Herb Allies: Lemon and Black Pepper

Ayurvedic Herbs

In Ayurveda, we have a lot of “herb allies.” Many of these are common fruits, culinary herbs, and other plants that we use in our everyday cooking in the West, where we sometimes forget that we have a medicine cabinet in our kitchens! 

Two of my favorite daily kitchen ingredients are lemon and black pepper. They not only make a delicious combination when used in cooking, but are also packed with health benefits. Using them more frequently in your food can be a great way to implement Ayurvedic practices in your daily life.

Most of us know lemons as a healthful and flavorful fruit. Lemon along with its peel is often added to Ayurvedic recipes and medicines to stimulate detoxification. Lemons also nourish our bodies with a broad spectrum of vital nutrients ranging from antioxidant vitamins C, A, and E to the B complex vitamins B6, folate, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid to a full complement of minerals, including copper, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and phosphorus. Additionally, lemon’s generous supply of flavonoids affords the combined health benefits of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, including anti-cancer activity. 

The connection between cancer and lemons isn’t something new: scientists have been studying the use of high doses of vitamin C as a cancer treatment since the 1970s. Lab tests by scientists at the Texas Agriculture Experiment Station showed that limona, a compound found in lemons and other citrus fruits, stopped the growth of neuroblastoma tumor cells. Unlike standard chemotherapy agents, limona causes no unpleasant or harmful side effects. The results of other recent studies of its anti-cancer properties have also been promising. 

Ayurveda has long recommended lemon for a variety of other uses as well, including to reduce blood sugar; alleviate constipation, high blood pressure, fever, and indigestion and to improve the health of our skin, hair, and teeth. Meanwhile, mainstream scientists continue to discover new applications for this ancient multi-purpose medicine. Studies conducted at the American Urological Association recently revealed that the citrate in lemon juice helps prevent the formation of kidney stones.

Another kitchen favorite, black pepper not only tastes great with lemon, but also contains a compound that makes the fruit’s antioxidant nutrients easier for our body to absorb. This compound, piperine, has impressive antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties that provide additional health dividends, including optimizing the balance of microbes in the digestive tract and improving digestion. 

Our taste buds react to piperine’s pungent flavor by signaling our body to produce more of the gastric secretions that break down proteins, starches, and fats, thereby helping us avoid flatulence, indigestion, constipation, and other harmful effects of retaining undigested food. Studies show that piperine can also stop the overproduction of digestive enzymes that cause diarrhea—a finding that suggests this potent compound may hold promise as a treatment for bowel disorders such as IBS and IBD. (Hint: To balance digestion and discourage the growth of unfriendly bacteria in your gut, add a teaspoon of freshly ground pepper to your meals every day. It’ll perk up the flavor of the dish, too.)

Black pepper’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects point to its potential role in fighting cancer. Laboratory researchers have documented that piperine and other bioactive compounds in pepper inhibit the growth and spread of tumor cells in several types of cancer, including breast and colorectal cancer. Scientists investigating black pepper’s potential as a cancer preventative have found it reduces the rate of cell mutations that lead to malignancies and increases the activity of immune cells that kill tumor cells.

Piperine holds out hope for other modern-day health scourges as well. Recent research evidences that piperine may reduce the risk of both obesity and diabetes by regulating blood sugar levels and increasing the rate at which resting muscle tissue burns calories. The compound has also been shown to increase the bioavailability of the diabetes drug metformin, potentially enabling patients to lower their dosage of the drug. 

The good news about black pepper doesn’t end there. It may also  help keep our brain active and healthy as we age. Preliminary studies have demonstrated that the spice may be useful in managing neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, depression, Parkinson’s, and epilepsy.

In Ayurveda, pepper is often included in tonics for the respiratory problems, including colds and coughs. Its expectorant quality promotes the expulsion of mucus from the sinuses and lower respiratory tract. In addition to stimulating productive coughing, black pepper helps discharge mucus by inducing sneezing. These characteristics, plus black pepper’s anti-inflammatory effects, add up to an intuitive approach to managing respiratory illnesses—one that helps relieve their symptoms, while addressing the underlying causes.   

The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of Ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease.