By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
I’ve always loved a little spice and kick of heat in my food, even before I got certified in nutrition and jumped on the healthy eating bandwagon. There’s something inexplicably enjoyable about eating a food that makes you shed a few tears and even sweat. It’s kind of like watching a movie that makes you laugh until you cry…you feel cleansed. So, more often than not, I’m all for throwing a hot pepper or cayenne pepper into my food to take it to a whole new level of flavor.
Lucky for me, hot and spicy seasonings do more than tantalize the taste buds. Certain spicy foods actually offer a multitude of health benefits, which come courtesy of a protective compound called capsaicin (pronounced “cap-sy-ah-sin”).
Capsaicin is the active compound what gives peppers their heat. The higher a pepper’s capsaicin content, the hotter it is. Poblanos and jalapeños have low levels and are relatively tame on the “hotness scale” (also known as the Scoville scale, which measures capsaicin concentration as Scoville heat units, or SHUs), while cayenne, habanero, and serrano peppers pack some real “mouth-on-fire” heat. But nothing compares to the hottest pepper known to man—the scorching Carolina reaper.
The Carolina reaper is a cross between a Sweet Habanero and Naga Viper chili pepper and delivers, on average, 1,569,300 SHUs. Compare this to jalapeños, which register at 1,000 to 10,000 SHUs, and habaneros, which spice things up with 100,000 to 350,000 SHUs! I’ve never eaten one, since – as far as heat goes – I’m maxed out at habaneros.
I really wish I could tolerate the Carolina reaper, though, due to capsiacin’s health benefits. Numerous studies have been conducted on capsaicin and its effects on pain, inflammation, gastrointestinal issues, and weight control (to name a few).
Top Capsaicin Benefit: Less Pain
Capsaicin’s biggest claim to fame is its ability to relieve pain. In fact, it’s widely used in over-the-counter creams and ointments for joint, muscle, and even nerve pain. When applied topically to a sore area, a cream that contains capsaicin creates a hot sensation, which increases circulation to the area.
Here’s the kicker though: If you have ever used one of these creams, you probably know that it doesn’t exactly feel soothing when you first put it on. It’s actually pretty uncomfortable. So how is it that capsaicin hurts and soothes?
The irony is that capsaicin activates receptors (TRPV1), which interact with sensory nerves that transmit pain. At first, you feel discomfort. But over time—and with frequent use—those receptors become desensitized and the discomfort goes away, to be replaced with real relief.
In a trial of 100 patients with mild to moderate osteoarthritis of the knee, 0.0125 percent capsaicin gel was deemed an effective treatment for pain. All of the patients received either a capsaicin or placebo gel three times a day for four weeks. After a one-week “washout” period, the treatment was switched (those using the capsaicin gel got placebo and vice versa). Pain, stiffness, and functionality were significantly improved when the patients used the capsaicin gel versus placebo. While 67% experienced burning when applying the gel, it was not bad enough for anyone to stop using it.
Capsaicin also proves useful for alleviating nerve pain. In a meta-analysis of six studies (involving 389 participants), researchers concluded, “Capsaicin…may provide a degree of pain relief to some patients with painful neuropathic conditions.”
Other Benefits of Capsaicin
The activation of TRPV1 receptors is responsible for more than the perception of pain. It also plays a role in fat metabolism, the production of nitric oxide, and more.
As a cardiologist, I love that eating some hot peppers can stimulate the production of nitric oxide (NO). NO is a signaling molecule that relaxes arteries, promotes healthy circulation, and keeps blood pressure in check. It also lowers inflammation in the endothelium—a hallmark of heart disease.
Just as importantly, the thermogenesis (heat) that capsaicin creates in the body can help boost metabolism, burn fat and calories, and ultimately lead to weight loss.
In a 2016 study, researchers concluded that the activation of TRPV1 by capsaicin induces the browning of white fat, and therefore fights obesity. Unlike white fat, which is the fat that accumulates around the belly, thighs, and hips, brown fat resides mainly in the neck, chest, and shoulder region. Also unlike white fat cells, brown fat cells contain extremely high numbers of mitochondria—the energy-burning factories in each and every cell. Brown fat produces more heat (and subsequently fat loss) than any other tissue in the body.
Contrary to popular belief, capsaicin-rich foods actually aid the gastrointestinal tract. Capsaicin protects the stomach by encouraging the secretion of mucus, decreasing stomach acid, and promoting a healthy microbiome rich in beneficial bacteria.
If that’s not enough, capsaicin can promote healthy blood sugar by decreasing metabolic syndrome risk factors; prevent sinus problems and alleviate congestion; lessen skin problems like psoriasis; and even increase longevity.
If you aren’t a fan of hot or spicy peppers, or you simply find them intolerable, you can take capsaicin in supplement form. But if you do enjoy a hot and spicy food –and possibly a little sweat and tears with your meals – try to include various hot or spicy peppers as often as possible.
My Favorite Ways to Enjoy Hot-and-Spicy Food
Hot peppers are terrific in stir-fries, soups and stews (though you may want to wear gloves when slicing them, depending on the kind of heat they’re packing). I love to make a Spicy Chicken Soup with hot peppers, especially during cold and flu season (here’s my recipe and a video of me making it). And when I’m short on time, and want a hot and spicy kick, I drizzle my Vervana cold-pressed jalapeño-garlic flavored olive oil onto my foods – it doesn’t get easier than that!
- Lynch, K. Confirmed: Smokin Ed’s California Reaper sets new record for hottest chili. com, Nov. 19, 2013.
- Smith and and Brooks JR. Capsaicin-based therapies for pain control. Prog Drug Res. 2014;68:129-46. Last accessed July 30, 2018.
- Kosuwon W, et al. Efficacy of symptomatic control of knee osteoarthritis with 0.0125% of capsaicin versus placebo. J Med Assoc Thai. 2010 Oct;93(10):1188-95. Last accessed July 30, 2018.
- Derry S, et al. Topical capsaicin for chronic neuropathic pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Oct 7;(4):CD007393. Last accessed July 31, 2018.
- Baskaran P, et al. Capsaicin induces browning of white adipose tissue and counters obesity by activating TRPV1 channel-dependent mechanisms. Br J Pharmacol.2016 Aug;173(15):2369-89. Last accessed July 31, 2018.
- Pabalan N, et al. The impact of capsaicin intake on risk of developing gastric cancers: a meta-analysis. J Gastrointest Cancer. 2014 Sep;45(3):334-41. Last accessed July 31, 2018.
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.