Health Benefits of Chile Peppers

Original Mystery Pepper
Are spicy peppers good for you? Studies are beginning to suggest they might be.

Could the "no pain, no gain" mantra also apply to what we eat (or apply to our skin)? While not proven that spicy peppers will improve one's health, multiple scientific studies are beginning to draw some interesting connections between the spicy pepper and our health. With benefits ranging from increased longevity to a reduced incidence of certain ailments being potentially uncovered.

USDA Nutritional Contributions

Before diving-in on what the studies are showing, it's noteworthy to acknowledge the nutritional contributions peppers make to a healthy diet. They're a good source of Vitamins C (twice the amount found in citrus fruits), B6, K1, A as well as potassium, magnesium, manganese, iron, copper and dietary fiber. While they have plenty of the good stuff, they're also low in the bad stuff, notably sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat.

Antioxidants

When it comes to spicy peppers, it's the capsaicin that grabs the headlines. After all, it's what gives chiles the heat that they're famous (infamous) for! Capsaicin is an antioxidant carotenoid, which are generally helpful in removing free radicals from the body and are believed by many to lower risk of infection and some forms of cancer.

Though, capsaicin is only one of the seven antioxidants commonly found in spicy peppers. The others -- capsanthin, violaxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin, sinapic acid, and ferulic acid. Overall, peppers are a great source of antioxidants, though, these amounts are significantly higher in the mature peppers (red, orange, yellow), than in the unripened green fruit.

Increased Longevity?

Two studies have shown that people who eat spicy peppers tend to live longer. While neither study has established a connection to how this happens, or even if they're sure it's the spicy peppers that are directly responsible for the increase in longevity, it's very interesting that each study came to the same conclusion.

A study of residents in China found that men and women who consume spicy foods statistically have a higher probability of living longer than non-consumers. The study also found that the more times a week spicy food was consumed, the higher their likelihood of living longer.

Another study on United States adults analyzed data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey found those who consumed hot red chile peppers exhibited a mortality rate that was 12% below those who did not eat spicy chiles. When adjusted for demographic, lifestyle, and clinical characteristics, the consumption of hot red chile peppers was associated with a 13% reduction in the instantaneous hazard of death.

Beneficial for Weight Loss?

Eating spicy food potentially gives a whole new meaning to "burning calories." Could that burning sensation also be causing other physiological responses that assist in weight loss? A 2016 study found that chile peppers contain substances that significantly increase thermogenesis (heat production) and fat metabolism. Concluding that consumption of chiles can help in accelerating weight loss through dietary modifications.

A similar study researched the affect of capsaicin making body expend more energy and thus burn calories helped to confirm the above results, stating "capsaicin is an interesting target for anti-obesity therapy."

Beneficial for the Skin?

Applying spicy peppers to the skin -- intentionally! Anyone who's sliced or diced spicy peppers, probably has a story to share about inadvertently touching another part of their body and their associated agony.

People who regularly eat spicy food generally, over time, develop a higher tolerance for the heat. Likewise, over time skin usually adapts to reduce the burning sensation.

  • Regular topical application of capsaicin cream (avoid eyes and other sensitive areas) has been shown to decrease pain in the area applied by nearly 50% after three weeks of use and can help people suffering from osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.
  • According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, NCBI, topical application of capsaicin has shown to be a potentially effective treatment for moderate and severe psoriasis.
  • Ferulic acid, also common in chile peppers, when applied topically can slow the skin's aging process by reducing the damage caused by free radicals on the skin.

Though, please see the "A Cause for Concern?" section below to get both sides of this story as it relates to topical application.

Other Protective / Curative Properties?

A number of clinical drugs are either based upon or similar to other naturally occurring compounds. Many research studies use naturally occurring molecular combinations as an inspiration to uncover what heals or protects the body. For example, many believe that we've only scratched the surface of the potential health benefits the mushroom family has to offer.

Could the capsaicin proteins and/or the other antioxidants found in hot peppers be among of these intriguing substances where our understanding of their benefits is only beginning to take shape. A few scientific studies offer supporting evidence...

