The Secret Spice of Life
By: Sherika Tenaya
Love it or hate it, all of us have, at one time or another, felt the shocking sear of capsaicin, the active compound in spicy chilies and peppers. Having a rather high tolerance for spicy food myself, I still remember, in stark clarity, the times in which I have overstepped my spice threshold. Most notably, when I was traveling through Thailand, a land well known for its love of lava-hot sauces and fiercely fiery cuisine.
Here in the US, we have a spicy rating system that is generally divided into three categories: mild, medium and hot. In Thailand, they have a rating system that stretches into 7 or 8 degrees of heat and should you venture beyond the first three or four levels, the Thais regard you with an air of amused, wary compassion, as you would regard a child playing with power tools. Should you successfully stomach the higher ranges of spice level with any modicum of dignity, you will enjoy a sense of elevated esteem from the surrounding Thai, who appear to see one’s level of spice tolerance as a certain measure of one’s character.
Needless to say, traveling to Thailand, you ensure you know the words for “not spicy” when ordering food. Otherwise you will pay the price, as I did when I ordered an unforgettable red curry dish from a delicious, roadside restaurant. Sweating profusely from pores in my nose I never knew existed, eyes burning and tongue and throat a-sizzle with heat I had never felt before, I reviewed my order in my mind trying to discern if I had somehow messed up the subtle intonation of the Thai words for “not spicy”, feeling the unmistakable burn of a language barrier I couldn’t hope to overcome .
Unbeknownst to me, that insidious heat I was experiencing was actually prompting my body to release endorphins, a chemical released by the body in response to pain, or in this case, exaggerated heat, which the body perceives as one and the same. It is this rush of endorphins that actually makes capsaicin a viable and proven treatment for pain, whether neuropathic in nature or more focal pain, such as arthritis and musculoskeletal conditions.
According to Dr. Ashwin Mehta, director of integrative medicine at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, pain management is only one of it’s uses. “It’s used for all kind of arthritis pain….and dermatologic conditions that have a painful itch.” One study corroborated its ability to treat psoriasis, decreasing both itching and inflammation.
It is no surprise that these red hot foods decrease inflammation, as they have high vitamin and antioxidant content. According to this well cited and highly informative article, “The bright color of red chili peppers signals its high content of beta-carotene or pro-vitamin A. Just two teaspoons of red chili peppers provide about 6% of the daily value for vitamin C coupled with more than 10% of the daily value for vitamin A. Often called the anti-infection vitamin, vitamin A is essential for healthy mucous membranes, which line the nasal passages, lungs, intestinal tract and urinary tract and serve as the body's first line of defense against invading pathogens.”
A quick, interesting note on the color of peppers: according to WebMD, green peppers are red peppers that haven’t ripened yet, drastically altering their vitamin content. Therefore, “compared to green bell peppers, the red ones have almost 11 times more beta-carotene and 1.5 times more vitamin C.”
Perhaps it is this thrilling vitamin content that portends a chili pepper’s ability to increase the resistance of healthy blood fats to oxidation, or free radical damage. Oxidation of blood fats, incidentally, is one of the main components to developing atherosclerosis. In a 4 week long study, half of the participants were fed a diet with fresh, chopped chilis while the other half were fed a bland diet. Those that ate the chili-containing diet saw a significantly lowered rate of free radical damage to their cholesterol and triglycerides than those that ate the bland diet. Interestingly enough, the men who ate the chili-containing diet in the study enjoyed increased blood flow to their heart and a lower resting heart rate, making spicy peppers a heart-healthy food.
Unsurprisingly, the article goes on to say that “cultures where hot pepper is used liberally have a much lower rate of heart attack, stroke and pulmonary embolism.”
If heart health isn’t enough to convince you to try and add a little spice to your life, then perhaps the finding that these peppers help prevent Type 2 diabetes will put a little pep in your step.
In a study published in the July 2006 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Australian researchers found that eating a meal that includes chili reduces the amount of insulin needed to balance blood sugar. And if such meals are a regular part of one’s diet, insulin needs are diminished even further, compounding the benefits. The same study found that the benefits increase even further for those who are overweight, showing not only a reduced need for insulin to stabilize blood sugar but also that the liver’s ability to clear insulin has increased, making for a more efficient system.
Chilis have even been implicated in battling cancer, namely prostate cancer. Undoubtedly due to the aforementioned antioxidants, flavonoids and carotenoids, which happily scavenge free radicals in our system. Whatever the means, studies have shown that capsaicin stops prostatic cancer cells in their tracks, killing them and potentially preventing further growth. The doctors don’t herald capsaicin as a cure for prostate cancer, but it is definitely considered to be an effective preventative.
While the sting and burn of capsaicin can seem like a formidable deterrent to those who shudder at the sight of hot sauce, there are simple ways to slowly build up one’s tolerance, methodically and with minimal burn-twice effect. I like adding cayenne to hot chocolate drinks, for example. Or even including a chili in a well-loved soup recipe to add the perfect amount of tolerable heat suited to your taste. Just be sure you remember to remove the chili when your optimum level of spice is achieved, otherwise one of your dinner guests may receive a rush of endorphins they neither expected or wanted. Add chili to your condiments for the perfect amount of spicy kick, knowing anything with a milk component, such as yogurt, will provide a helpful dousing of capsaicin’s potent sting. Experiment in a playful way with incorporating this volatile ingredient in your food, knowing the bountiful health benefits will linger long after the biting sting of capsaicin fades away.