The dried ripe berries of Piper nigrum are what you know as black peppercorns. The biggest benefit black pepper gives you is that it makes nutrients from your food more available for utilization. It also improves digestion and increases nutrient absorption, by helping release more digestive enzymes and slowing down the passage of food through the gut, respectively. A warm thermogenic herb, it could also give your metabolism a boost, making you feel energetic. Black pepper can support the natural antioxidants in your body and protect your brain.
The pepper shaker on your dining table? That’s filled with the dried ripe berries of the vine Piper nigrum. Though you may typically reach for it when your food is missing a little something, you may want to give it a little more credit.
As small as each peppercorn is, it is filled with nutrients like manganese, vitamin K, and iron, dietary fiber, and plant chemicals like piperine that have your best interests at heart – or should we say gut? In fact, piperine has been linked to most of black pepper’s health benefits. It’s also why the spice is pungent.
Why It’s So Great
1. Makes Food Nutrients More Available
It’s no point eating healthy food if your body can’t use the healthful stuff in it, say due to poor digestion. Black pepper’s piperine can change that.
- It gives nutrients a fighting chance
The liver tags whatever it is suspicious of through a process called glucuronidation. This makes it easy for the body to pick out and remove the “bad stuff” through urination. For getting rid of toxins, this is great! But what about poorly digested food nutrients or plant chemicals that may get “mis-tagged” – before they get to prove their good intentions?
Piperine greatly decreases these odds by inhibiting enzymes involved in the tagging process (aryl hydrocarbon hydroxylase and UDP-glucuronyl transferase). Food nutrients are left longer in the system for you to benefit from them.
Note: This obviously raises the concern of harmful substances going scott free and becoming more bioavailable too. But so far there is no proof of such a downside. The effects have always been positive.
- It helps the intestine absorb nutrients better
This involves the slower passage of food through the small intestine and greater absorbing surface. Which brings us to the next point …
2. Promotes Better Digestion
Like many spices, black pepper too is a digestive. What sets it apart is the number of ways in which it supports the digestive process.
- Helps digestive juices flow
Black pepper stimulates pancreatic digestive enzymes hard at work in the small intestine. It also encourages the production of stomach acid (HCl) possibly by binding to and activating histamine H2 receptors in the stomach lining. These receptors trigger stomach acid secretion.
- Slows the passage of food in the gut
Piperine slows down the movement of food through the digestive tract. It helps that black pepper is also a good source of fiber as fiber helps in this slowing down. Now with more time at hand, digestive enzymes can do a better job of breaking down food and nutrients have a better chance of being absorbed into the bloodstream.
- Helps the intestines absorb and digest nutrients better
Exactly how black pepper does this is complicated and not yet fully understood. The basis, however, is that piperine interacts with the inner wall of the small intestine, making it more fluid. Nutrients are better absorbed and digestive enzymes are freer to work.
Piperine also increases microvilli length, increasing the surface area for nutrient absorption. (Microvilli are finger-like projections on the intestinal wall through which nutrients are absorbed.)
3. Fires Up Your Metabolism
A warming spice, black pepper has thermogenic properties thanks to its component bioperine. This means that it can increase your body’s internal temperature and enhance your metabolism, the breaking down of food for energy. It especially influences fat metabolism. This helps you feel more energetic.
Moreover, piperine directly induces the activity of the enzyme (ATPase) that breaks the energy currency of the cell (ATP). And you have more energy at your disposal!
4. Improves Brain Health
According to a list drawn by the National Institutes of Health, black pepper ranks 24 on the top 100 high-antioxidant foods. If you’re wondering why you should care, antioxidants are what keeps your body from turning rogue on itself.
Some background: Free radicals are produced part and parcel of normal life processes but are capable of damaging your own cells. The body has a way of preventing this. Enter antioxidants. As you grow older and when you fall ill, exercise too much, or eat too much fatty food, more and more free radicals are produced. That’s when your body’s antioxidants may feel a little overwhelmed and could use external help. Enter foods rich in antioxidants.
- Not only is black pepper’s piperine an antioxidant itself but also increases the activity of the body’s antioxidant enzymes (SOD, CAT, GPx, GST and GSH).
Now coming back to the brain… Fat is an easy target for free radicals. The human brain is nearly 60% fat. It needs all the antioxidant help it can get and a rank 24 sure does serve well.
You probably already have black pepper in your diet, like on your sunny side ups, salads, and soups. Maybe just add it a little more purposefully and look to more foods where it would make a great addition, like a not-so-obvious fruit bowl or tea.
Also, given that black pepper helps so much in the digestion of fat, make sure to especially include it in your steaks, pies, and meaty dishes.
Use the spice in small amounts and, whenever possible, together with other spices like turmeric, fenugreek, cinnamon, cumin, and red chili (remember the bit about bioavailability?). This is even more necessary if you have a weak digestion.