shuts down, a process called desensitization. The analgesic action of capsaicin is believed to involve this desensitization process.”
This desensitization, or diminished pain, was observed to be a direct result of diminished PIP2 in the cell membrane. This entire pain relieving mechanism was also noted to be adaptive, or “autoregulated,” which is said to increase the potential of further clinical application. Dr. Qin further explains the potential of this finding: “In other words, the receptor had not desensitized per se, but its responsiveness range was shifted. This property, called adaptation, would allow the receptor to continuously respond to varying stimuli over a large capsaicin concentration range.” The hope is that further research and development will be performed to better understand the applications of this discovery.
Source: Defeat Diabetes Foundation: Qin, Feng. Hubbard, Sally. PLoS Biology news release. February 2009.