Whether fresh, dried, ground, or roasted, chili peppers add unrivaled pop to meals while delivering countless medicinal benefits to the body. Capsaicin, the compound responsible for chilies pungency and spice, has been credited with a host of health advantages, from killing cancerous cells to lowering blood pressure, preventing obesity, and reducing the risk of diabetes.
When consumed, capsaicin binds to pain receptors in the mouth, causing the brain to send endorphins to alleviate the burning. Endorphins trigger the blood vessels to dilate, which is why your face can flush after eating hot peppers and why peppers may also help reduce blood pressure, says new research from Japan. Because endorphins have a feel-good effect, people can become addicted to foods that contain capsaicin.
Capsaicin is also a powerful anti-inflammatory agent and anticoagulant, so it may help decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. Cultures with diets rich in capsaicin, like those of Thailand and India, have a lower incidence of heart attack, stroke, and pulmonary embolisms.
In addition to being heart-healthy, capsaicin may also help thwart cancer. Research conducted earlier this year found that capsaicin extract killed the mitochondria in cancerous cells without hurting healthy cells. Studies also show that capsaicin inhibits the proliferation of cancerous cells in the lungs, pancreas, and prostate.
While capsaicin is believed to worsen certain gastrointestinal ailments, such as heartburn, the ancient Mayans incorporated chilies into medicinal remedies for stomach problems. Scientists believe capsaicin extract may impede disease-causing microbes in the gut. A word of warning, though: Although chilies don’t necessarily cause digestive disorders, the jury’s out on whether hot peppers harm those with ulcers, heartburn, and other preexisting stomach problems.
Much of the latest research has focused on capsaicin’s ability to stimulate metabolism, prevent weight gain, and help reduce the risk of diabetes. Eating chilies boosts the body’s heat production, increasing metabolism you may burn up to an additional 75 calories per meal when consuming foods that contain hot chilies, says Yvonne Nienstadt, nutrition director at the Rancho La Puerta Fitness Report and Spa in Tecate, Mexico. A 2007 study conducted in Taiwan found that capsaicin also inhibits the growth of fat cells in mice; scientists are hopeful that more research will confirm the compound as a fat-fighting additive. Capsaicin may also prove beneficial to those with diabetes, suggests a 2009 study published in Obesity.