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Have you ever smelled black pepper essential oil? Opening a bottle releases the most wonderful (and somewhat surprising) aroma. Its fragrance is both spicy with a hint of earthiness, a tinge of freshly-ground peppercorns, and unexpected floral notes. Black pepper (which black pepper essential oil comes from) is one of the most-used spices on the planet and is the one seasoning − along with its companion salt − that can be found in almost every kitchen cupboard.
Black pepper is so commonplace that its medicinal properties often go unrecognized, however. In this article you will learn many of the traditional uses for black pepper… and if it’s evidence-based medicine that gets you fired up, you won’t be disappointed. Modern science is using black pepper for some surprising new applications, including as an antidote for snake venom!
Black pepper (Piper nigrum) originates from India. It is a climbing, flowering vine that grows up to 32 feet (10 m) in height. The round fruit of the plant are the peppers which can grow up to 1/4 inch (6 mm) in diameter. The fruits (peppercorns) of Piper nigrum all start out green and unripe. Some are harvested at this point and treated or preserved in their green state to retain that color. If the fruit on the vine is allowed to ripen to maturity, it changes from green to a deep red color. Both the unripe green fruit and the ripe red fruit, when allowed to dry, turn black. Black pepper essential oil is steam distilled from the dried, crushed berries of the plant and produces a clear to pale-green oil.
Historical Use of Black Pepper
Archaeological evidence shows that the use of black pepper goes back to at least 2000 BC. Ancient Egyptians used black pepper in the mummification process. Indeed, peppercorns were found in the mummified nostrils of Ramses II!
For centuries, black pepper was as highly prized as gold and silver and accounted for 70% of the international spice trade. During the Dark Ages, Arab traders had a monopoly on the black pepper trade. To maintain this monopoly and keep the source of black pepper a closely-guarded secret (and hence increase the price and prestige of black pepper), they came up with a great story. The tale they told was that black pepper grew in groves of trees that were guarded by poisonous snakes. In order to harvest the black pepper, the trees had to be burned in order to drive out the snakes. This process ( so they said) also turned the originally white fruit black! That myth worked for a long time.
By the Middle Ages, traders from Genoa and Venice also took on black pepper as a prized commodity, driving up the cost of this sought-after spice by an average of 40% during the 15th century.1
Traditional Chinese medicine doctors and herbalists used black pepper to treat many diseases including malaria, cholera, dysentery, and other digestive difficulties. Black pepper was used to fight infection, relieve pain, increase circulation, improve digestion, improve concentration, stimulate appetite, as an expectorant, and as an aphrodisiac.
Phytochemical Composition of Black Pepper
Black pepper essential oil has a high content of phytochemicals (natural, plant-based chemicals) known as monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes. These phytochemicals are known for their antioxidant and immune stimulatory functions.
Piperine is the main phytochemical responsible for the zestiness of black pepper. Piperine is heavily studied − the website pubmed.gov has 812 studies on piperine alone! Other compounds present in black pepper include limonene, alpha- and beta-pinene, camphene, myrcene, phellandrene, beta-caryophyllene, beta-bisabolene, sabinene, linalool, pinocarveol, alpha-terpineol, and alpha-terpinene. All of these phytochemicals are the subject of many recent research studies indicating a multitude of benefits for human health.
