Health Benefits of Hot Chili Peppers
For some people, spicy food is a way of life, with every culinary experience focused on finding the tastiest, fiery dishes. Most cultural cuisines offer at least one dish or condiment that will make sweat drip from your brow with every bite, much thanks to the use of spicy chiles, be it North African harissa, Mexican salsa or Korean gochujang.
We know it’s delicious, but is spicy food good for you? Without giving too much away, if you weren’t into spicy food before, this might inspire you to give it another try (with a tall glass of milk to cool down!). This is exactly what makes spicy food, especially chili peppers, so good for your immune system, metabolism and more.
What is a Hot Chili Pepper?
The world of hot peppers is wide, with some dedicating their lives to learning about the estimated 50,000 varieties of peppers that exist around the world. The history of hot peppers goes back at least 9,000 years ago, to the Bolivia region, and the use quickly spread across Central and South America, thanks to the birds eating their spicy seeds (poor things). Within these cultures, chili peppers soon became a central part of the dishes they are known for today.
What makes a chili pepper so spicy (and healthy)?
Without any knowledge of what a hot pepper is, you might walk into the grocery store thinking you’re picking up a long, mini green pepper—and end up crying into your pasta full of jalapenos later that night.
The plant compound capsaicin is what gives hot peppers, or chiles, their zing.
This antioxidant compound attaches to receptors that send spice and heat signals to the brain. Capsaicin is most concentrated in the seeds of a chili pepper, which is why many people remove them when they want to moderate the heat in their recipes.
Whether it’s a jalapeño, habañero, serrano, or Thai chili, the spiciness of a hot pepper is based on a system of measurement called the Scoville scale. A bell pepper measures in at zero on this scale, while a Carolina Reaper scores a whopping 2.3 million Scoville Heat Units (SHUs). Now That is a serious herb.
When applied topically (as an ingredient in a product), capsaicin can soothe pain.
Did you know that one of the active ingredients in the Icy Hot is capsaicin? That’s right, this compound works topically to relieve pain from arthritis, diabetic neuropathy, psoriasis or other nerve pain. It also works for pain unrelated to these conditions, such as muscle aches.
The caveat: Don’t rub sliced, raw chiles on your skin! That will probably only cause you more pain (anyone who has chopped a jalapeño and then rubbed it in their eyes knows this all too well). Instead, choose a product that contains capsaicin as an ingredient for soothing pain relief.
Top Health Benefits Of Hot Chili Peppers
While there are so many varieties of hot peppers available, most offer similar health benefits, largely due to the capsaicin and other nutrients they all contain. Here are some of the most impressive health benefits of spicy foods, starring fiery hot chili peppers.
Their plant compounds fight free radicals and inflammation.
Since we already have capsaicin in the brain, let’s start by highlighting all the other incredible plant compounds found in hot peppers. Some of the most beneficial are carotenoids, such as lutein, capsanthin, and zeaxanthin, and a variety of flavonoids, such as quercetin and luteolin. These compounds are antioxidants, meaning they are effective in preventing and reducing inflammation throughout the body, as well as harmful bacteria and disease-causing free radical molecules.
Chili peppers support a healthy immune system.
Chili peppers are known to be excellent sources of both vitamin A and vitamin C. Vitamin A is also an antioxidant that boosts the immune system and is known to help protect and maintain eye health. Vitamin C provides the same antioxidant and immune-boosting benefits while also aiding in iron absorption and promoting glowing skin.
They help maintain and improve the gut microbiome.
“Capsaicin positively impacts the gut microbiome, which affects nearly every system of the body,” says Brianna Wieser, RDN at MOBE. “In addition, this compound is known to support optimal digestion.” Research shows that capsaicin may also inhibit acid production while increasing alkaline and mucus secretion, which helps prevent and treat stomach ulcers. Furthermore, a 2022 review found that capsaicin works through multiple pathways to treat and prevent many types of gastrointestinal disorders.
Chili peppers can really help clear those sinuses.
Spicy foods often have a reputation for making our noses drip, and that can actually work to our advantage. A review found that intranasal capsaicin treatment helped clear up idiopathic (or unknown cause), non-allergic rhinitis, which is classically characterized by sneezing, congestion, and post-nasal drip. And a second review echoed these findings. So chilis can really clear out your sinuses!
