Chili Peppers: 6 Surprising Health Benefits

By Sijé Vargas

reviewed by juliana ascolani

‘’No pica’’ there’s no scientific evidence yet, why some Mexicans say “it’s not spicy” when it’s in fact spicy. As a Mexican, I can attest to this. According to us, nothing is spicy in our country and you can always add more chili to everything, including, candies, hot chocolate, chocolate bars, fruits, and food that is already spicy (I know it sounds delicious!). What’s surprising is that I never thought of spicy food as being one of the main ingredients in my daily diet until I moved to Germany. 

The truth is that spicy food is part of a daily diet in many countries such as India, Thailand, China, Jamaica, Korea, Malaysia, Ethiopia, and many more. Chili peppers don’t only add a lot of flavor to our meals, they are also rich in antioxidants. The best part is that they’ve been linked to various health benefits. Let’s find out more about them.

 

Important things first: why do we love chili?

According to a study conducted at the Department of Pathological Sciences in Brazil, spicy food contains a chemical called capsaicin, which is responsible for the burning that we feel in our mouths. This compound also stimulates the release of endorphins and dopamine in our brain.

Basically, when we eat chili and we feel the heat sensation or the feeling that our mouth is on fire, our body releases pain signals in our brain. Once our brain receives these signals, it responds by sending two types of neurotransmitters: endorphins and dopamine. What endorphins do is that they reduce the sensation of pain by blocking the nerves’ ability to transmit pain signals. Simultaneously, the hormone dopamine comes into play by giving us pleasure.  When the two are combined we experience a sensation of pain while at the same time, happiness and pleasure. In other words, the spiciness that is felt is not actually a taste but a sensation.  And we, as Mexicans do love the sensation of happiness. 

 

6 perks of eating chili

Several studies have shown that not only do we feel pleasure but that extracted capsaicin also provides us many health benefits.

  •  Pain killer: Extracts of the plant, which include capsaicin, have been used for centuries as analgesics and have recently been used for severe nerve pain, such as post-herpes zoster and diabetic neuropathy.  According to the study, capsaicin leads to the perception of pain, but at the same time, it blocks the detection of painful stimuli. For this reason, the topical application of high concentration capsaicin gel creams has been used to treat various infections of neuropathic pain.

  • Good for your eyesight: Chili possesses vitamin A and a lot of vitamin C, both well-known for their antioxidant properties. They have also been linked to the prevention of eye problems such as macular degeneration and dry eyes, as well as delaying the development of cataracts as we age. 

  • It calms migraines: In a study conducted by Practical Neurology, 72% of the migraine patients felt completely relieved of their migraine after using intranasal capsaicin. The researchers found that capsaicin desensitizes the nerve responsible for sensation in the face and decreases Calcitonin gene-related Peptide, both of which are responsible for creating migraine pain.

  • Stomach pain: A study showed that red chili peppers can help calm stomach pain. As mentioned above, capsaicin releases signals to the brain that can calm pain sensations in the central nervous system. Capsaicin is an anti-inflammatory and also protects the stomach from developing ulcers.

  • Cardiovascular diseases: Capsaicin helps the prevention of cardiovascular disorders, keeping our heart healthy. Daily ingestion of chili for 4 weeks has been shown to improve cardiac metabolic processes in adults.

  • Anticancer properties: According to the American Association for Cancer Research, capsaicin has a strong anti-proliferative effect on prostate cancer cells. In addition, in a 2019 study, it was shown that mixing capsaicin with traditional chemotherapy or radiotherapy drugs can improve sensitivity, reduce side effects, and increase the patients’ tolerance to the cancer treatment.


What vitamins do we find in chilies?

Capsaicin provides very few calories, and they’re composed of water, carbohydrates, fiber, protein, and a lot of vitamins. Here we list some of them:

  • Vitamin C: according to the National Institute of Health, the body needs about 90mg of vitamin C per day. The amount that chili can contain depends on several factors, but if it’s a ripe chili, you can get any amount from 100mg up to 190 mg of vitamin C. Bell peppers are known for not being spicy and one of the best vitamin C sources available.

  • Vitamin E: is a powerful antioxidant and is essential for healthy nerves and muscles. All green chilies are a rich source of vitamin E.


Tatemada sauce: A special Mexican receipt 

Now that you know some of the benefits of eating this delicacy of the gods, I want to share with you a recipe that you can eat with chips, nacho chips, tacos and… well I could tell you about many foods that I could eat it with but I leave it to your imagination.

This sauce is called salsa tatemada; the name we give to all the salsa where we grill or roast the veggies before pureeing them. 