20 Researched Benefits of Black Pepper (from A-Z)
Taiwanese researchers reported in 2014 the results of a randomized, controlled study on 60 patients with neck pain. The experimental group used a 3% concentration cream comprising four essential oils: black pepper essential oil, marjoram essential oil, lavender essential oil, and peppermint essential oil. The control group received a cream without essential oils. After four weeks the experimental group had significant improvement in both movement and pain tolerance.2
A 2013 Saudi Arabian study found that piperine had analgesic and anticonvulsant effects in mice.3
In 2009, Korean scientists found that piperine had anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic effects in rats with arthritis. Researchers stated “piperine significantly reduced nociceptive and arthritic symptoms” and “significantly reduced the inflammatory area in the ankle joints.”4 Nociceptors are sensory neurons located in the nervous system. They alert us to potentially harmful stimuli in the skin such as extremes in temperature, damaging pressure, injurious chemicals, etc.5
#2. Antibacterial, Antifungal
Chinese research published in 2017 found that black pepper had antifungal and antibacterial effects against a variety of pathogenic fungi and bacteria. It was stated that black pepper extracts completely reduced colonies of Staphylococcus aureus (golden staph). Staphylococcus aureus is currently causing huge problems in clinics and hospitals due to the fact that it is resistant to common antibiotics. Black pepper was also effective against other bacteria like Escherichia coli, one of the main causes for foodborne disease, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. 6
A 2016 study published in Frontiers in Microbiology also found that black pepper essential oil was a natural antibacterial agent, effective against E. coli.7
Korean researchers investigated 83 essential oils in 2014 for their potency against S. aureus. They noted that one of the hallmarks of S. aureus is that it forms what is termed a biofilm, which is one of the reasons it is able to resist standard antibiotic drugs. It also produces alpha-toxin, which is hemolytic (ruptures red blood cells). These researchers found that black pepper essential oil (and a few other essential oils) markedly inhibits S. aureus biofilm formation. They also found it down-regulates the expression of the alpha-toxin gene and abolishes hemolytic activity, thus easing the harmfulness and virulence of S. aureus.8
In 2007, Brazilian researchers found that two of the phytochemicals in black pepper, alpha-pinene and beta-pinene, together with eugenol from clove, effectively inhibited the bacteria that causes infectious endocarditis. Endocarditis is a dangerous inflammatory condition affecting the inner lining of the heart. Tested bacteria included Staphylococcus aureus, Staphylococcus epidermidis, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Staphylococcus pyogenes.9
Black pepper and, specifically, piperine have recently been the subject of a number of research studies indicating potential potent anti-cancer activity. The studies have primarily been test tube and animal studies. To date, few human trials have been reported, however, the results of the in vitro and animal studies on piperine appear promising.
Several other well-studied phytochemicals are found in black pepper in addition to piperine. These include:
- Limonene – 18-20 percent content in black pepper. There are a myriad of studies, including human trials, that indicate limonene may be a potent anti-cancer compound.
- Alpha-pinene – 10-12 percent content in black pepper; and
- Beta-pinene – 24-26 percent content, both of which are discussed in more detail in this article.
- Beta-caryophyllene – 25-35 percent content.
A 2017 study conducted in Thailand revealed that two phytochemicals in black pepper, (-)-kusunokinin and piperlongumine, had potent cytotoxic (toxic to cells) and anti-cancer effects on three types of cancer cells. Tested were MCF-7 cells (infiltrating ductal carcinoma breast cancer cells, estrogen receptor positive, progesterone receptor positive, HER2 negative). The two phytochemicals were also reported to be potent against MDA-MB-468 cells (tumor cells that have no hormone receptors, termed “triple negative breast cancer”), and SW-620 cells (colorectal cancer).10
A joint study performed by Iranian and American scientists published in 2017 in Current Medicinal Chemistry indicated that piperine demonstrated effective chemopreventive (cancer preventive) activity. It was found to suppress cancer stem cell renewal and inhibit cancer cell proliferation (rapid growth), invasion, metastasis (spread), and angiogenesis (the ability of cancerous tumors to create new blood vessels to feed themselves. Due to these anticancer activities as well as its antioxidant activity and antimutagenic (reducing the rate of mutation) properties, piperine was considered by these researchers to be an important new candidate for clinical trials in the future.11
A study published in 2017 by Pakistani researchers found that piperine had analgesic (pain relieving) and anti-inflammatory activity in mice.12
Korean researchers also reported in 2017 that five other phytochemicals within black pepper exhibited anti-inflammatory activity in vitro.13
Piperine is known to modulate several brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and GABA, all of which have been linked to the development of epileptic convulsions. In 2015, joint research by Canadian and Indian scientists found that piperine exhibited several complex anticonvulsant properties in an animal model.14
In 2017 Chinese researchers found piperine to have anticonvulsant effects. They also found that it eased the associated memory impairment, inflammation, and oxidative stress in rats induced with epilepsy.15
