Dr. Friedman’s Health Blog

Spice of Life: The Healing Powers of Peppers

By: Dr. David Friedman

They say, “Variety is the spice of life,”  and every year more Americans are embracing the heat!  According to the NPD Group, a leading global information company, 56 % of U.S. households have hot sauce on hand in their kitchens. Spicy foods are also  a hot topic when it comes to your health. In fact, they might actually extend your life! A team of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health scientists  discovered that eating spicy foods may be correlated with better health and a reduced risk of premature death.   The data from Harvard showed that consuming spicy food, typically in the form of hot chili peppers, at least once or twice a week brought a 10% reduction in mortality risk. Those who consumed spicier foods, almost once a day on average, saw their risk of premature death drop by 14%.  

In another study, conducted by the University of Vermont and published in the POS One Journal, researchers observed 16,000 people over a period of 23 years, and found that the subjects who ate even a tiny amount of chili peppers were 13 percent less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke than those who did not. Chili peppers are known to have disease preventing and health promoting properties. Chilies contain capsaicin, which gives them their strong spicy, pungent character. Capsaicin has anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogenic, analgesic and anti-diabetic properties.  Fresh chili peppers offer an excellent source of vitamin C,  vitamin A, and flavonoids like β-carotene, α-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and cryptoxanthin. These antioxidants help  protect the body from free radicals generated during stress and also help strengthen the immune system.  Chili peppers contain essential minerals like potassium, manganese, iron, and magnesium.  


Stress Relief

 While people may have a stressful look on their faces after they bite into a hot pepper,  it’s actually helping lower their stress levels.  Chili peppers contain the “stress fighting”  B-complex  group of vitamins such as niacin, pyridoxine (vitamin B-6), riboflavin and thiamin (vitamin B-1).  These  peppers may also indirectly help relieve anxiety symptoms through their ability to increase endorphins in your brain. Researchers at the Colgan Institute found that capsaicin in these peppers stimulate the production of endorphins, which are hormones responsible for blocking pain signals, as well as causing a euphoric sensation. Thus, by increasing endorphins, you might experience a drop in anxiety levels.


Pain Relief

Capsaicin can heat up the tongue, but it may actually cool down hot and inflamed joints associated with arthritis and back pain. For three decades I’ve recommended capsaicin for my patients suffering with back, neck pain and arthritis.  The pain relief they achieve is astounding!    Research  shows capsaicin aids in releasing the body’s own opioids — endorphins.  Capsaicin has been shown to diminish the production of substance P, the chemical responsible for delivering pain signals to the brain. By hindering the transmission of substance P, capsaicin might provide temporary relief from ailments such as diabetic neuropathy, headaches, back and neck pain.   There is also data suggesting that  capsaicin  may even help with autoimmune conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis.  In areas of the world that consume a lot of spicy foods, autoimmune conditions are less common.  Capsaicin can also be applied topically or in capsule form.

Heart Health

Chili peppers have the potential to protect against heart disease, the number one cause of death in America. These spicy peppers can reduce the damaging effects of LDL (bad cholesterol) and may fight inflammation,  a risk factor for heart issues. Jalapenos, cayenne pepper and red chili peppers, may lower bad cholesterol, thus improving heart function. According to a study presented by the  American Chemical Society, capsaicin helps reduce the accumulation of cholesterol in the body. The medical team also found that capsaicin blocks a gene that narrows the arteries, thus increasing blood flow in the vessels.



When you eat a hot pepper,  the heat causes your brain to release  feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which are commonly associated with the euphoric feeling experienced by runners. Endorphins are nature’s painkillers and also work to naturally improve your mood. Scientists believe capsaicin is the primary active compound in cayenne pepper responsible for this jolly uplift. It may also indirectly help relieve anxiety symptoms through its ability to increase endorphins in the brain. Researchers at the Colgan Institute found that capsaicin stimulated the production of endorphins, which are responsible for blocking pain signals, as well as causing a euphoric sensation. When endorphin levels increase this can also lower anxiety levels.


Antimicrobial Effects 

Hot peppers are often used as a food preservative because of their anti-fungal and antibacterial effects.  Research shows these same attributes may also protect humans from these pathogens.   Hot peppers can minimize the effect of food-borne pathogens, such as listeria, salmonella, and other strains of harmful bacteria and fungi.   The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations states that cayenne pepper may help fight  infection, and the University of Maryland Medical Center has reported that the capsaicin in cayenne peppers may offer an effective treatment for ear infections.


Weight Loss 

Spicy peppers can enhance the flavor of your meal but they may also help fight obesity by decreasing calorie intake, shrinking fat tissue, and lowering blood fat levels!   Research published by the The International Journal of Obesity shows people eating meals containing red pepper, eat less food. They also feel more satisfied with their meals, both in sensory gratification and in satiety. In 2009 Agrofood, after reviewing a plethora of clinical studies, concluded that capsaicin can help reduce food intake, increase thermogenesis, and increase lipolysis (fat-use for fuel.)  

Not only will spicy foods help you feel full while eating less, hot peppers may even help your body to burn more calories. A Canadian study found that people that ate an appetizer with hot sauce consumed 200 fewer calories than those  who didn’t have hot sauce.  Eating a spicy dish can also boost your metabolism by up to 8 percent.   Penn State researchers found that adding these types of spices to meals that are high in fat, decreases triglyceride response by about 30 percent. In their study, they compared the effects of eating high-fat foods with spices added to that of high-fat foods.  The group that consumed the spicy food had lower insulin and triglyceride responses to their meal. Along with the positive health benefits of consuming the meals with spices, the participants reported no negative gastrointestinal problemsDespite the common misconception that hot peppers can inflame the bowels and cause ulcers, researchers from the University of California in San Diego say capsaicin found in chili peppers can actually reduce the risk of colorectal tumors. 


Hot peppers are the real “super food”!   By adding more spice to your life, you could also be adding additional years to it.   Feel the burn, live longer,  lose those extra pounds, and enjoy a natural runners high without having to break a sweat. 

About the Author

Dr. David Friedman is the author of the award-winning, #1 national best-selling book Food Sanity, How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction. He's a  Doctor of Naturopathy, Chiropractic Neurologist, Clinical Nutritionist, Board Certified Alternative Medical Practitioner, and Board Certified in Integrative Medicine.  Dr. Friedman is a syndicated television health expert and host of To Your Good Health Radio, which has changed the face of talk radio by incorporating entertainment, shock value, and solutions to everyday health and wellness issues.

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