Spice Up Your Life: The Health Benefits of Spicy Foods

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Salsa, chicken wings, chili — if you love spicy foods, your mouth might be watering just reading this. And, if you enjoy fiery flavors, you’re in luck — they may actually benefit your health.

The magic behind the heat is capsaicin, an ingredient that’s found in one of the most heavily consumed spices throughout the world: chili pepper. About a century ago, scientists began researching capsaicin from chili peppers and found that it has many surprising health benefits.

Here are four advantages to adding some spice to your life.

1. Spicy foods may keep your heart healthy.

People who eat red chili peppers have been shown to have lower levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein), which is sometimes called “bad” cholesterol because it increases the risk of heart disease. Recent research found that consuming these peppers is associated with a 13 percent lower incidence of deaths from heart disease and stroke.

Heart disease can also be caused by obesity — which capsaicin may help combat.

2. Spicy foods may promote weight loss and kick-start your metabolism.

More than two-thirds of US adults are overweight or obese. “Obesity in turn, can put you at a higher risk for developing other diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or the hardening or narrowing of your arteries (atherosclerosis),” explained Jeffrey Millstein, MD, a physician at Penn Internal Medicine Woodbury Heights.

There are many factors that can contribute to weight gain. “Inactivity, unhealthy eating habits, genetics, age, or certain medications all can play a role,” said Dr. Millstein. Capsaicin may help boost your metabolism, which can help you burn more calories both at rest and during exercise — meaning you might be able to lose weight more easily.

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3. Spicy foods may be an effective pain reliever.

If you’ve ever bitten into a chili pepper, you’re probably familiar with the burning sensation that follows. When you apply that same sensation to the nerves on your hands and feet, it can make those nerves lose their feeling for extended periods of time, combating pain.

When used as a lotion or other topical cream, capsaicin causes a slight feeling of heat, stinging, and itching. “Over time, the nerves in your hands and feet will grow accustomed to the lotion and will have a lower ability to process pain. This can help with conditions such as arthritis and injuries,” explained Dr. Millstein.

4. Spicy foods may calm your gut and keep it healthy.

Your taste buds and your gut may be more connected than you think. When you bite into a pepper, the capsaicin attaches to a receptor that communicates with other cells. That communication causes a nerve on your tongue to immediately tell your brain that it’s hot.

That same receptor is found in your digestive tract. When capsaicin enters your digestive tract and attaches to the receptor, it creates a chemical called anandamide. Anandamide has been shown to lead to less inflammation in the gut, which can be caused by conditions such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

The same reaction that calms down your gastrointestinal tract may also keep it tumor-free. It may be particularly effective for people that are at high risk of developing intestinal tumors — such as people with a family or personal history of tumors.

Some like it hot, but others don’t

Before you run out for deep-fried buffalo wings, take note: you still need to stick to healthy foods. Using fast food as a vehicle for your red pepper flakes will reverse many of the beneficial effects by adding unnecessary fats to your diet. Also, be careful to not overdo the spice, as it may increase your gastric acid, causing heartburn.

Capsaicin is not a cure-all, but if you’re realistic about how it can help your health, you may be able to reap the benefits of a spiced-up life.

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