The next time you bravely scarf down those suicide wings only to wither in agony as the fiery heat burns a hole in your tongue, take comfort in this: The ingredient in hot peppers that gives them their zing also does wonders for your health.
It’s called capsaicin, and as researchers learn more about it they are shedding light on some very promising health benefits. Capsaicin is the component in peppers that is directly responsible for the amount of “heat” in the pepper. For instance, bell peppers have no capsaicin, while fiery breeds like habaneros have a lot of it. One common misconception is that capsaicin is linked to the color of the pepper, but in fact it has nothing to do with the colour and only with the level of heat in the pepper. Hot pepper plants actually evolved over time to produce more and more capsaicin in order to ward off animals from eating them, as the heat is unpleasant for most animals. While it can be unpleasant for some humans as well, especially at first, the cells in the tongue actually become desensitized to the burning with more exposure, to the point where we can tolerate spicier and spicier foods (a phenomenon most of us have experienced). What’s more, our bodies react to the heat from peppers by sensing it as pain and releasing a flood of endorphins – the pleasure hormone – to counteract that pain. This process results in a bit of a “high” or “rush” during and after eating spicy foods. In fact, ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations considered chilli peppers to be an aphrodisiac.
So now that we know that hot peppers are linked to pleasure (who knew?), what about the mark they leave on our health? If you compile all the research done on hot peppers and specifically capsaicin in the last several years you’ll see that they have been linked to the following health benefits:
- The ability to curb appetite.
- Boost metabolism.
- Relief from stuffy nose (decongestant).
- Lower cholesterol.
- Regulate blood sugar, and hence lower the risk of diabetes and help manage it.
- Although early researchers assumed that hot peppers elevated blood pressure in people, studies have shown the opposite, that in fact it has the potential to lower blood pressure.
- Prevent and treat cancer: In a prostate cancer study, when capsaicin was exposed to tumour cells in mice, it killed 80% of the prostate cancer cells, causing tumours to shrink to one fifth the size of the tumours that were not treated with capsaicin. It also left the healthy cells untouched. Other studies have shown similar results with lung and pancreatic cancer. It has yet to be tested on humans though.
- All peppers (including those that aren’t hot) contain good amounts of vitamin A and C, between them responsible for such things as keeping your eyes and skin healthy, boosting your immunity against the common cold, and even reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease.
It’s hard not to like all of the potential benefits that come from spicing up your diet a bit. People should be cautioned though that very spicy foods are not recommended for those that have stomach ulcers or severe heartburn. Also, if you’re a bit of a rookie when it comes to the heat, take it slow at first to avoid having an unpleasant experience.
So they can make your food taste better, they bring you pleasure, and they come with a raft of health benefits. What’s not to like about this fiery superfood? Here’s to turning it up a notch!