They can boost metabolism and metabolic health.
Hot peppers work to support a healthy metabolism in several ways. First, the heat-producing effect of this spicy ingredient helps boost metabolism. Furthermore, studies show that the activation of TRPV1 by capsaicin stimulates brown fat cells, increasing our metabolism. Research also shows that capsaicin-mediated pathways in the body may help improve insulin sensitivity, an important aspect in metabolic syndrome and similar conditions, including diabetes.
Chili pepper capsaicin has proven anti-cancer properties.
Research shows time and time again that cancer cells don’t stand a chance against capsaicin. A review published in Anticancer Research found that this compound targets multiple cancer pathways, from preventing cancer cell growth and survival to turning on tumor suppressor genes. Capsaicin also activates what is known as the transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 (TRPV1) channel, or capsaicin receptor. A review published in Frontiers in Oncology found that the activation of TRPV1 had a beneficial impact on the inflammatory and immune responses involved in cancer treatment. Another study found that capsaicin even inhibits the growth of certain prostate cancer cells.
They can help keep heart disease at bay.
With the consumption of capsaicin-rich foods also come the heart benefits. A Nutrients review found that when we eat capsaicin and activate the TRPV1 channel, a mechanism is activated that protects the function of our organs related to cardiovascular disease. Another review, completed in 2021, found that chili pepper consumption was associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease (and cancer). TRPV1 also helps regulate blood pressure, a key factor in heart disease.
Chili peppers help protect and promote brain health.
Capsaicin also helps address health issues around our brain. A review of Molecules found that capsaicin is effective at slowing down impairment and neurodegeneration in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, while also proving beneficial in treating dysphagia (or difficulty swallowing) after a stroke. Interestingly enough, this magical compound, in spray form, was also found to relieve the symptoms of headaches and migraines.
They have been associated with longevity.
As if all of the above health benefits weren’t good enough, hot peppers outdo themselves by addressing the ultimate health aspiration: living longer (and feeling great doing it). Researchers have found that eating spicy foods with hot peppers lowers our risk of all-cause mortality. A meta-analysis found a 25 percent reduction in deaths from any cause with the regular consumption of chili peppers. Another found the same results.
Chili Pepper Tips and Safety
If you weren’t a fan of spicy food before, you might be ready to give hot pepper-filled foods another try. Before jumping head first, there are a few things to consider.
“It’s important to know that some people can’t tolerate spicy foods or experience digestive issues when they consume them,” explains Wieser. If you suffer from indigestion or heartburn, eating highly spicy foods right before bed (aka dinner) can make it worse and disrupt your sleep. So hold off the fiery food until lunchtime, if you like it.
Digestive issues aside, it’s also vital to be super conscious when chopping and handling hot peppers, especially the higher up the Scoville scale you venture. These ultra-spicy peppers can literally burn your skin and eyes if you’re not careful!
How to Eat More Hot Chili Peppers
There are so many delicious ways to enjoy hot peppers. One super easy way is to invest in a hot sauce you love, and luckily there are those out there So many brands to choose from. Cholula, Tabasco, Disco Sauce, Frank’s Red Hot, Tapatío – the list goes on. Check the sodium content of the hot sauce you’re looking for, as it can be high if you’re not careful. Otherwise, you can add red pepper flakes (dried, crushed chiles) or chiles themselves directly to a variety of delicious dishes, including stir-fries, soups, stews, sauces, dips, pastas, and egg dishes.
Here are some favorite recipes with a spicy kick.
Chili pepper recipes
Pasta With Shrimp And Spicy Butter
A spicy seafood pasta dish with a kick, thanks to gochujang (a Korean fermented red chilli paste), paprika (made from smoked, dried chillies) and crushed red chilli flakes.
Cheesy Chili Dip
Five different peppers — sweet, jalapeño, poblano, and red Anaheim chili (red jalapeño) — pack a hot punch in this ooey-gooey, game-day-worthy dip.
Birria bowls from the slow cooker
A bowl of this hearty and spicy Mexican stew is just the mid-week pick-me-up you need.
Corn Jalapeno Poppers
Mexican street corn, meet jalapeño poppers – the ultimate spicy app for a hungry crowd.
Spicy ground beef
Healthy doses of chili powder and crushed red pepper take boring old ground beef to the next level.