  • Capsaicin is believed to help the body metabolize glucose and improve insulin sensitivity which can help people with type 2 diabetes. The 2016 study mentioned above for assisting with weight loss, found that eating chiles corresponded to an improved control of insulin which has positive effects for treatment for diseases like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders. Says nutritionist Dr Josh Axe, "Consistently consuming foods high in this nutrient (capsaicin) has been proven to improve the blood sugar and insulin reactions in both men and women."
  • A study by The Journal of Cancer Research showed that capsaicin inhibits the growth of prostate cancer cells as did another study by Alcala University's School of Medicine.
  • Capsaicin has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties and is also believed to to have heart healthy affects. Specifically, a number of studies summarized by the NCBI found that capsaicin improved coronary vascular circulation, increased blood flow to tissues, reduced vascular plaque buildup, inhibited fat and cholesterol absorption, and promoted nitric oxide release which lowers blood pressure.
  • Consuming capsaicin could lead to improved gut health. Studies performed by Pramod Srivastava, an immunologist at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, found that mice that consumed capsaicin experienced healing effects—stretching from the esophagus down through the stomach. Though IBD may be an exception, as many people with IBD have reported negative reactions to spicy foods.
  • Similarly, a 2010 study published in the journal "Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism" looked at the effect of capsaicin (and other spices) on the activities of antioxidant enzymes in the stomach and intestines of Wistar rats. Researchers found that it improved the functioning of all these antioxidant enzymes, suggesting capsaicin may have protective potential for the stomach and intestines.
  • Spicy foods do not cause ulcers, in fact according to the NCBI, investigations in recent years have found that chile peppers, or their capsaicin, may actually prevent ulcers and aid in their healing.
  • The lutein and zeaxanthin carotenoids commonly found in chile peppers have been shown to have a connection to improved eye health.
  • The ferulic acid found in chile peppers has been shown to exhibit a wide range of therapeutic effects in the protection against chronic diseases.

A Cause for Concern?

Like anything else, there's potentially two sides to the story. There also have been a few studies that point to potential pitfalls of consuming chile peppers.

  • The NCBI found increased skin carcinogenesis in mice to be associated with chronic, long-term topical capsaicin exposure when the mice were also treated with a tumor promoter. Suggesting results could imply using caution in topical capsaicin application in the presence of a tumor promoter, such as sunlight.
  • A 2002 study that analyzed patients diagnosed with gallbladder cancer in Chile, found that those with the disease were, statistically speaking, of lower social-economic levels, had a much longer history of gallstone disease as well as a dietary pattern of low fresh fruit intake and high red chile pepper consumption.
  • An interview study of male hospital patients with cancers of the oral cavity linked red chili powder usage (or was it chile powder?) as a two-to-threefold risk factor; with increased dosage linked to increased risk. Though, perhaps these affects can be offset as the same study also found a protective affect from daily vegetable servings as well as once a week fish consumption. Lower levels of fat consumption and tea drinking was also associated with elevated risk levels.
  • A population based study in Mexico City during 1989-1990 found a strong risk factor of gastric cancer for people who were chile pepper consumers. Furthermore, the statistics showed increased consumption led to increased risk. However, when consumption was measured based on frequency per day, no statistically significant trend was observed between consumption frequency and increased risk.

Like the other studies presented, these studies didn't show that consumption/use of chile peppers caused these ailments. Only that a statistical connection existed between the consumption/use of chiles to the outcomes in those studies.

So What Does This Mean?

In our opinion, the most concerning of the risk assessment studies was the Mexico City study that observed a statistical connection between chile consumption and gastric cancer. While concerning, the study implied that people who moderated their intake, even among those who ate them frequently, fared significantly better than those who described themselves as heavy chile pepper consumers.

From our perspective, the pros outweigh the cons. One, they're rich in Vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Secondly, the two longevity studies, to us, provides the strongest argument as they would seem to factor all the variables into a single outcome. Those two independent studies, conducted on two different continents, found that people who eat spicy food/chiles tend to live longer.

Furthermore, the longevity study conducted in China observed that people who eat spicy food more often tended to live longest. It's interesting that in the Mexico City study, that the frequency of intake didn't affect risk, but the level of consumption did. Perhaps more often is better than more, and moderation is best. Hmmm... Where have we heard that before?

That works for us! Enjoy responsibly.

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