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Healthy benefits of hot peppers

Some like it hot - their food, that is. Like Hillary Clinton. She swears by hot peppers for energy and good health. But some decidedly don't like it hot, Queen Elizabeth II for one.

Lots of people avoid spicy food because they say it gives them indigestion or heartburn, or because their tongues just can't take the heat. If your health permits - and if your tongue can take it - you really should try acquiring the taste for one certain sort of spicy: peppers from the capsicum family, including cayenne and chilli, and even the sweeter, less-spicy range of colourful bells. All these offer some super-hot health benefits.

Zesty decongestants. You know the feeling: you bite into something spicy, and your nose starts running. Call it the spicy sniffles. Capsaicin, the part of peppers that gives them their heat, is an irritant. When it hits your nose, throat, or lungs, it stimulates secretions and loosens up mucous. That's pretty hot: you can get a yummy plate of enchiladas and relief from your stuffy nose!

Pathogen protection. Because of the modern fusion of global cuisines, you can now find the vibrant, waxy-skinned peppers of the capsicum family in foods all over the world. This wasn't always the case. Native to the Caribbean and the Americas, these peppers have long been added to foods, and not just for their pungent flavour. It's now thought that the heat of the peppers protects those who eat it from foodborne pathogens and microbes, which thrive in warmer tropical climates.

Scorching source of antioxidants. You wouldn't think a kiwi fruit would have much in common with a bell pepper. But they are both fruits (peppers may not taste like fruits, but they are!), and they're both mega sources of vitamin C. In fact, raw bell peppers provide more C than pretty much any other food. As for vitamin A, bell peppers rank right up there with the darker leafy greens, like kale and spinach. Cayenne peppers, better known as the red hot chilli pepper, are bursting with these two antioxidant vitamins. Red bells also contain lutein, an antioxidant that helps to protect your eyes from macular degeneration.

Searing pain soother. When trying to get a reluctant eater to try something spicy, people often say, "Aww, try it. You'll get used to it." A four-alarm chilli may downgrade to two-alarm after a few bites. In the same way that your mouth's pain receptors can get desensitized, nerve receptors in the body can also be desensitized. This is the theory behind using capsaicin and pepper extracts as pain relievers. When applied to the skin, topical capsaicin has been shown to effectively ease symptoms of cluster headaches, shingles, and osteoarthritis.

Hot heart helpers. In cultures where people enjoy lots of food laced with spicy flavour, there is a lower incidence of heart attacks. Could capsaicin be the heart-helping ingredient? Researchers once thought that capsaicin would send blood pressure sky-high, but the opposite could be true. As mentioned above, capsaicin can be a shock to your system at first, but over time, you can get used to it. Evidence is preliminary, but there's a possibility that capsaicin could be used as a treatment to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Eating meals with capsaicin-rich peppers may also help to regulate blood sugar levels and lower the risk of diabetes. And when you lower your diabetes risk, your blood pressure, and your cholesterol, you lower your overall heart health risks!

Peppers for your prostate. Say this five times fast: pick a peck of peppers for the protection of your prostate. Researchers found that when they applied capsaicin to prostate cancer cells, they were able to trigger cell death and slow down tumour growth. So far, this testing has only been done on mice, but you might consider adding red chilli peppers to your next shopping list.

Handle the heat with care

  • If you bite off more heat than you can handle, drink milk. A protein in milk will put out the fire.
  • Always thoroughly wash your hands after handling hot peppers and avoid putting your fingers anywhere near your eyes.
  • Stand clear if you're cooking with peppers. Cooking can release some of the qualities into the air, which can irritate your eyes and throat, too.
  • Some studies have also suggested that eating hot chilli peppers too often may increase your risk of stomach cancer.
  • Symptoms of certain conditions can also be triggered by eating spicy foods, including menopause symptoms, heartburn, and migraines.

Remember, the hotter the pepper, the higher the capsaicin content. So, spike your meals with fiery spice and reap the health benefits that people from the tropics have enjoyed for centuries. Chilli peppers can spice up salsas, salad dressings, and soups, add some crunch to a veggie plate, or act as a balance to bitter foods like greens.

To cool the heat, try mixing spicy chilli flavour with more cool, neutral tastes, like yoghurts, avocadoes, mango, papaya, or cilantro. Sample a variety of peppers from the capsicum family: anaheim, bell, cayenne, jalapeno, pepperoncini, poblano, serrano, habanero, and tabasco.

Amy Toffelmire


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