Chilis and Spices Might Well Be the Cure for What Ails You

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Hot chilies are a bit like extreme weather: there is such a thing as too much, but it can be pretty exciting. The bonus is that chili peppers can also make you healthier.

Reports of health benefits in chili peppers — cayenne by another name, capsaicin being the active ingredient found in this family of pepper plants — have ratcheted up interest in spicier cooking overall in recent years. Chili peppers might reduce heart disease, diabetes, cancer and digestive diseases, all thought to be maladies of inflammation. The capsaicin inhibits an inflammatory agent called Substance P, which in laboratory rat studies has been shown to reduce cancer cell growth. It also is a thermogenic, meaning it increases metabolism of fat cells, among other benefits. Capsaicin is now a popular topical treatment in an ointment form, used to reduce pain from osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, shingles, diabetic neuropathy and cluster headaches.

[Note: If you wear a hair replacement system with a soft-bond adhesive (methacrylate, unlike hard-bond cyanoacrylate), the perspiration that sometimes comes with spicy foods might loosen the adhesive. The simple solution is to turn down the heat, so to speak, by reducing the amount used.]

But how many of the claims for the chili pepper’s health benefits are true? The purported health benefits span a broad range, much of it lacking peer-reviewed study. The general sense among experts is that it is good for you.

Experts weigh in on the health benefits of chili peppers

We reviewed what the mainstream health Web sites have to say, as well as the findings of herbalists, proponents of alternative medicines who examine health benefits outside the government-industry food and health complex. Here is their take on chili peppers and health.

“Capsaicin may improve your digestion by increasing the digestive fluids in the stomach and by fighting bacteria that could cause an infection. It may also help fight diarrhea caused by bacterial infection. Capsaicin may help prevent heart disease. It may stimulate the cardiovascular system and may lower blood cholesterol levels and blood pressure. It also helps prevent clotting and hardening of arteries (atherosclerosis). Capsaicin acts as an antioxidant, protecting the cells of the body from damage by harmful molecules called free radicals. Capsaicin also may help prevent bacterial infection. Capsaicin may also make mucus thinner and help move it out of the lungs. It is also thought to strengthen lung tissues and help to prevent or treat emphysema.” (Andrew Weil, M.D.)
Healthy aging guru Dr. Weil is a big proponent of the idea that inflammation is “a root cause of many serious diseases … when the immune system mistakenly attacks normal tissues in such autoimmune diseases as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. And we now know that inflammation also plays a causative role in heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, as well as other age-related disorders, including cancer.” To this point, Dr. Weil recommends eating herbs and spices in unlimited quantities in his anti-inflammatory diet. This includes chilies along with turmeric, ginger, garlic, basil, cinnamon, rosemary and thyme.

Dr. Nicholas Perricone
A board-certified dermatologist and author of The Wrinkle Cure (2000), among other books, Perricone also is a proponent of reducing inflammation as a path to better health and to slow the aging process. Perricone lists hot peppers among his top-ten “superfoods” because the capsaicinoids (capsaicin and its cousins) possess “extraordinary anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-cancer, heart-healthy effects. Chilies are high in antioxidant carotenes and flavonoids … almost any dish, from homemade soups, stews and chili to stir fries, salads and salsas, can benefit from small amounts of hot peppers.”
Perricone also promotes capsaicin as a means to fight chronic sinus infections (sinusitis). “This purely natural chemical will also clear out congested nasal passages like nothing else,” he says.

The New Healing Herbs (Michael Castleman)
This nutrition writer correctly observes how red peppers were for many years falsely blamed for causing stomach upset and ulcerative conditions. In fact, more recent evidence suggests the opposite, that hot pepper curbs the growth ofHelicobacter pylori, the bacterium found in the gut of about 50 percent of the population. H. pylori is responsible for ulcers and other stomach discomfort and dysfunction and can lead to stomach cancer. Castleman cites other physical problems that can be addressed through ingestion of chili peppers, including diarrhea caused by bacteria.

Chili pepper is rarely, if ever, eaten on its own. Gourmet chefs speak of adding “heat” to a recipe, generally meaning the amount of hot spice it has to complement other ingredients. But tolerances and preferences for red pepper in one’s foods vary by individual. The great part of that is you can usually decide how spicy you want your own plate to be by adding the heat, in liquid or dried form, after cooking.

Another point made by several health experts is that red peppers can reduce or even eliminate the need to add salt in cooking. Americans consume more than three times the recommended amount of salt each day, mostly from processed foods and meals eaten in restaurants, and excess salt directly contributes to hypertension (above normal blood pressure). Currently, 60 million adults – 20 percent of the total population – are on high blood pressure medication.
The kick you get from chili peppers may go way past your taste buds.