Spicy foods provide health benefits

Conway McLean, DPM

In case you weren’t aware, spicy foods are hot. I don’t mean in the literal sense, but in that they are becoming dramatically more popular with cooks and consumers. A majority of Americans now keep hot sauce in their house, and hot ingredients are being added to all sorts of food items, from ice cream to candy.

Spicy food is enjoyed all over the world, and certainly spices add a significant amount of flavor to our diet, but it appears that spicy foods like chillies and hot sauces also provide notable health benefits. In addition to making our taste buds sizzle, spicy foods apparently come with some sizable medicinal perks.

But what makes certain substances “hot” and what is actually occurring when foods elicit this reaction when consumed? The answer hinges on the fact that spicy foods stimulate various nerve endings in the skin, specifically pain detecting nerves. These are the ones that respond to temperature extremes, as well as mechanical stimulation. But the central nervous system can be fooled when these nerves are stimulated by a chemical, such as those found in certain types of peppers.

The active ingredient in peppers that is responsible for the “hot” sensation is capsaicin, which is found in varying concentrations, depending on the species of pepper. This chemical stimulates two different types of nerves, one that is responsible for detecting extreme temperatures, and another for mild warmth. The result is that two messages are sent to the brain. One says an intense stimulus has been experienced by the skin, and the other is that of warmth. Together, these stimuli produce the sensation of a burn, and not some type of physical trauma.

Although most think of the burn of a pepper as being a taste, these receptors are found everywhere in the skin, all over the body. These means the burn of capsaicin can be elicited by contact anywhere, such as the face or hands. Ask anyone who has made the mistake of handling an extremely hot pepper without gloves. Not only is a burning pain produced, but the body part contacted can actually turn red, as though it has been physically burned. Menthol acts in much the same way, except that it stimulates those fibers that register cold temperatures, producing a sensation of a “cold burn”.

Many different peppers contain capsaicin, but amounts vary greatly. Bell peppers have minimal amounts of capsaicin, and are rated a 0 on the Scoville heat scale, the rating system for the number of heat-producing substances a pepper contains. Jalapeno peppers, used in many Mexican food recipes, can run anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 units. In stark contrast is the ghost pepper, officially certified the world’s hottest pepper by the Guinness book, found to be 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. This little heat-producing fruit bomb can top a million Scoville units. The market for these super-hot peppers has risen in tandem with the nation’s appetite for spicier foods. Consequently, the number of hot sauces has exploded, with words like “nuclear”, “death” and “pain” appearing regularly in the names of many these sauces.

An interesting side note concerns where the capsaicin is stored in a pepper. In a jalapeno, removing the seed capsule means you have depleted the amount of capsaicin almost completely. But if you remove the veins and seed capsule from a ghost pepper, you reduce the amount of capsaicin by only 50 percent. In super-hot peppers, roughly half their capsaicin is stored in the skin. Super-hot peppers don’t just have more capsaicin than chiller peppers; they store it differently.

Research shows that adding some spice to your meal can provide more health benefits than previously thought. You read that correctly — in addition to making your taste buds sizzle, spicy foods come with some significant health perks. One particular study examined the diets of nearly half a million men and women over seven years, and found that people who ate spicy foods almost every day had a 14 percent lower risk of death, compared to people who added heat to their meal less than once a week. The protective effect was similar in both men and women, with one study revealing that women who frequently eat spicy foods experience a lower risk of death from both cancer and respiratory diseases.

Cultures that eat spicy foods frequently have a much lower rate of heart attacks and stroke. This is likely due to the fact that capsaicin improves the body’s ability to dissolve blood clots, as well as lowering levels of inflammation in the blood stream, another risk factor for heart disease. Capsaicin seems to affect blood vessels positively by causing them to dilate, which can lead to a lowering of blood pressure. An indirect effect on blood pressure is produced by reducing the use of salt, since fresh or dried hot peppers are a great way to flavor up meals. Spicy foods also promote better circulation, through their effect on body temperature. By raising it, your blood flow is improved and your heart pumps stronger. Additionally, peppers are high in vitamins A and C, which help to strengthen blood vessel walls.

Pepper products can help with weight loss. Capsaicin speeds up metabolism and so helps the body burn calories faster. Furthermore, studies have shown that people who eat spicy foods eat smaller portions, which can reduce their calorie intake. Hot peppers boost your immune system. They contain an impressively long list of antioxidants, substances that are critically important in immune function, allowing a body better able to fight infection. These molecules are also known to help fend off the deleterious consequences of aging.

You’ve probably heard the old wives’ tale that hot peppers burn a hole in your stomach or cause ulcers. The truth is hot peppers actually protect against ulcers, because bacteria called H. pylori cause most ulcers, and capsaicin seems to help kill those bacteria. They can also help to improve one’s mood and act as depression fighters, as well as powerful stress relievers. Chillie peppers boost the level of endorphins and serotonin, both of which dull pain and give us a feeling of well-being.

Very importantly, studies have shown that regular consumption of chillies decrease the risk of cancer. Capsaicin slows the growth of cancer cells and in some cases, even causes the cancer cells to die off without harming the surrounding cells. In countries where diets are traditionally high in capsaicin, people tend to have lower rates of some cancers.

How much spicy food do you need to eat to get the benefits? Many experts recommend that you try to include hot peppers in your diet two to three times a week. Since eating them raw can be a challenge, you can sautee them or cook them, without losing their healthful benefits. If you have trouble tolerating spicy foods, try coupling them with yogurt.

Clearly, spicy foods are a hot commodity, and can be found in restaurant dishes, and on market shelves where they never could before. Is it the health benefits, or, more likely, are we in it for the pain?

As a popular country singer recently sang “it felt so good to hurt so bad”. Between the health benefits of spicy foods, and the rising popularity of these bombastic delicacies, peppers won’t be disappearing from our lives any time soon. Your palate, and your health, can benefit.

Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a podiatric physician now practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, having assumed the practice of Dr. Ken Tabor. McLean has lectured internationally on surgery and wound care, and is board certified in both, with a sub-specialty in foot orthotic therapy. Dr. McLean welcomes questions, comments and suggestions at drcmclean@penmed.com.