No one disputes that a proper diet—full of fresh produce, healthy fats and clean protein—is crucial to well-being. But the best diet in the world isn’t going to help if the nutrients it provides can’t make their way into the bloodstream, where the body can put them to active use.
All sorts of conditions can lead to poor nutrient absorption: food allergies and intolerances (including celiac disease), intestinal infections, inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatic problems, thyroid and other glandular dysfunctions. But everyday living—stress, rushed meals, lack of exercise—can also take its toll.
There are natural ways to encourge your gastrointestinal tract to function at peak efficiency. And one of them comes from a common condiment: black pepper.
The pepper plant (Piper nigrum) is native to India, where practitioners of that country’s traditional system of medicine, Ayurveda, have long valued the peppercorn’s ability to enhance digestion.
Black pepper is one of the three herbs (along with ginger and long pepper) in a detoxifying Ayurvedic formula called trikatu, used to stoke the body’s “digestive fire,” which helps with symptoms such as gas and bloating, as well as to stimulate circulation and clear respiratory congestion. Modern researchers have found that trikatu helps fight inflammation and regulate immunity as well.
Pepper’s ability to promote digestion while giving bland foods a spicy kick made it famous far past the borders of India. The Greeks used black pepper as an offering in their temples; during the Middle Ages, the size of a person’s pepper supply was regarded as a measure of their wealth.
Today, we know that in addition to its stores of vitamin K and the trace mineral manganese, black pepper contains a substance called piperine. Besides helping to shepherd nutrients through the intestinal wall, piperine is believed to promote heat production within the body, increasing demand for fresh nutrients from the digestive tract to fuel the heat-generation process. (This process, called thermogenesis, is one reason black pepper has traditionally been used as an aid in weight regulation; in addition, piperine has been discovered to interfere with fat cell formation and to reduce the cellular damage that occurs when fats become oxidized.)
Modern supplement manufacturers have followed in Ayurveda’s footsteps: They often include piperine in formulations so the body can better absorb and utilize the other ingredients, a capacity known as bioavailability. And one of the most popular forms of piperine used for this purpose is called BioPerine, which is also available as a standalone product.
Compared with the 3% to 5% piperine content found in plain black pepper, BioPerine is standardized to a mininum of 95% piperine. This allows BioPerine to foster greater absorption of not only vitamins, minerals and other nutrients but also compounds found in herbal extracts as well as phytonutrients such as resveratrol—many of which are poorly absorbed otherwise.
Use as much black pepper as you want at the dinner table. But for optimal nutrient absorption look for BioPerine, either by itself or in multi-ingredient supplements.