Spicy food isn’t to everyone’s liking, but there are a multitude of scientific reasons why you might want to acquire a hankering for the hot stuff—particularly chili peppers.
Capsaicin, the element that gives hot peppers their spicy flavor, has healing properties that can be tapped into by eating raw or cooked peppers, consuming dried powder added to foods and drinks, or taking dietary supplements. Capsaicin is also a topical analgesic added to creams or medicated skin patches.
According to Piedmont Healthcare clinical dietitian Haley Robinson, capsaicin has antidepressant properties, too. Robinson notes that our bodies mistake the heat in capsaicin for pain, which triggers the release of endorphins, including serotonin. This can relieve stress and decrease depression.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are many positive health outcomes associated with consuming chili peppers. From lowering your cancer risk to increasing longevity, here are four reasons to add more chilies to your diet.
Longevity and chili peppers
Eating spicy food may make you feel like you’re going to die, but according to research presented at an American Heart Association conference in 2020, consuming chili peppers may actually reduce all-cause mortality.
Research shows that chili peppers have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as well as blood-glucose regulating and anticancer effects, all due to capsaicin. In light of this, researchers set out to learn whether eating chili peppers regularly has any impact on all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality. They analyzed the findings of four major studies—which included data on more than 570,000 individuals in the United States, Italy, China, and Iran—to examine how chili pepper consumption affects all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality.
Those who ate chili peppers regularly saw 25% reductions in all-cause mortality compared with those who rarely or never consumed chilies. Chili pepper consumers also had a 26% lower risk of cardiovascular disease mortality and a 23% lower risk of cancer mortality.
While the four studies had limitations (for example, data on the types and amounts of chili peppers were not precise) and more research is required to discern the mechanisms at play, researchers concluded that the positive health outcomes associated with chili peppers are significant.
Cancer and chili peppers
The above study is one of many to find that capsaicin appears to have anticancer properties. As pointed out in an article published by Elsevier, evidence suggests that capsaicin can activate cell receptors in the intestinal lining, which appears to reduce the risk of developing tumors. Studies conducted on mice have found that supplementing their diet with capsaicin reduced the number of tumors that developed over their lives. One such study found that capsaicin killed prostate cancer cells at a rate of 80%, reducing the size of tumors by four-fifths.
A review published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics went into further detail regarding capsaicin’s role as a cancer preventive agent. The review cites numerous studies that found capsaicin can help fight tumors in “a wide variety of cancer types, including breast cancer, lung cancer, gastric cancer, liver cancer, prostate cancer and bladder cancer,” and others.
The authors of the review note that capsaicin’s anti-tumor effects occur largely through the activation of cell receptors and the regulation of signaling pathways, which result in the induction of apoptosis and autophagy, and anti-angiogenesis and anti-metastasis. Studies also show that capsaicin can improve a patient’s response to chemo-radiotherapy, simultaneously allowing for lower doses of treatment and increasing the patient’s tolerance.
Inflammation, gut health, and chili peppers
The aforementioned anti-inflammatory effects of chili peppers can also benefit your gut health, according to an article published by Penn Medicine.
The article states that receptors in your taste buds, which let your brain know the chili pepper is hot, also exist in your digestive tract. Once the chili hits these gut receptors, it creates an anti-inflammatory chemical called anandamide. Research has shown that anandamide decreases inflammation that conditions like ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease produce. According to the article, this mechanism may also lower your risks of developing tumors in the intestine.
Cardiovascular disease and chili peppers
Chili peppers may also help protect against cardiovascular disease, via several routes. These include promoting weight loss and fighting obesity, which are primary causes of atherosclerosis and heart disease.
In the Penn Medicine article, Jeffrey Millstein, MD, noted that capsaicin has been shown to boost metabolism, which can help burn more calories while exercising and at rest.
According to Robinson, the Piedmont Healthcare dietition, capsaicin accomplishes this by increasing core temperature and speeding up metabolism by as much as 5%. Capsaicin also increases feelings of satiety. One study found that eating a meal with chili peppers resulted in an average of 75 fewer calories consumed.
What’s more, chili peppers contain vitamins A and C, which can help strengthen the muscular walls of the heart. Capsaicin also improves blood flow, lowering risks of hypertension.
Beyond that, chili peppers can lower levels of low-density lipoprotein. One study found that chili pepper consumption is associated with a 13% lower rate of heart disease and stroke.
Don’t beat the heat, embrace it
It may take some time (and a little sweat and tears), but the evidence suggests that chili peppers are a boon to your health. Whether it’s a chili con carne, a spicy curry, or hot salsa—if you can tolerate a bit of heat, you could be preventing certain diseases or even lengthening your life.