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The Spicy Science Behind Why Pepper Makes You Feel Less High

Why are so many smokers huffing their pepper shakers to take the edge off? Let's investigate

Yesterday morning, Jake, a 20-year-old in Illinois, was on the verge of a panic attack in his kitchen. He was a little high, but the culprit was the coffee he had drunk — the caffeine had him feeling too wired and on edge.

So what did he do? “Grabbed the ground pepper from my cabinet, opened it, took a couple of deep breaths with it next to my nose.”

The anxiety he felt “just kinda faded off.”

Wait a second. Pepper?

“I’ve dealt with generalized anxiety disorder for as long as I can remember, and have been on a few different kinds of benzos for it,” Jake says. “In my experience, I’ve found that the peppercorn helps calm my anxiety just as much as Xanax did.” He even keeps a container of black pepper in his glove box in case he has any flare-ups.

He admits the effect “doesn’t last as long” as his Xanax did, “but if I got anxious again I just had to take another whiff of the container,” he laughs. “Plus no cravings for more when I wasn’t feeling anxious and no sort of withdrawal symptoms.” He insists the peppercorn method is legitimate: “The research is all there!”

Is it, though? There is plenty of anecdotal evidence. On Reddit, you’ll find threads in the recreational marijuana subreddit r/Trees or r/LifeProTips, where the means of ingestion varies between users, but the end result is the same — it’s the perfect solution for when an emergency de-stoning is in order.

But, like many natural remedies, it sounds too good to be true — or like the placebo effect in action. To learn more, I reached out to Dr. Ethan Russo, a board-certified neurologist, psychopharmacology researcher, and Director of Research and Development of the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute.

He’s also the author of several books on cannabis, and a study about this very subject, titled “Taming THC: Potential Cannabis Synergy and Phytocannabinoid-Terpenoid Entourage Effects.” In the study, he explains how the specific terpenes in peppercorn can help “tame the intoxicating effects of THC,” in addition to describing how cultures and literary figures of yesteryear employed peppercorn and similar organic compounds containing terpenes to mellow their highs.

What are terpenes, and how does this all work? “Terpenes and terpenoids are aromatic molecules produced by plants for ecological reasons to enhance their survival and adaptation to predators, diseases and other challenges,” Russo explains to MEL in an email. “They are also potent medicines in their own right that may produce beneficial effects on mood, as antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and analgesics.”

In short, specific compounds within peppercorn — specifically, caryophyllene — is a “high-potency selective CB2 agonist,” meaning it helps deliver the more relaxing, anxiety-relieving effects of THC. So it doesn’t necessarily “block” the THC from getting all up in your brain. More accurately, it pulls a kind of lever to increase the sedating effects of THC, rather than the psychological effects.

Although I couldn’t find any studies specifically taking humans suffering stoned-anxiety and smelling peppercorn to come down, Russo and his compatriots in the field are confident in the chemistry.

Neurochemistry isn’t quite my forte, so I reached out to a few guys who swear by the “peppercorn method” and have some stoner science in their pocket as well.

Luke, 18, uses terpenes to, in his words, “scoop myself out of couch-lock. … Whenever indicas glue me to the couch, bed, toilet, or kitchen floor, I always make sure to have black pepper on hand. Even snacking on a bag of [terpene-rich] pistachios helps me get back to baseline.”

“I would take this advice about pepper with a grain of salt,” says Steve, 29. “That is to say, it worked well for me. … I put three to four shakes of black pepper in a glass and down it.” Recently, he went to work still feeling the previous night’s high and started panicking. “I brought the pepper with me, and I’m glad I did, because about an hour after I get there I feel myself blasting off again. Had some more pepper water and it cured me in live action. I felt my body fighting against the high. Saved my ass.”

“Personally, a bad high is just anxiety 99 percent of the time, and if you can find something to eliminate the anxiety, the high will be enjoyable again,” Jake adds. As for his particular method: “I’ve heard people say to chew a few whole peppercorns, but I just smell the container of crushed ground pepper I have in the kitchen,” he says.

Dr. Russo tells MEL that “some of these influences may be manifested by smelling the specific compounds, but are more likely to be effective if inhaled via a vaporizer.” In other words, smelling the pepper should work, but it’d be much more effective to find a peppercorn-extract vaporizer.

As someone who’s constantly on the verge of a panic attack, I took a huge whiff of my pepper shaker this morning. My anxiety remained intact as I proceeded to sneeze seven times — so, like Jake said, take it with a grain of salt.