By Dr. Mercola
I love spicy foods and typically enjoy 1-2 habanero peppers a day. If you like spicy food, there’s good reason to indulge your cravings, as the spicy chemical in peppers – capsaicin – and other compounds in spicy food can improve your health.
Chili peppers, one of the main sources of capsaicin, are regarded as a staple in Central America, Asia, and India, but even in the US there are many devotees to spicy food whose mantra is “the spicier the better.”
One recent food industry report found that more than half of Americans (54 percent) find hot or spicy foods appealing, up from 46 percent in 2009. Those between the ages of 18 and 34 are most likely to order spicy foods from a restaurant menu.1
Interestingly, the heat and pain you experience when you eat chili pepper seeds is designed to make you not want to eat them (hence protecting the plants’ ability to spread seeds and survive).
And it’s believed that humans are, in fact, the only animal that chooses to willingly eat them. Perhaps, on some level, our bodies have learned to tolerate and even crave chili peppers’ heat because of their many proven benefits to our health.
3 Health Benefits of Spicy Foods
TIME magazine recently featured three of the many reasons why you might want to add some spice to your diet.2
1. Reduce Your Risk of Tumors
Capsaicin has been shown to activate cell receptors in your intestinal lining, creating a reaction that lowers the risk of tumors. Mice genetically prone to develop tumors had reduced tumors and extended lifespans when fed capsaicin, and the researchers believe the compound may turn off an over-reactive receptor that could trigger tumor growth.
Capsaicin has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and has even shown some promise for cancer treatment. Research has shown, for instance, that capsaicin suppresses the growth of human prostate cancer cells while leaving normal cells unharmed.3
In one study, about 80 percent of the prostate cancer cells in mice were killed by capsaicin, while treated tumors shrank to about one-fifth the size of untreated tumors.4
Capsaicin has also been shown to be effective against breast, pancreatic, and bladder cancer cells, although you might need to eat unrealistically large amounts of capsaicin to get such benefits (such as eight habanero peppers a week).5
2. Improve Your Sex Life
In this case, it’s not the spice from chili peppers but that from ginseng and saffron that showed benefit. In a review of purported aphrodisiacs, both ginseng and saffron were found to boost sexual performance.6
3. Help with Weight Loss
Spicy foods increase satiety, helping you to feel full while eating less, and hot peppers may even help your body to burn more calories. Capsaicin has actually been used to selectively destroy nerve fibers that transmit information from your gut to your brain.
This procedure was said to have a "remarkable" impact on weight,7 but destroying these nerve fibers could have serious long-term implications on your health. Fortunately, capsaicin may be effective for weight loss when added to your diet, as opposed to via surgery.
Studies have shown the substance may help fight obesity by decreasing calorie intake, shrinking fat tissue, and lowering blood fat levels, as well as fight fat buildup by triggering beneficial protein changes in your body.8
Part of the benefit may be due to capsaicin's heat potential, as it is a thermogenic substance that may temporarily increase thermogenesis in your body, where your body burns fuel such as fat to create heat, with beneficial impacts on your metabolism and fat-burning potential.
Research suggests that consuming thermogenic ingredients may boost your metabolism by up to 5 percent, and increase fat burning by up to 16 percent.9 It may even help counteract the decrease in metabolic rate that often occurs during weight loss.
Capsaicin’s Remarkable Role in Pain Relief
While eating spicy foods may cause you some temporary pain, applying capsaicin topically is known to alleviate it. Capsaicin helps alleviate pain in part by depleting your body's supply of substance P, a chemical component of nerve cells that transmits pain signals to your brain. It also works by de-sensitizing sensory receptors in your skin.10
This is why it’s used in topical pain-relieving creams and patches (some of which contain the equivalent of 10 million SHU). It’s actually the very intense burning sensation that, ironically, ultimately relieves pain. Gizmodo explained:11
“Applied externally, chilies cause a sensation of burning, as capsaicin activates TRPV1 in nerves in the skin. But, if exposed to capsaicin for long enough, these pain nerve cells will become 'exhausted,' having depleted their internal chemical stores.
The nerve cells are no longer able to respond to capsaicin (or indeed, anything that might cause pain) and so you are no longer able to perceive pain. This is why chronic exposure to capsaicin acts as an analgesic.”
Most often, capsaicin has been studied for relieving postherpetic neuralgia, or pain associated with shingles, and HIV-associated neuropathy, although it’s shown promise for treating other types of pain as well.
