By Dr. Mercola
About half of Americans (54 percent) enjoy spicy foods, which is considerably less than in some other areas of the world, like India, Asia, and Central America, where chili peppers and other spicy foods are considered staples.1
If you’re one of those people who love a bit of heat with virtually any meal, you’re in luck, as spicy foods are among the best for your health. They contain potent plant compounds called capsaicinoids, which have been found to prevent chronic diseases and are also what give peppers their heat.
This, coupled with their high concentrations of vitamins and antioxidants, makes spicy peppers a unique superfood – if you can stand their heat. The seeds in peppers are spicy, in fact, to deter animals from eating them. Humans are unique in that we eat them anyway, and it’s even been suggested that we’ve learned to love their spicy flavor because our bodies know how healthy they are.
Spicy Foods Are Good for Your Heart and More
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, so any foods that support heart health are worthy of more than a passing glance. Spicy foods, particularly chili peppers, certainly fit this bill.
When hamsters ate food spiced up with capsaicinoids, their levels of LDL cholesterol declined, as did the plaque in their arteries.2 Capsaicin, one of the most studied capsaicinoids, in particular has also been linked to improved blood vessel function.
One study revealed it stimulates TRPV1 (transient receptor potential vanilloid 1), a blood vessel receptor, that in turn promotes the release of nitric oxide and lowers blood pressure.3 It is through this activation of TRPV1 that capsaicin appears to exert many of its beneficial effects, as TRPV1 receptors are found in many tissues. As reported in the journal Open Heart:4
“Capsaicin-mediated activation of TRPV1-expressing neurons in the gastrointestinal tract promotes sympathetically mediated stimulation of brown fat, raising metabolic rate.
The increased expression of UCP2 [uncoupling protein 2] induced by TRPV1 activation exerts a protective antioxidant effect on the liver in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and on vascular endothelium in the context of hyperglycemia.
In rodent studies, capsaicin-rich diets have shown favorable effects on atherosclerosis, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver, cardiac hypertrophy, hypertension, and stroke risk.”
Hot Peppers May Lower Your Cancer Risk
Another major killer, cancer, is also affected by capsaicin in hot peppers. 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.5
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.6
It’s thought that the activation of TRPV1 may again be responsible for some of capsaicin’s anti-tumor effects, especially in the intestines.7 As noted by Prevent Disease:8
“The scientists discovered that TRPV1 works as a tumor suppressor in the intestines through a ‘feedback loop’ with the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), reducing the risk of unwanted growth.”
Capsaicin has also been shown to be effective against breast, pancreatic, and bladder cancer cells, although you’ll likely need to eat large amounts of capsaicin regularly to get such benefits (such as three to eight habanero peppers a week).9
Eating Spicy Food May Help You Lose Weight
Spicy foods increase satiety, helping you to feel full while eating less, and hot peppers may even help your body to burn more calories. Studies have shown capsaicin 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.10
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.
It stimulates brown fat, for instance, a type of fat that generates heat by helping you burn calories, which is why it's being explored as a tool for weight loss, healthy metabolism, and more.11
Research suggests that consuming thermogenic ingredients may boost your metabolism by up to 5 percent, and increase fat burning by up to 16 percent.12 It may even help counteract the decrease in metabolic rate that often occurs during weight loss.
Capsaicin Is an Excellent Pain Reliever
Capsaicin is not only a potent anti-inflammatory, which is useful for many types of pain, but also it provides pain relief 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.13
This is why it’s often used in topical pain-relieving creams and patches. It’s actually the very intense burning sensation that, ironically, ultimately relieves pain. Gizmodo explained:14
“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.”
In one study, a man with persistent pain due to wounds from bomb explosion experienced an 80 percent reduction in pain symptoms after using a capsaicin (8 percent, known as high concentration) patch.15
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.16
It’s also been shown to help reduce or eliminate burning, stinging, itching, redness of skin associated with moderate to severe psoriasis,17 and even help relieve migraine pain.
Boost Your Sex Life and More with These Other Healthy Spices
Peppers are only one type of spice, and when it comes to experiencing the full range of health benefits spicy foods offer, variety is key. In the case of your sex life, 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.18
Ginseng, which can add quite a “kick” to your meals, 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.19 Other notable spices include:
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.20
Black pepper contains a substance called piperine, which not only gives it its pungent flavor, but also blocks the formation of new fat cells.21 When combined with capsaicin and other substances, black pepper was also found to burn as many calories as taking a 20-minute walk.22 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.23
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."24
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.
Chili Peppers Are Easy to Grow at Home
It’s quite easy to secure a steady supply of chili peppers, as they’re easy to grow, even indoors. You don’t need much space, as one or two plants can easily feed a family. I grow four kinds of chili peppers and enjoy them fresh, raw, and organic, although you can also add them to fish, beef and chicken dishes, soups, curries, and vegetables. They also work well for making sauces that add flavor and nutrition to most any savory meal.
In addition to the capsaicin, fresh chili peppers also provide high levels of immunity-boosting vitamin C, antioxidants including beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, B vitamins. and even minerals like potassium, magnesium and manganese. If you think you don’t like spicy foods, you might want to give them another chance. It’s possible to build up a tolerance to the spice so you can grow to enjoy them. And remember that even though the spice might feel painful, it’s just an illusion. When you eat a chili pepper, capsaicin binds to and activates TRPV1. You’re not actually in any danger; your body simply thinks it’s being exposed to extreme heat.25
When Spicy Foods Should Be Avoided
You might want to wrap up your spiciest meals well before bedtime, as spicy foods before bed 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.26 It’s speculated this may be due to capsaicin affecting sleep via changes in your body temperature. Spicy foods may also irritate your bladder if you’re in the midst of a urinary tract infection (UTI), so you may want to hold off until you’re healed.
As for the notion that you should avoid spicy foods if you’ve got stomach issues, this is a myth – hot chilies may actually be protective. Not only have chili peppers been found to reduce the risk of stomach bleeding in people taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, but eating them daily may also significantly reduce your risk of peptic ulcers.27 So if you enjoy them, there’s no reason not to indulge.