Health Benefits of Peppers
The people of the north Indian state of Nagaland claim to grow the world's hottest chili, the naga king chili. In Kohima, a village within Nagaland, a festival is held each year honoring the pepper. As part of the festival, all are invited to compete in a contest to see who can eat the most chilies. The bravest take their seats, not as many as you might think, and the timer starts.
On-lookers describe the scene as low-key while the chilis are eaten, but, after the allotted 20 seconds have finished, the reactions begin. Some simply stagger away from their chairs, others go to the ground writhing, and a few even collapse. Ambulances carry away the most distraught.
This year, the magic number of peppers needed to be eaten in order to win the $600 dollars in prize money was 15. While only the most intense chiliphiles would bring on such pain from a naga king chili, some real health benefits can be found in peppers.
Adding spicy peppers to meals encourages more consumption of liquid. Assuming that this liquid is a no or low calorie beverage, portion size is decreased leading to satiety (feeling full). Dishes can be spiced up using fresh peppers, or the spice can be added easily with prepared sauce or salsa.
In addition to decreasing portion size, hot peppers can actually increase metabolism. A study on obese dieting individuals showed that supplementing with the active pepper ingredient capsaicin increased daily caloric burn by an average of 80 calories compared to placebo. While not dramatic, it can definitely make a difference when added up over time.
Treatment of Pain
To the novice, eating a hot pepper will yield a painful response. Interestingly, however, consistent, subsequent exposure will bring less and less pain, eventually moving toward a euphoric responsevia the release of the body's endorphins. The active chemical in peppers, capsaicin, has been shown to down-regulate pain receptors in the body. This colorless, odor-less compound is present to varying degrees in hot peppers. Basically, the hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin. Taking the unpleasantries of that fiery blast to the mouth aside, capsaicin has been used widely as a cream for pain conditions such as neuropathy, shingles, and arthritis and is widely available at pharmacies.
Prevention of Parkinson's Disease
The newest research to emerge on peppers focuses on the small amount of nicotine that they contain. It's been established as a trend that smokers have a decreased risk of the development of Parkinson's Disease. Members of the Solanaceae family, including tobacco and peppers, contain nicotine in varying amounts.
Making this link, researchers set out to see if pepper consumption held the same type of Parkinson's risk reduction as those who smoked tobacco leaves. Comparing to non-Solanaceae vegetables, the researchers found that consumption of peppers compared to the "other vegetable" group did show a decreased risk for the development of Parkinson's. Further, the association strengthened when higher nicotine Solanaceae were isolated. In general, however, eating peppers 2 to 4 times per week was consistently associated with a 30% reduction in risk for the development of Parkinson's Disease.
The paper was quick to caution that these results open the door for more widespread and larger-scale testing as well as investigation as to how specifically the prevention occurs. Until then, enjoy peppers. Oh, and don't use this as a excuse to keep smoking, the risks definitely outweigh any benefits.
Peppers are touted to help with a number of other issues. Claims that they help with stomach acid and cure ulcers are unfounded. Inflammation to the wall of the stomach may be worsened in fact by the irritation of hot peppers. Use of capsaicin has been shown to shrink and kill cells in tumors found in breast and prostate cancer. The findings are not as robust, however, as other drugs. Researchers in these studies warn, in addition, that one should not eat peppers in an attempt to cure cancer. To equal the amount used with any success on tumors one would have to eat around 8 of the world's hottest peppers each week. However, all peppers are an excellent source of antioxidants, which are important in cancer prevention.
The health benefits of peppers, both known and emerging, yield some wonderful secondary health benefits. So add some spice to your life and eat more of them!
Annals of Neurology, May 9, 2013: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ana.23884/abstract;jsessionid=5CFFC106F8D8CB655566F967982D479A.d01t01