If you like to jazz up your meals with piquant spices and peppers or hot sauce, you may be doing your health a favor. Hot peppers pack some impressive science-backed health benefits — pass the sriracha, please!
Capsaicin, the alkaloid responsible for the spicy flavor in hot peppers, is linked to perks including helping manage blood sugar levels, cardiovascular issues and even aiding weight loss.
To get the benefits, you'll need to stock up on capsaicin-containing peppers, which include jalapeños, habaneros, cayenne, serrano and cherry peppers. The more capsaicin, the hotter the pepper, according to the American Chemistry Society. This is why bell peppers lack spiciness — they're void of any capsaicin — and why most of us would think twice before trying a Carolina Reaper — it nears the top of the Scoville Scale measuring capsaicin quantity.
1. Eating Chili Peppers Is Linked to a Longer Life
A growing body of research shows that eating chili peppers is associated with reduced mortality risk.
A Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) study followed more than 20,000 people for eight years, comparing their eating habits and their health status. The researchers observed that the risk of dying from a heart attack slashed by 40 percent in people who ate chili peppers more than four times a week. Eating chilis regularly was also linked to a reduced risk of dying from a stroke, per the findings.
2. Hot Peppers May Help Control Blood Sugar
Eating hot peppers or supplementing with capsaicin has shown some promise when it comes to helping maintain blood sugar and insulin levels.
Research shows that regularly eating chili may help with the spike in blood sugar and insulin levels women with gestational diabetes may experience after eating, per a June 2016 Molecules. And the spicy stuff works in men, too.
The Molecules paper also found that men who supplemented with capsaicin lowered their glucose levels after a meal. While eating peppers and taking supplements are not replacements for medications, you can talk to a doctor or dietitian about adding them to your diet as a way to help better manage your blood glucose levels.
3. Capsaicin Is Associated With Better Heart Health
Capsaicin may also do your ticker some good: In addition to the JACC study finding a link between eating chili peppers more than four times a week and a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, other research found an association between capsaicin and lower cholesterol levels.
In a randomized, double-blind controlled clinical trial published in September 2017 in Nutrients, researchers supplemented a small group of subjects with a capsaicin capsule. After three months, the capsaicin group was observed to have a significant increase in their "good" HDL-cholesterol levels, compared to the control group, as well as a moderate decrease in their triglyceride and CRP levels, which is a marker for inflammation.
Keep in mind that hot peppers cannot replace prescription drugs for heart disease or high cholesterol. Enjoy them as part of a balanced diet to help keep your heart in shape.
4. Eating Hot Peppers Is Tied to Weight Loss
Adding a little heat to your dinner may help keep your waistline trim. When researchers supplemented a small group of subjects with capsaicin throughout the day, they found that compared to the control, the capsaicin group experienced more satiety and were less likely to overeat at dinner, per a June 2014 study published in Appetite.
Plus, eating spicy foods typically helps you slow down your pace, which is a good thing. This can encourage you to eat more mindfully and therefore help you pay attention to your appetite and realize when you're truly full.
5. Capsaicin Is Linked to Maintaining Gut Health
In traditional medicine, hot spices have been used as digestive stimulants as well as for treating gastrointestinal disorders. According to the Molecules review, capsaicin may reduce gastric mucosal damage, which is when the mucous membrane layer of the stomach becomes compromised.
It can also protect our guts against Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), one of the main causes of stomach ulcers, which typically stems from chronic use of NSAIDs such as Advil.
Plus, capsaicin may be an effective digestive stimulant and improve nutrient absorption in the gut, a February 2015 study in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition states. The spicy compound is linked to suppressing acid production and helping prevent and treat gastric ulcers.
Read more: Can Spicy Food or Caffeine Cause Gastritis?
The Bottom Line
Current research supports the health benefits of hot peppers — when included as part of a balanced diet. Just remember that moderation is key: Spicy foods, including hot peppers, may irritate your stomach and produce a burning sensation, especially when eaten in large amounts. Some people are more sensitive than others and may experience digestive discomfort and acid reflux after eating these foods.
Spicy peppers alone are unlikely to prevent or cure diseases and it's important to remember that your overall diet and lifestyle habits matter most. Stay active, eat mindfully and cut out added sugar, processed foods and trans fats to maintain your health and wellbeing.
- Molecules: "Capsaicin: Current Understanding of Its Mechanisms and Therapy of Pain and Other Pre-Clinical and Clinical Uses"
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "Biological Activities of Red Pepper (Capsicum Annuum) and Its Pungent Principle Capsaicin: A Review"
- American Chemistry Society: "Hot Peppers: Muy Caliente"
- Nutrients: "Capsaicin Supplementation Improved Risk Factors of Coronary Heart Disease in Individuals with Low HDL-C Levels"
- Appetite: "Capsaicin Increases Sensation of Fullness in Energy Balance, and Decreases Desire to Eat After Dinner in Negative Energy Balance"
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: "Chili Pepper Consumption and Mortality in Italian Adults"