Studies link hot peppers to improved health and longer life
Meet the Carolina Reaper, the world’s spiciest chili pepper. It’s so spicy that it often leaves its consumers wishing they were dealing with the reaper of the grim variety instead. That’s because this chili pepper is about 300 times hotter than a jalapeño and stronger than police-grade pepper spray. So why do us humans voluntarily consume chili peppers, even when their side effects can include a burning mouth, running nose and red, watering eyes?
There are many reasons, really, but there may be a profound health incentive, too. A Harvard study published earlier this month linked chili-pepper consumption to reduced mortality. The study found that those who ate spicy food regularly had a 14 percent chance of living longer than those who didn’t. Further, the regular consumers of spicy food were also less likely to die from cancer, heart and respiratory diseases.
These beneficial health effects are probably due to a combination of capsaicin, the chemical compound in chili peppers responsible for their heat, and other bioactive ingredients in the peppers. Previous studies have pointed to chili peppers having antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which jibes with the Harvard study’s findings, since many negative health conditions and diseases, including heart disease and cancer, are directly related to oxidative damage and inflammation.
Capsaicin’s function in the pepper highlights the often underrated brilliance of plants: It serves to deter mammals from eating them—humans are actually the only mammals who do—because it is a powerful irritant. Birds, however, feel no effect from capsaicin and are able to consume the seeds without harming themselves or the seeds (which chewing mammal teeth would destroy). Birds then digest and deposit the unharmed seeds elsewhere, thus proliferating the pepper species. Capsaicin is also thought to have natural antifungal and antibacterial properties—which helps both the plant and its consumers stay healthy and disease-free.
Beyond adding years to our lives, adding heat to one’s food can also bring a whole host of other benefits. “We love spicy peppers. They spice up a meal, get the metabolism going and the blood flowing,” says Caleb Barron, owner and operator of Fogline Farm in Soquel, which specializes in growing spicy peppers like jalapeños. Indeed, spicy food does increase body temperature, which could lead to a temporary increase in metabolism and blood flow. Consuming fiery food is also an effective and natural way to reduce pain, in part because it leads to a release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that bind to opiate receptors and act as the body’s natural painkillers. Spicy foods reduce pain through other biochemical pathways as well, and topical pain-relieving capsaicin creams and ointments are effective against arthritis, nerve pain, headaches, post-surgery pain and skin conditions like psoriasis.
Chili peppers have also been used as traditional folk medicine in many cultures for thousands of years. Their ability to clear the sinuses and open the airways may help prevent or manage colds and congestion. Next time you’re stuffed up, eat a hot pepper to clear your nasal passages and help you breathe easier. Other traditional folk medicine uses for chili peppers include curing hangovers and even inducing labor (perhaps 9 months after said hangover).
Spicy food may have favorable psychological effects as well. The endorphins released during a spicy meal provide a boost in mood and feelings of well-being. Side effects may include euphoria. Interestingly, there is even some psychological evidence that mild pain, like that associated with biting into a scorching hot pepper may make an experience more “salient,” or more noticeable, important and memorable. Perhaps a good reason to put some habanero or serrano peppers on the table along with your tacos on a romantic or otherwise special night to heighten the mood.
From a farming perspective, peppers are fairly pest-resistant and love fertilizer. But they are time-consuming to grow: Barron says the whole process, from greenhouse to outdoor soil to harvesting, can take almost a year. The aptly named Fogline Farm really does sit atop the fog line, which gives the peppers the necessary warmth and sunlight they need to grow well. Barron notes that our current drought conditions are producing smaller and spicier peppers, and suggests making jams, drying or pickling the peppers (tell Peter Piper something he doesn’t already know).
PICK A PEPPER There are more than 30 different chili pepper species in the ‘capsicum’ species.