By: Clifford M. Sonnie, M.D., M.P.H.
Anyone who has had the fortune or misfortune to have dinner at my house knows that I love spicy foods. The hotter the better. I guess I developed this from my mother. She always had spicy foods at dinner and I remember grandma saying that the spicier the food the better it is for you. Well, as I found out she was right.
Peppers, whether they are fresh, dried or ground up, especially hot peppers, add not only a certain “pop” to meals but the medicinal benefits are many. The reason peppers are hot is because of something called capsaicin. The more capsaicin, the hotter the pepper, the better it is for you. It has been credited from killing cancer cells to preventing obesity, lowering blood pressure and reducing the dangers and risks of diabetes. How you say? I’m glad you asked.
First of all, most peppers are an excellent source of minerals and vitamins especially B, K and C. They also hot peppers contain loads of dietary fiber.
Capsaicin, when eaten, will burn. This causes pain receptors to be fired and with that comes the release of something called endorphins. This is a very powerful substance that the body makes to control pain. Yes, it’s better than anything that man has made too. Anyways endorphins will also cause your blood vessels to dilate. This not only will cause your face to turn red after you eat a hot pepper but it also just lowered your blood pressure. Capsaicin also has anti-inflammatory as well as anti-coagulant properties. As a result, it can decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. If you look at places like the far east and India, the incidence of heart disease and stroke is lower than other places.
There are also several studies that have shown that capsaicin will stop the growth of cancerous cells but not healthy cells. Specifically, it looked at a part of the cell called the mitochondria which is essentially the powerhouse of the cell.
Capsaicin also will kill gut bacteria. As a result, it has been thought that it could help stomach ulcers and other gut problems. The jury is still out on that one.
Probably the most research lately has been done on the possibility that it helps people lose weight. The hot pepper will increase anyone’s metabolism due to the increased heat. When your body is hotter, it burns more calories. There was a study that showed that your body may burn upwards of 75 calories when you eat spicy hot foods rather than milder blander foods. In fact, there was a study in the journal “Obesity” this past year that postulated that capsaicin may actually prevent the formation of fat cells in the first place. Still lots more work on that bad boy before I buy that one. Oh God, don’t everyone now stampede Taco Bell!
Anyway, mom taught me to cook using a few different spicy peppers. The following is a list of my favorites from milder to spicy.
Poblano: This is also known as ancho chili pepper. It is rather mild but still adds a punch.
Jalapeno: This is somewhat hotter and in fact can be adjusted for “heat”. This pepper, as well as others, have whitish ribs that run down it’s side. The more ribs, the hotter it is. You can actually peel away these ribs and control the amount of “hotness” (is that a word?).
Serrano: These have even higher levels of antioxidants especially Vitamin C than most other peppers.
Cayenne: This is the stuff in pepper spray guns. It is an excellent congestion fighter. Most people can use it by putting a bit in a hot tea or by steaming some in hot water and breathing the steam. There is an actual product on the market that takes cayenne pepper and extracts the liquid and bottles it in a nose spray. I have tried it and I couldn’t see or feel the left side of my face for a week after. It is only for the stout hearted or brain dead. Hey, an interesting tid-bit. The Aztecs mixed it with chocolate and it made the chocolate taste better. Haven’t tried that one yet. Let me know if you do.
Habanero: This is 20 times hotter than jalapeno and is only for the truly brave or incredibly drunk.
Couple bits of advice. When cooking or handling these peppers, wear gloves. Yes, the capsaicin will soak into your skin. Second as with anything, before you start any diet change you may want to touch base with your family MD or DO. As I mentioned if you have ulcers, they may want you to hold off until the final verdict on that subject is in. In the meantime, enjoy the “speecy spicy meatball”. After all the smart health care consumer is informed and aware.
Clifford Sonnie, M.D. is the Medical Director at the Balance of Life Clinic.