5 Surprising Health Benefits of Chili Peppers

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Chili pepper aficionados are as avid about their passion as wine connoisseurs, debating the merits of habaneros, poblanos and serranos, visiting chili pepper festivals and gathering with other “chiliheads” to enjoy spicy foods. But even if you don’t like anything spicier than ketchup, chili peppers could one day benefit you in several ways, because the active ingredient in chili peppers, capsaicin, is one of the most versatile and amazing compounds on Earth. Here are five surprising health benefits of chili peppers and capsaicin … and you don’t even have to eat a pepper or any spicy food to benefit.

5. Capsaicin is Good For Your Heart

Research suggests that chili peppers and capsaicin can promote heart health.
The same properties of capsaicin that stimulate your taste buds and cause a burning sensation may also stimulate your cardiovascular system in a positive way. Studies have shown that capsaicin can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and even prevent arteriolosclerosis. Capsaicin may even be able to prevent heart damage during a heart attack. University of Cincinnati researchers several years ago conducted tests on mice that suggested an over-the-counter capsaicin salve applied to the chest during a heart attack could significantly reduce or even prevent cell damage to the heart. However, there are caveats to the capsaicin and heart health angle. WebMD.com advises not taking capsaicin if you already have high blood pressure or are being treated for high blood pressure. Always consult a physician before beginning any treatment.


4. Capsaicin May Boost Weight Loss

Capsaicin temporarily boosts metabolism, which can aid in weight loss.

Photo Credit: Chris Devers

Many popular dietary supplements contain capsaicin. Research has shown that capsaicin temporarily boosts metabolism, which can promote weight loss. Other research suggests that capsaicin supplements reduce appetite. Before rushing out to your local health food store to stock up on capsaicin pills, bear in mind that research in this area is far from conclusive. Also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate capsaicin, and supplements may not yield the same results found by researchers.


3. Capsaicin Could One Day Provide Cure For Diabetes

Research suggests that capsaicin might one day be used to prevent diabetes.

Photo credit: Gene Han

Many diabetics already use capsaicin for treatment of diabetic neuropathy, but medical research is uncovering other possible ways capsaicin could help treat diabetes. Canadian researchers who injected capsaicin into mice predisposed to develop Type 1 diabetes were able to prevent the onset of the disease. Obviously, a treatment that works on mice may not apply to humans, but research continues in the capsaicin vs. diabetes field, including ways capsaicin might help regulate blood sugar.


2. Pepper Spray Prevents Countless Assaults Each Year

Pepper spray prevents many assaults and perhaps deaths each year.

Pepper spray demonstration.

Pepper spray made plenty of headlines in 2011, for all the wrong reasons. First, video surfaced of a campus police officer spraying peaceful Occupy protesters, and then a woman pepper sprayed a crowd of shoppers on Black Friday in a bid to grab a video game. Gone mostly unnoticed were the lives saved by pepper spray. There are no official statistics on how many assaults — and perhaps deaths — pepper spray prevents each year, but anecdotal evidence suggest dozens, perhaps many more. A Google search for the term, “Fights off attacker with pepper spray,” returns more than a dozen incidents in the U.S. from 2011 in which people used pepper spray to stop assaults. Then there is the deterrent effect (many would-be attackers are less likely to attack someone if they believe their potential victim has spray). Park rangers and other wildlife experts say pepper spray is a must for those traveling in bear country, as zookeeper Jack Hanna demonstrated in a much-publicized 2010 incident in which he and a group of hikers encountered a family of grizzlies in Glacier National Park.


1. Capsaicin is Being Tested as Cancer Treatment

Capsaicin is being tested as a treatment for cancer.

Photo credit: Nathanael Hevelone

Many studies of capsaicin’s potential health benefits are still in the trial stages, as researchers work to unlock the secrets of this miracle compound. But several studies in recent years suggest that capsaicin may help inhibit the growth of prostate, lung and leukemic cancer cells. As one study summarizes on the American Association for Cancer Research website, “This study shows that capsaicin inhibits the growth of prostate cancer cells … in mice without causing gross toxicity of the animals. These results suggest that capsaicin may have a role for the management of prostate cancer patients …”


One More: Capsaicin Creams Help With Pain Management

Probably the best-known current medicinal use of capsaicin is in topical creams that can be applied to help ease the symptoms of arthritis, shingles, back pain, neuralgia and post-surgical pain.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.