People who don’t like
spicy foods often think that hot- pepper lovers are savaging their
mouths and digestive systems. But nothing could be further from the
truth. That burning sensation in your mouth when you eat foods
spiced with cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum) and its many hot-pepper
cousins comes from capsaicin, the oily compound responsible for its
many health benefits. Turns out that eating spicy foods does wonders
for you—every- thing from managing pain to opening up clogged
airways to potentially even managing diabetes.
what’s in it?
The hotter a chili pepper is, the more capsaicin it contains.
Capsaicin short-circuits pain by depleting nerve cells of a chemical
called substance P, which helps transfer pain signals along nerve
endings to the brain. Because of that pain-depleting action, you’ll
find capsaicin in many prescription and over-the-counter creams,
ointments, and patches for arthritis and muscle pain. It’s also used
for treating postsurgical pain, shingles pain, and diabetes related
But that’s not all. Capsaicin also is a metabolism booster, speeding
up your calorie-burning furnace for a couple of hours after eating.
Plus hot peppers work as an anti-inflammatory. Finally, hot peppers
contain plenty of vitamins A and C along with flavonoids and
carotenoids, plant pigments that act as antioxidants.
rooted in history
Al] these benefits of cayenne pepper—not to mention the wonderful
flavor it can add to our food—have been well known for a very long
time. There’s evidence that Native Americans have used cayenne as
both a food and a medicine for at least 9,000 years. Traditional
healers in India, China, Japan, and Korea use it to remedy digestive
problems, poor appetite, and circulatory problems.
what science says
In one study, published in the American Journal of Clinical
Nutrition, researchers found that people with diabetes who ate a
meal laced liberally with chile pepper needed less insulin after
eating to reduce their blood sugar, suggesting the spice may have
antidiabetes benefits. Those results were backed by Thai researchers
in 2009. Trouble is, you have to use at least a teaspoon of the
stuff before you get the glucose-lowering benefit—which might be too
much heat for people whose palates aren’t fireproof.
on the horizon
Researchers are hard at work in labs all over the world, trying to
figure out how to harness capsaicin’s tumor-busting potential. At
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scientists are studying
capsaicin’s effects on colon cancer cells. In a recent study, they
learned that capsaicin can make cancer cells self-destruct because
it affects levels of nitric oxide. Meanwhile, at Cedars-Sinai
Medical Center at UCLA School of Medicine, scientists looked at
capsaicin’s effect on breast cancer cells. In a new study, they
revealed that capsaicin slowed breast cancer cell growth in test
tube models. In their animal studies, they reported that capsaicin
decreased experimentally induced tumors in mice by 50 per cent and
inhibited the development of precancerous lesions by up to 80
Finally, in lab tests published
in 2009, Taiwanese researchers showed that capsaicin makes stomach
cancer cells self-destruct. It will likely take years of research
before we know whether or not eating cayenne can prevent or treat
cancer in humans. However, there’s certainly no downside to eating
the hot stuff regularly just in case.
Cayenne pepper is available in the spice section at the supermarket.
It is also known as ground red pepper.
Fresh cayenne peppers can burn or irritate skin. Wear rubber gloves
when handling fresh hot peppers, don’t touch your eyes or nose, and
wash hands after preparing them. Same goes for the spice—use a
utensil to measure and add to recipes, not your fingers. If you use
topical capsaicin creams, be sure to follow label directions.
Good to Know
Because cayenne shrinks blood vessels in your nose and throat, it
helps relieve congestion when you sprinkle some into hot soup. Or
shake in as much as you can tolerate of hot sauce or other fiery
condiments for the same congestion-busting effects.