If you love spicy foods and condiments, you’re in luck. Chili peppers (dubbed “violent fruit” by seventeenth century English herbalist Nicholas Culpepper) have a number of health benefits thanks to capsaicin.
Capsaicin is the phytochemical that gives peppers their kick, and how much heat they pack depends on their capsaicin content. Relative hotness as measured by the Scoville scale ranges from bell peppers’ zero heat units, to jalapeños’ 2,500–8,000 and cayenne’s 30,000–50,000, all the way up to Carolina reapers’ 1.4–2.2 million.
Research on capsaicin is also red hot. More than 13,000 scientific papers have been published on its therapeutic effects on pain, appetite and weight control, insulin resistance, inflammation, cardiovascular function, gastrointestinal and respiratory disorders, and even longevity. Let’s take a look.
The Pain Paradox
It seems odd that a burning, irritating compound like capsaicin can relieve pain, but that is its most common medicinal use. Prescription and over-the-counter creams, ointments, and patches are a popular treatment for neuropathy, osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis, shingles, and muscle pain.
The key to these paradoxical effects—both causing pain and relieving it—is activation of TRPV1 receptors. When triggered by capsaicin, these receptors interact with sensory nerves to transmit pain signals to the brain. Repeat activation, however, desensitizes them. That’s why initial application of topical capsaicin burns like heck but sensitivity and pain decrease with frequent use.
TRPV1 receptor activation is involved in much more than heat and pain perception. It also affects energy expenditure, fat and glucose metabolism, nitric oxide synthesis, and more—which explains many of capsaicin’s broad therapeutic effects.
Heats Up Weight Loss
One of the most exciting areas of research is weight loss. Capsaicin stimulates thermogenesis, the production of heat in the body. If you’ve ever broken into a sweat while eating spicy foods, you know what I’m talking about. Heat generation burns calories, and capsaicin has a special talent for triggering the burning of fat, especially brown fat, which is particularly important for enduring weight loss.
Capsaicin also reduces appetite and boosts metabolic rate, making it a promising therapy for obesity. In a 2016 placebo-controlled clinical trial, participants who took capsaicin capsules daily for 12 weeks had marked reductions in appetite, caloric intake, and waist-to-hip ratio.
I’ve been aware of capsaicin’s cardiovascular benefits since the early 1990s, when I came across a book by Richard Quinn describing how cayenne pepper eliminated his angina. I have also heard from a number of my newsletter subscribers who had similar improvements. For example, M.T. couldn’t walk more than 20–30 yards without stopping to catch his breath. Within three days of starting on cayenne capsules, his energy rebounded and his shortness of breath and blood pressure improved. A month later, he was climbing ladders and scaling scaffolding.
I couldn’t explain it at the time, as the research was in its infancy. We now know that capsaicin-activated TRPV1 increases the production of nitric oxide, which relaxes the arteries, increases blood flow, and reduces angina.
Eat Spicy Foods, Live Longer
Capsaicin may even increase longevity. In one study, researchers analyzed data on more than 16,000 people over a 19-year period and found that hot pepper consumption was linked a 13 percent reduced risk of death.
In another study involving nearly 500,000 people, ages 30–79, an inverse relationship was noted between the amount of spicy foods consumed and the risk of dying. Men and women who ate peppers and other spicy foods six or seven days a week had a 14 percent reduced risk of death compared to those who indulged less than once a week.
Don’t Spicy Foods Cause Ulcers?
If there’s one area you’d think hot peppers would hurt rather than help it’s the gastrointestinal system. Although spicy foods may irritate an existing ulcer or trigger heartburn in people with GERD, capsaicin actually protects the stomach. It stimulates the secretion of gastric mucus, reduces stomach acid, and has been shown in clinical trials to guard against damage to the gastric
mucosa caused by NSAIDs and excessive alcohol.
As for stomach ulcers, the real culprit is a bacterial infection (H. pylori), and capsaicin’s antibacterial properties offer further protection.
Capsaicin also blunts inflammation and positively alters the gut microbiota, and early research suggests benefits for patients with irritable bowel syndrome.
A Bounty of Benefits
Have you ever been plagued with uncontrollable itching? Regardless of the cause (psoriasis, fungal infection, post-herpetic neuralgia, etc.), topical capsaicin may help. Runny nose or congestion? Non-allergic rhinitis often responds to capsaicin nasal spray, as it blunts sensitivity to household chemicals, perfumes, and other environmental irritants. (Note that it will not help with airborne allergies.)
Some people claim capsaicin gives them more energy, and others use it in place of caffeine for increased alertness. Cayenne pepper, along with lemon juice and maple syrup, is also an ingredient in a trendy concoction for “detox” and rapid weight loss.
If you find mouth-scorching chili peppers intolerable, cayenne capsules are a great alternative. Look for them in health food stores or online and take with food to avoid stomach upset. If you do enjoy some spice in your diet, though, below are some recipes that feature spicy foods like hot peppers and cayenne that are bursting with flavor—and the health benefits of capsaicin.
- 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 cup celery, chopped
- 1 cup carrots, chopped
- 1 cup green bell pepper, chopped
- ½ cup ripe olives, sliced
- 3½ ounces (1 small can) chopped green chilies
- 14 ½ ounces (1 can) low-sodium chopped tomatoes with juice
- 1/3 cup tomato paste
- 15 ounces (1 can) kidney beans, rinsed and drained
- 12 ounces (1 bottle) beer
- 1½ cups water
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- 2 chipotle chilies canned in adobo (more or less to taste, they're hot) or use ¼–½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Heat olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, celery, carrots, and peppers. Sauté for 10 minutes, stirring often.
Add olives, chilies, tomatoes, tomato paste, beans, beer, water, and spices. Stir well. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for a minimum of 1 hour, stirring occasionally and adding more water, if necessary. Chili may be cooked for up to 4 hours, if you have the time. The longer you cook it, the better the flavor. In fact, it's even better reheated the next day.
Chipotle chilies are smoked, dried jalapenos that give food a spicy kick with smoky undertones. You can buy them dried, but the easiest way to use them is reconstituted in adobo sauce. Several manufacturers of Mexican foods make chipotle chilies canned in adobo sauce. If you can't find this in the ethnic section of your grocery store, use jalapenos, fresh Anaheim chilies, or a small can of chopped green chilies—it will still be delicious. Look for chipotles, however, for they really enhance this chili.
Mary’s Fresh Salsa
- 1 pound fresh tomatoes, chopped
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2½ cups fresh cilantro, chopped
- 3 small jalapeno peppers (fresh preferred), seeds removed (to taste—they’re very hot) and chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon salt or salt substitute
Combine all ingredients, adding more or fewer jalapenos, to taste. (Handle fresh jalapenos with care.) Do not use a blender or food processor for fresh salsa—it turns out too mushy.
Low-Sodium Spicy Seasoned Salt
- 3 tablespoons salt or salt substitute
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon cumin powder
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- ½ teaspoon curry powder
Combine all ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well until thoroughly blended and use small amounts as needed to flavor your favorite dishes.
This is a lower sodium, spicier option to regular seasoning salt. If you are salt sensitive, use a salt substitute, such as Nu-Salt. It contains potassium chloride and no sodium at all. You may add as much Nu-Salt to this as you want.