Although it’s often said, “You are what you eat,” it’s more accurate to say, “You are what you absorb.” You may be eating a perfect diet and taking handfuls of supplements, but if you aren’t absorbing what you’re consuming, your body won’t have the raw materials needed for energy, maintenance, and repair. Without proper absorption and assimilation of nutrients, health problems inevitably arise.
One of my favorite botanicals for improving digestion and absorption is black pepper (Piper nigrum), which is the dried fruit of a flowering tropical vine. I find it interesting that black pepper plays such a prominent role in our cuisine, and that so many of us enjoy grinding fresh black pepper onto our food at the table. Along with adding flavor to our plate, we’re taking advantage (perhaps intuitively) of the health promoting benefits of this ancient spice, which include the ability to enhance the absorption of many of the medicinal nutrients in food. Although black pepper is well established in Western cuisine, the use of the spice originates in south India, where it has been appreciated for thousands of years not only for its culinary appeal, but also for its myriad health benefits.
In Ayurvedic medicine, black pepper is regarded as a warming tonic herb, and is used to stimulate appetite, enhance digestion, and to ease digestive disorders such as flatulence, diarrhea, and indigestion. In addition, black pepper is recommended as an immune stimulant, blood purifier, weight loss aid, and for treating colds and upper respiratory disorders. Traditional Chinese medicine also values the warming properties of black pepper, and uses it to treat symptoms of digestive “cold” with symptoms of abdominal pain and diarrhea. Not surprisingly, Western herbal medicine recognizes the warming properties of black pepper, and recommends it for improving digestion, enhancing circulation, relieving coughs and colds, and clearing congestion.
The warming spiciness of black pepper is attributed to the chemical compound piperine, which appears to be the primary constituent responsible for the wide variety of health benefits. I find it intriguing that piperine is also a bio-enhancer, which means that it improves the bioavailability of herbal and nutritional compounds. In studies, piperine has been shown to improve the absorption of cucurmin (from turmeric) by an astounding 154 percent in humans, due to an inhibition of glucuronidation and the slowing of gastrointestinal transit (Shoba G, et al., 1998). In the same way, piperine has been shown to enhance the bioavailability of epigallocatechin gallate from green tea (Lambert JD, et al., 2004), resveratrol (Johnson J, et al., 2012), and coenzyme Q10 by 30% (Badmeav, V, et al., 2000).
Increasing the bioavailabilty of medicinal botanicals has significant importance in the development of effective treatments for cancer. For example, in research published in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, scientists at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center reported that curcumin and piperine help to inhibit the growth of stem cells that fuel breast cancer (Kakarala M, et al., 2009). This is important, because as the researchers explain: “The cancer stem cell hypothesis asserts that malignancies arise in tissue stem and/or progenitor cells through the dysregulation or acquisition of self-renewal.”
According to this hypothesis, the recurrence of cancer after chemotherapy is due to the ineffectiveness of the drugs against cancer stem cells. Accordingly, eliminating cancer stem cells and reducing the amount of normal stem cells could decrease cancer risk. The researchers compared the effects of varying concentrations of curcumin and piperine, alone and in combination, to a control substance administered to cultured breast epithelial cells. The amounts of curcumin and piperine used were the equivalent of approximately 20 times the potency of what could be consumed through diet alone.
The researchers found a reduction in markers for breast stem cells in cultures treated with the lowest concentration of curcumin, and complete inhibition at twice that concentration. Piperine also demonstrated an inhibitory property, although the effects were not as pronounced as those elicited by curcumin. However, the addition of piperine to curcumin resulted in a reduction in stem cells that was greater than either agent alone, while having no deleterious effect on normal cell development or viability. This report is the first to conclude that curcumin and bioperine could help prevent cancer by targeting stem cells. This mechanism has the potential to prevent estrogen-sensitive tumors as well as more aggressive non-estrogen dependent cancers.
The anti-cancer protective effects of turmeric and black pepper in the culinary traditions of populations are observational, but intriguing. It appears that cultures that consume large amounts of these two botanicals daily in curries and other preparations like tandoori, masala, and sambals, have remarkably low levels of cancers. To take advantage of the health benefits and culinary pleasures of these healing botanicals, I recommend seasoning food with freshly cracked black peppercorns (fresh grinding preserves the volatile beneficial oils) and enjoying turmeric often in the form of curries and other recipes that use curry spice blends. As a medical herbalist, I also utilize the findings of modern medical research by adding piperine to botanical formulas to greatly increase the delivery and absorption of nutrients.