Black pepper has long been known in parts of Asia to be beneficial in the treatment of snake bite. Researchers have been investigating various components of black pepper to elucidate exactly why it is helpful. In 2017, Indian scientists discovered that piperine inhibits some of the potentially fatal effects of snake venom in animal studies.16
#7. Bioenhancer of Other Substances
Piperine has been shown to improve the clinical efficacy of antibiotic and anticancer drugs. Piperine is also known to increase the bioavailability of other drugs and phytonutrients. This means that the cells of the body are better able to utilize these substances when piperine is added. This is partly attributed to increased absorption by the specialized brush border cells in the intestines. Piperine also stimulates digestive enzymes, enhances digestive capacity and significantly reduces gastrointestinal food transit times.17
In 2017, Chinese researchers found that piperine significantly enhanced the bioavailability of another phytochemical, rosmarinic acid, in rodents.18
A research study by Indian scientists in 2017 found that piperine enhanced the bioavailability of the anti-emetic drug domperidone in rats.19
Likely the most-studied combination with regard to the issue of bioavailability are piperine and curcumin, the active compound of turmeric. Curcumin, under normal circumstances, is poorly absorbed. In an effort to find other substances that could be combined with curcumin to increase its absorption, numerous studies have been performed demonstrating that piperine effectively increases the bioavailability of curcumin. One of the most recent studies, reported in 2017 by Chinese researchers, investigated therapeutic dosages of curcumin and piperine for enhancing bioavailability of curcumin in rats. They found that curcumin absorption was significantly enhanced, up to six-fold, in all the piperine pre-treated rats.20
#8. Blood Pressure Reduction
2010 Slovakian research demonstrated that piperine given to rats reduced their blood pressure after only three weeks of treatment.21
Pakistani researchers in 2008 investigated the underlying causes for the cardiovascular effects of piperine. They found that piperine had blood pressure lowering effects in rats, rabbits, and cows and that it appeared to do this by altering calcium and potassium ion levels. Piperine also affected blood vessels, causing vasoconstriction (blood vessel constriction) as well as vasodilation (blood vessel dilation).22
Indian research published in January 2017 found that a combination of piperine and curcumin protected the hearts of rats. The rats were treated with cyclophosphamide, a commonly used chemotherapy drug with a high degree of toxicity to heart tissues. The most effective dose offering the best protective effect was 50 milligrams of curcumin per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight, and 20 milligrams of piperine per kilogram of body weight.23
Cardiac fibrosis, an abnormal thickening of the tissues of the heart, is a hallmark of heart disease. Cardiac fibrosis can be caused by various factors, including the aging process, certain drugs, radiation injury, even stress. According to a Chinese study published in EBioMedicine in April 2017, researchers found that piperine reduced the effect of cardiac fibrosis in an animal study.24
In joint research performed by Indian and Taiwanese researchers in 2017, piperine was found to be a potent therapeutic agent protecting against induced myocardial infarction (heart attack) in rats.25
#10. Cholesterol Lowering
Indian research on animals reported in 2014 found that piperine supplementation was extremely effective for obese rats. Piperine not only reversed high fat diet-induced cholesterol levels, but also reduced weight, fat percentages, blood pressure, insulin levels, and other obesity-related problems. The therapeutic dose of piperine was 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.26
2013 Thai research discovered that piperine reduces cholesterol uptake in cells by affecting cholesterol transporter proteins.27
#11. Cough Suppressant
A joint Slovakian and Indian study conducted in 2017 on guinea pigs found that black pepper and piperine had antitussive (cough suppressant) effects, comparable to codeine phosphate.28
#12. Digestion Enhancement
Black pepper is known to enhance digestion. It does this by stimulating key digestive enzymes, and by significantly reducing gastrointestinal food transit time.17 In a 2002 animal study, black pepper was also shown to significantly increase the production of gastric acid, by up to 22%.29
#13. Eases Anxiety and Depression
In 2015, a joint study by Cameroon and Romanian scientists revealed that black pepper had significant anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects in a rat model of Alzheimer’s Disease.30
A 2007 Chinese study also found that piperine had antidepressant activity in chronic mild stress-treated mice.31
#14. Eases Smoking Withdrawal Symptoms
A small 1994 American study involving 48 volunteers who were cigarette smokers indicated that black pepper essential oil was able to significantly reduce cravings for cigarettes. In the study, subjects participated in a three hour session conducted after overnight deprivation from smoking cigarettes. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One group puffed on a device that delivered a vapor from black pepper essential oil; the second group puffed on the device with a mint/menthol cartridge; and the third group used a device containing an empty cartridge. No smoking was allowed but the subjects could puff and inhale from the devices they were given as much as they liked. Subjects in the black pepper group reported that their craving for cigarettes and anxiety were significantly reduced. Researchers also stated “The intensity of sensations in the chest was also significantly higher for the pepper condition. These results support the view that respiratory tract sensations are important in alleviating smoking withdrawal symptoms.”32
#15. Exercise Enhancement