Ingredients:

  • 2 Onions
  • 4 Red tomatoes
  • 5 Jalapeños (If you like spicy I recommend 1-2 jalapeños, but if you love spicy, the more jalapeños you put in the better! So, 5 -or if you want more- should be enough)
  • 5 Cilantro branches
  • 1 Clove of garlic

Utensils:

  • Frying pan
  • Mixer

Cut the onions and tomatoes in half and put all of the ingredients (except the cilantro branches) in the frying pan without any oil. Let them roast for around 5-8 minutes on each side. While you’re roasting the vegetables, I suggest you open the window. The reason is that when the jalapeños begin to roast, the capsaicin molecules will fly into the air and this will cause you to cough.

Once they’re all roasted  put them in the mixer. Don’t forget to add cilantro branches.Once everything is in, blend them together with a little salt to taste and you’re good to go! Voila, you have a salsa tatemada.


Fun facts about chilies

  • Red chili peppers contain large amounts of vitamin C and A, more than yellow and green chili peppers.

  • If you eat spicy food and you feel a lot of burning in your mouth, do not drink water, the best way to neutralize the pH levels of spicy food is to drink milk. Any of its derivatives can help, be it yogurt, cream, or even ice cream.

  • Fresh chilies have different names according to their dehydrated forms. For example, jalapeño becomes chipotle.

  • If you eat your spicy food with beer, you might enjoy its fiery flavor, but not its health properties. 

 

Just as a reminder: be careful

Although we have found many benefits of chili peppers, the recommendation is to consume them in moderation since excess can irritate the stomach and have harmful effects.  

It’s very important to know your tolerance levels when eating them, as it could be counterproductive. If you experience digestive discomfort and they bring you more pain than pleasure, maybe chili peppers are not the best option for you and you should avoid them altogether.

Sijé Vargas
Through different social projects related to Human Rights, my education background in Literature and personal experiences as a migrant I came to the conclusion that words can help us to move forward and heal. I use writing as a method to spread the word about topics that help us imagine alternative ways of living where we are all included. I highly believe that in order to have an inclusive world we must focus on communicating the importance of holistic health and wellbeing as a key part of achieving a better life.
Researcher

Juliana Ascolani

I am a health researcher who bridges data science and health research with direct experience in healthcare and university institutions, passionately and collaboratively pursuing the integration and synergy of all key areas of health and wellness. I believe in inclusion as the main pillar of our society, especially when it comes to health. Promotion and prevention in health empower people to adopt healthy decisions, thus I have been working during the last years in the development of inclusive and holistic health systems. What do I enjoy the most about my job? Realizing how we are making a difference in people’s lives, and seeing the result in their health journeys. I enjoy the challenge of questioning new paradigms and creating debate around them.

Basith, S., Cui, M., Hong, S., & Choi, S. (2016). Harnessing the therapeutic potential of capsaicin and its analogues in pain and other diseases. Molecules, 21(8), 966.

Bell and Chili Peppers | Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. (2019, February). The U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/vegetables/bell-and-chili-peppers

Clark, R., & Lee, S. H. (2016). Anticancer properties of capsaicin against human cancer. Anticancer research, 36(3), 837-843.Mason, L., Moore, R. A., Derry, S., Edwards, J. E., & McQuay, H. J. (2004). Systematic review of topical capsaicin for the treatment of chronic pain. Bmj, 328(7446), 991.

Mori, A., Lehmann, S., O’Kelly, J., Kumagai, T., Desmond, J. C., Pervan, M., … & Koeffler, H. P. (2006). Capsaicin, a component of red peppers, inhibits the growth of androgen-independent, p53 mutant prostate cancer cells. Cancer research, 66(6), 3222-3229.

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Peppin, J. F., & Pappagallo, M. (2014). Capsaicinoids in the treatment of neuropathic pain: a review. Therapeutic advances in neurological disorders, 7(1), 22-32.

Rodríguez‐Burruezo, A., González‐Mas, M. D. C., & Nuez, F. (2010). Carotenoid composition and vitamin A value in ají (Capsicum baccatum L.) and rocoto (C. pubescens R. & P.), 2 pepper species from the Andean region. Journal of food science, 75(8), S446-S453.

Spiller, F., Alves, M. K., Vieira, S. M., Carvalho, T. A., Leite, C. E., Lunardelli, A., … & de Oliveira, J. R. (2008). Anti‐inflammatory effects of red pepper (Capsicum baccatum) on carrageenan‐and antigen‐induced inflammation. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 60(4), 473-478.

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