Cayenne, jalapeno, habanero, chili—it seems like there are a million different kinds of hot peppers you can buy. And not only are they a great way to add flavor to your recipes, research shows that they may have a surprisingly positive effect on your health.
Hot peppers, like jalapeños and chilies, are rich in a component called capsaicin. "What we now know about capsaicin is that it has many benefits in terms of adding to the resistance to disease," says Cary Present, M.D., a medical oncologist at City of Hope hospital in California and author of Surviving American Medicine. "Capsaicin as a local treatment can help with pain. Eating peppers can also help improve immunity, and we know from huge study done in China that people who ate peppers a few times a week had a longer life."
Another go-to spice for improving your health: Tumeric, the yellow spice often used in Indian food and curries. The main active component of turmeric is curcumin, which studies show can help prevent cancer, decrease inflammation in the body, and have other positive effects.
While there is no replacing exercise and cutting back on processed foods, adding spice to your recipes can speed up weight loss. "Research suggests that when you eat hot peppers, it increases your body heat, which boosts metabolism up to five percent, and increases fat burning up to 16 percent," says nutritionist Pamela Peeke, M.D., author of The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction. That means your body is burning calories more quickly. "Capsaicin promotes the stimulation of brown fat, which aids in metabolism," she adds. Spicy food may also help you with your food cravings. Research from Purdue University found that eating spicy foods can decrease appetite and lower the amount of calories you eat.
When it comes to the heart, peppers and turmeric have "a whole host of potential benefits," says Michael Miller, M.D., professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and author of Heal Your Heart: The Positive Emotions Prescription to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. Both tumeric and red peppers have definite effects on the body's circulation. "With respect to capsaicin (hot peppers), it can affect blood vessels and causes them to dilate, which can lead, to some degree, to blood pressure lowering," he says. Capsaicin also may help prevent blood clots. "Turmeric (curcumin) has really powerful anti-inflammatory elements," Dr. Miller continues, "it can help to reverse damage to blood vessels, and research by my colleagues at the University of Maryland shows that it may help lower cholesterol and prevent bad cholesterol from building up."
The secret to living longer may very well be eating a hot pepper or two...or three. A study by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Harvard School of Public Health looked at the eating habits of 500,000 people aged 30-79 in China over a five-year period, and found that the people who ate spicy foods six or seven times a week had a 14 percent lower risk of dying prematurely. "That number isn't huge, but it is statistically significant," says Dr. Presant. If that's not convincing enough, Dr. Peeke looks at the idea of spicy food aiding in longevity this way: "Eating spicy foods helps with cancer prevention, you have a healthier heart, and they help you lose weight. All those things together can definitely help you live longer," she says.
"Curcumin has has astonishing effects in cancer cells." says Dr. Presant. "There is good laboratory evidence that it works in reducing the growth of cancer cells and preventing them as well." Studies have found that curcumin has a positive effect on slowing breast cancer, cervical cancer, and stomach cancer, as well as others. As for capsaicin, a study from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found that it killed 80 percent of prostate cancer cells in mice, while leaving normal cells unharmed."The capsaicin blocks the cancer cells," explains Dr. Peeke.
If you've got pain from arthritis, shingles, or even some kinds of headaches, doctors often use an over-the-counter cream with capsaicin as the active ingredient. While you could try rubbing the area with hot peppers in a pinch, Dr. Present suggests using the cream since it has a concentrated amount of capsaicin, and has been proven to be effective.
Sorry to say, bell peppers and crushed black pepper are not considered spicy foods. Bell peppers do not have capsaicin even though they are technically in the same family with chili peppers. "You're going to have to eat something that starts firing it up a little bit," says Dr. Peeke. "You don't have to dive into a habaneros tomorrow, but you do have to add a small amount of something like crushed red pepper or ground cayenne."
Black pepper doesn't have capsaicin either, although Dr. Peeke points out that "the active substance in black pepper is piperine, which gives it flavor but also blocks the formation of new fat cells." Combine black pepper with a little capsaicin, which speeds up metabolism, and "you've got yourself a great thing," she says.
As for how much spicy food you need to eat to get the benefits, doctors recommend that you try to include hot peppers and turmeric in your diet two to three times a week. Since eating them raw can be a challenge, you can sautee them or cook them, says Dr. Miller, and they retain their healthful benefits.
If you have trouble tolerating spicy foods or they bother your stomach, "a lot of people couple it with yogurt or something that will line the stomach wall," says Dr. Peeke. Otherwise, if you can't tolerate the spice, skip it, and talk to your doctor about taking a curcumin or capsaicin supplement.
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