In one study, a man with persistent pain due to wounds from a bomb explosion experienced an 80 percent reduction in pain symptoms after using a capsaicin (8 percent, known as high concentration) patch.12
Topical treatment with 0.025 percent (low concentration) capsaicin cream has also been found to relieve pain associated with osteoarthritis, with 80 percent of patients experiencing a reduction in pain after two weeks of four-times-daily treatment.13
It’s also been shown to help reduce or eliminate burning, stinging, itching, and redness of skin associated with moderate to severe psoriasis.14 There’s even a nasal spray containing capsaicin that significantly reduced nasal allergy symptoms in a 2009 study.15
Virtually Every Spice Can Be Good for You
While capsaicin in chili peppers has received a lot of attention, it’s not the only type of spicy food that’s beneficial. Here are some additional examples of spices you can add to your meals to give them a bit of a “kick” while also significantly increasing their health potential.
Ginseng is valued for its ability to boost energy levels and speed metabolism. Panax ginseng, in particular, has been linked to weight loss benefits, with one study showing obese, diabetic mice given panax ginseng extracts not only had improvements in insulin sensitivity, but also lost a significant amount of weight after 12 days.16
This spice may help to boost your metabolism, and it also has impressive benefits for blood sugar regulation, making it an ideal seasoning for people with diabetes or pre-diabetes. Cinnamon has been found to significantly reduce blood sugar levels, triglycerides, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and total cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes, as well as increase glucose metabolism by about 20 times, which would significantly improve your ability to regulate blood sugar.17
Black pepper contains a substance called piperine, which not only gives it its pungent flavor, but also blocks the formation of new fat cells.18 When combined with capsaicin and other substances, black pepper was also found to burn as many calories as taking a 20-minute walk.19 As an aside, black pepper also increases the bioavailability of just about all other foods – herbs and other compounds – making it a healthy choice for virtually any meal.
The mustard plant is actually in the cruciferous family of vegetables (along with broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, for instance). Mustard seeds have been shown to boost metabolic rate by 25 percent, which means you'll burn calories more efficiently. In fact, just 3/5 teaspoon of mustard seeds daily may help you burn an extra 45 calories an hour.20
Ginger is another warming spice that has anti-inflammatory properties and is known to help soothe and relax your intestinal tract. Research also suggests that ginger may have thermogenic properties that help boost your metabolism, as well as have an appetite-suppressant effect when consumed, suggesting a "potential role of ginger in weight management."21
Cardamom, an aromatic spice with a spicy-sweet flavor, is another thermogenic herb that helps boost your metabolism and may boost your body's ability to burn fat. Cardamom is a popular herb used in Ayurveda, an ancient holistic system of medicine and natural healing from India.
When NOT to Eat Spicy Foods
If spicy foods agree with you and you enjoy them, they’re excellent to include in your diet, but you might want to limit them in the evening. Spicy foods before bedtime can give you indigestion that makes it nearly impossible to get a good night’s sleep. Even if you can eat spicy foods without discomfort, they are still linked with more time spent awake during the night and taking longer to fall asleep.22 It’s speculated that this may be due to capsaicin affecting sleep via changes in your body temperature.
Spicy Food Actually Tricks You Into Feeling Heat
When you eat a spicy food, it’s not actually hot… it’s just a heat sensation that you’re feeling (not that this makes it any less real to you!). Your nervous system contains heat-receptor proteins known as TRPV1 receptors. Located in cells in your skin and digestive system, these receptors remain inactive unless you’re exposed to temperatures above 107.6°F (42°C), at which point you’ll experience heat and pain. When you eat a chili pepper, capsaicin binds to and activates TRPV1, so even though you’re not actually in danger, your body thinks it’s being exposed to extreme heat.23 As explained by the New York Times:24
“…in mammals it [capsaicin] stimulates the very same pain receptors that respond to actual heat. Chili pungency is not technically a taste; it is the sensation of burning, mediated by the same mechanism that would let you know that someone had set your tongue on fire.”
The intensity of heat in peppers is measured by the Scoville scale, which was developed by pharmacist Wilbur Lincoln Scoville in 1912. While a bell (sweet) pepper has a score of zero, pure capsaicin can surpass 15 million Scoville Heat Units (SHU)! For comparison, jalapeno peppers range from 2,500 to 8,000 SHU while Scotch Bonnet peppers can be upwards of 350,000. Ghost chilis, which are even hotter, have a potency of about 900,000 SHU. Personally, I’m a fan of spicy foods… but having grown three ghost pepper plants this past summer, I can confirm that they are indeed very hot.