The skepdick heard yesterday that you can stop a heart attack in minutes with a few teaspoons of cayenne pepper dissolved in water. My skepdickal radar went off the charts on this one and I couldn’t wait to get home to check it out. I did a quick google search and found many a site making just such a claim (1,2,3).
Let’s see if cayenne pepper is really so amazing that it should be carried by every EMT and doctor or if it is just another myth. We will focus on the heart attack stopping claim and leave the numerous other health “benefits” of cayenne for another time.
A weak argument is if cayenne pepper really worked to stop a heart attack in minutes then hospitals and emergency personnel would use it, but since hospitals do not use cayenne, we can conclude that it’s not a worthwhile therapy. But let’s give cayenne proponents the benefit of the doubt and assume that doctors and hospitals just aren’t open-minded enough.
Heart attacks , myocardial infarctions, happen when the blood flow to the heart is interrupted (usually when a clot or piece of plaque travels to the heart and gets “stuck”), causing an oxygen shortage in the heart muscle which slowly kills the heart cells. Heart attacks can lead to cardiac arrest, when the heart stops beating altogether. Cayenne pepper can not, I repeat can not, restart the heart. De-fibrillation is the only chance the person has. If you encounter an unconscious heart attack victim (whose heart may have stopped), DO NOT “put a couple of full droppers underneath their tongue” and wait for them to revive, please call 911 instead.
The typical cause of heart attack, when a piece of debris dislodged from a blood vessel wall travels to the heart, can be due to many factors including elevated heart rate from exercise or high blood pressure acting on the walls of blood vessels. The person may feel pain in their chest, weakness, and nausea. It is important to get proper treatment as fast as possible since time is a factor, so it would be great if all we had to do was swallow some cayenne, right?
What do medical personnel currently do when a patient presents with symptoms of a heart attack?
Aspirin is often given to people who have just had a heart attack, not because it stops the attack, rather aspirin’s effect as a platelet inhibitor reduces the risk of more debris getting lodged in the heart by keeping the blood from clogging up. Oxygen is also administered, since the heart is being starved for oxygen it makes sense to get as much into the lungs/blood as is possible. Sometimes a patient is also given nitroglycerin, which acts as a vasodilator, widening blood vessels and lowering blood pressure.
None of these treatments actually stop the heart attack (they don’t address the piece of debris lodged in the heart), they simply slow the process of heart death and keep the attack from getting any worse. The only way to stop the heart attack itself is to remove that debris by A) dissolving it with some sort of clot busting medication (Thrombolytic drugs), B) physically removing it (Angioplasty), or C) bypassing the debris altogether (Coronary bypass).
Clearly cayenne pepper does not physically do anything to the clot (B and C). There aren’t tiny nano machines inside cayenne that chop up the clot, nor does cayenne pepper magically create a bypass in your heart. Therefore the only possible way this cayenne pepper heart attack myth is plausible is if cayenne can dissolve the clot itself (A).
We have to now ask a few questions about cayenne. Does a teaspoon of cayenne contain a strong thrombolytic agent, or possess any thrombolytic capability at all? And if so, do thrombolytics work if orally ingested and what is the time frame for this? Lastly, is it safe to administer unmeasured home doses of cayenne thrombolytic medicine?
The answer to the second question is that most thrombolytic medicines are either administered directly to the thrombus (clot) or intravenously, meaning they bypass the digestive system and are injected directly into the blood. Doctors do not suggest peroral delivery of thrombolytics for acute heart attacks since it would be too slow. I was unable to find any study explaining a mechanism for how long it would take the body to absorb and distribute them into the bloodstream. So if cayenne is dissolved in water and ingested, it is highly unlikely that it would work, certainly not as fast as if introduced intravenously. Please don’t try mainlining cayenne either, it would be very painful.
The decision to administer thrombolytic agents is complicated and determined by many factors. Thrombolytics are not always safe and can make the original problem worse in some cases. This decision should be made by a doctor, not your friend shoving cayenne pepper down your throat. (Also, if cayenne actually worked this way, you’d need a doctor’s note to eat my homemade guacamole.)
So, the first question remains, does cayenne contain a thrombolytic agent? The answer is, wait for it, no. There are of course no studies proving this, but as usual I can’t prove a negative. For example I can’t find a study showing that a Big Mac contains no Sildenafil, but I don’t see McDonalds trying to get you to eat one to cure your ED. No one has investigated whether a cayenne is thrombolytic because it just isn’t. Science has established what a thrombolytic agent is (cayenne is not in this category), and what sort of compounds act thrombolytically (cayenne molecules do not). The only real data about cayenne is that it makes you feel a sensation of heat when there isn’t one. From a biochemical standpoint, there is no possible way ingested capsaicin can dissolve a blood clot. It just doesn’t work that way.
What can we conclude? Cayenne pepper will do nothing for you if you are having a heart attack. It may just burn your mouth a little bit, or you may have intense pain, blistering, severe gastritis and diarrhea. Do you really want to swallow the equivalent of a shot of pepper spray while having a heart attack? There is simply no mechanism by which cayenne can stop a heart attack. Cayenne is certainly NOT recommended for anyone having heart attack symptoms (it may even be the cause). Medical personnel should immediately be contacted before any home remedy is administered.
Next time someone tells you about an easy home remedy for a life threatening medical condition, be a skepdick and understand it’s probably just a myth.
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