A Korean animal study reported in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism in 2017 found that piperine enhanced the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats in skeletal muscle during acute exercise.33
#16. Improves Dysphagia
Dysphagia is a condition whereby patients have difficulty or discomfort when swallowing. Dysphagia often occurs with conventional cancer therapies and with stroke patients. A 2006 randomized clinical trial in Japan involving 105 post-stroke patients found that inhaling black pepper oil activated regions of the brain involving reflexive swallowing. Black pepper oil was shown to be of benefit to post-stroke patients with dysphagia, regardless of their level of consciousness, physical state or mental status.34
#17. Muscle and Tendon Repair
French and Australian researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial reported in 2017 involving 16 elite rugby players. Researchers found that the combination of piperine with curcumin markedly eased some of the exercise-induced muscle damage.35
A 2017 study performed by Chinese scientists found that piperine improved Achilles tendon injuries in rats in several ways. Piperine improved the structure of the tendon and increased glycosaminoglycans (a type of carbohydrate that assists in the maintenance and support of collagen). It also increased hydroxyproline (a major component of collagen) and induced genetic changes that assisted with tendon repair.36
We have already seen that piperine and black pepper may be of benefit for patients with epilepsy due to the anticonvulsive effects of these compounds. Piperine and black pepper are also being studied extensively for their neuroprotective properties, especially when combined with curcumin. One of these studies, released in 2010 by Indian researchers, found that the combination of curcumin with piperine effectively protected the nerves of mice from a fungal toxin known as 3-Nitropropionic acid (3-NP). This toxin is widely used in research for inducing symptoms of Huntington’s disease in animals. Huntington’s disease is marked by brain cell degeneration and progressive dementia. The combination of curcumin with piperine offered significant protective effects for the mice.37
Another 2010 study by Chinese researchers found piperine had protective effects on neurons in the hippocampal region of the rat brain.38
A 2015 animal study undertaken by Indian researchers also found black pepper to have neuroprotective properties. Researchers stated “there is a huge effect on memory and cognition with piper nigrum extract” in rats with Alzheimer’s Disease.39
Prebiotics help stimulate the growth and survival of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Further, they help to discourage the growth of harmful organisms. A 2017 American study revealed that certain spices, including black pepper, enhanced the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria and lactobacillus strains.40
#20. Skin Protective
2017 research by Indian scientists revealed that piperine protects against ultraviolet radiation damage to DNA in skin cells, using several different mechanisms of action.41
4 Great Ways To Enjoy Black Pepper Essential Oil
- Combine it with food, herbs, supplements. Black pepper essential oil is a bioenhancer, increasing the bioavailability of substances taken with it, and helping to transport them into the cells of the body. See precaution below, however, about taking black pepper with pharmaceutical drugs.
- Combine it with other oils. Black pepper blends very well with many other essential oils. It is considered a “middle note” oil, and it combines well with lighter, “top note” oils like citrus oils, and heavier, “base note” oils like ginger and myrrh.
- To help the body recover from muscle soreness, injuries, and tendinitis, combine black pepper with a carrier oil and other essential oils (marjoram, copaiba, and lavender essential oil are helpful) and massage into the affected area. Black pepper can help to increase circulation which supports muscles and tendons in repairing themselves.
- Add it to your cooking. A drop or two of black pepper essential oil adds depth and flavor to casseroles, soups, stews, vegetables, and salads.
Precautions When Using Black Pepper Essential Oil
Just as adding a lot of pepper to a dish makes it hotter, black pepper oil has quite a warming sensation when applied topically or taken internally. Use it only in small quantities, and dilute it with a quality carrier oil like coconut, jojoba, or almond oil. The more sensitive the skin, the more diluted it should be.
Being a bioenhancer, black pepper can increase the uptake of pharmaceutical drugs, so should be taken away from medications. Be sure to check with a qualified healthcare practitioner before using black pepper essential oil.
Keep black pepper oil away from eyes and nose and other tender areas of the body. It may cause irritation, sneezing, and burning of the eyes.
Be extremely cautious when using any essential oils with children and in pregnancy. When in doubt it is always best to consult a qualified aromatherapist or knowledgeable healthcare provider.
Black pepper is so commonplace that its medicinal properties often go unrecognized.
For centuries, black pepper was as highly prized as gold and silver and accounted for 70% of the international spice trade.
Traditional Chinese medicine doctors and herbalists used black pepper to treat many diseases including malaria, cholera, dysentery, and other digestive difficulties.
20 researched benefits of black pepper (from A-Z)
- Antibacterial, Antifungal
- Bioenhancer of Other Substances
- Blood Pressure Reduction
- Cholesterol Lowering
- Cough Suppressant
- Digestion Enhancement
- Eases Anxiety and Depression
- Eases Smoking Withdrawal Symptoms
- Exercise Enhancement
- Improves Dysphagia
- Muscle and Tendon Repair
- Skin Protective
4 ways to enjoy black pepper essential oil:
- Combine it with food, herbs, supplements
- Combine it with other oils
- Combine it with a carrier oil and other essential oils to recover from muscle soreness, injuries, and tendinitis
- Add it to your cooking