Eating hot peppers not only provides a spicy zing to food, research studies suggest the consumption of capsaicin, the chemical in peppers, may offer some impressive benefits.
Let’s get something out of the way first about eating spicy food. Yes, eating hot peppers if you have heartburn is like pouring gasoline on a fire. According to this research study, “Capsaicin enhances noxious postprandial heartburn.”
But the interesting thing about capsaicin, the phytochemical in peppers, is that it doesn’t necessarily make heartburn worse physiologically, but rather psychologically. You see, spiciness is detected and interpreted by sensory neurons, not by digestive organs. So could it be that our interpretation of spiciness hastens the effects of indigestion in the same way perceiving a stressful situation can induce a panic attack?
That’s food for thought. The takeaway is that you shouldn’t swear off capsaicin if you suffer from indigestion. But before you take a little nibble of a habanero, you should work on restoring your stomach’s gastric juices, e.g. hydrochloric acid and pepsin.
If you have a history of taking heartburn remedies, be aware that over time, your stomach acid levels can be greatly reduced. The overuse of antacids can lead to medication-induced hypochlorhydria (insufficient stomach acid), suggests this study published in Integrative Medicine.
Benefits of Capsaicin
But if you don’t have heartburn troubles, let’s dive in and explore the potential health benefits of eating peppers. A 2015 study published in Open Heart concludes capsaicin may have important potential for promoting vascular and metabolic health.
Spicy peppers affect metabolism by activating pain-detecting neurons. But at the same time capsaicin is telling your brain that there’s a five-alarm fire going off in your mouth, the chemical also increases the levels of nitric oxide in the lining of the heart and blood vessels.
Every single cell in your body contains nitric oxide, a gas that widens and relaxes blood vessels. In other words, peppers are vasodilators, and as such, they may help improve your blood pressure.
According to the co-authors of the review in Open Heart, “In rodent studies, capsaicin-rich diets have shown favorable effects on atherosclerosis, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver, cardiac hypertrophy, hypertension and stroke risk.”
A common belief about eating peppers is that doing so boosts metabolism. But evidence for that isn’t very strong. If you’re eating a high carbohydrate diet and struggling with weight management, don’t expect miracles by eating fistfuls of spicy peppers.
Can Eating Peppers Lead To Better Health?
The focus of this article is capsaicin in the diet, not the topical application. When used topically, capsaicin may help reduce arthritic pain and neuropathy.
Eating peppers has shown in rodent studies to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Other limited research suggests capsaicin can reduce appetite. That makes sense. After all, when your mouth feels like it’s on fire, the last thing you want to do is eat anything else.
One study on gastric ulcers, which is primarily caused not by insufficient stomach acid, but rather by H. Pylori infection, suggests chili peppers can help heal ulcers by improving blood flow to the stomach, among other mechanisms.
Capsaicin is also considered a potent anti-inflammatory agent.
Chili Pepper Nutrition
Beyond the potential cardiovascular and metabolic benefits, are there other things to cheer about for chili peppers?
For starters, they are very high in the antioxidant, vitamin C. In fact, ounce for ounce, chili peppers are higher in this nutrient than oranges. A small jalapeno pepper, which scores only 10,000 on the Scoville Scale, which is like the glycemic index for peppers (it measures spiciness, not blood sugar spikes), contains 10% of the daily recommended value of vitamin C. (Jalapenos rank towards the bottom of the scale. The pepper that ranks highest: the Carolina Reaper, which scores over 2 million on the scale.)
In addition, chili peppers contain another vitamin that’s often overlooked: vitamin K. You won’t find any mention of vitamin K on nutrition fact labels. But if you don’t want to bleed to death after you get a nasty paper cut, vitamin K is critical for blood clotting.
Peppers also contain beta carotene, which isn’t true vitamin A, although some of this red-orange pigment does convert into it. Chili peppers contain several other chemical compounds that may contribute to your overall health.
Just make sure you eat a spicy pepper that you can handle on the Scoville Scale. No possible health benefit is worth feeling miserable for several minutes.
Do you enjoy hot chili peppers? Leave a comment below.