Hot Stuff! Heat Up Your Health

by JACQUELINE DO

 

Reaching for that Sriracha bottle to add a little kick to your fried rice? How about some Tabasco sauce on your California burrito? Sometimes adding a little heat to your plate is favorable to your palate. Aside from enjoyment though, are there health benefits to that burning tongue and runny nose of yours? Let’s find out!

 

Ha-ha-hot Ingredient!

Capsaicin

Capsaicin is the active ingredient found in spicy foods that binds to the receptors in your mouth, sending the signal: “Wow, that’s hot!” Well, not exactly but you get the point. The signal informs the brain that your tongue is on fire due to its inflammatory response. [1]

 

You’re Not Alone

If you are following the “Sriracha obsession,” you are not alone. There are other heat fanatics just like you! But why are some people so privy to making their faces red, eyes water, and tongues burn? There may be a neurological mechanism that explains why it feels so good:

The Reward Pathway

When capsaicin binds to receptors in our mouth, nociceptors, your pain receptors, are activated. [2] The body naturally responds by releasing feel-good hormones known as endorphins to block the pain. Subsequently, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, dopamine, is released. The release of endorphins and dopamine upon eating spicy food activates the reward system, making us more likely to engage in the behavior again by making us feel good. Thus, many people are neurologically wired to crave spicy foods in order to reap pleasure. [3,4] And now you know why it hurts so good!

 

What’s good?

So you like the heat. What’s in it for you? Turns out there are some potential health benefits to turning up the heat.

Decreases hunger and fat intake

Was that spicy Thai curry satisfying? According to a study in The International Journal of Obesity, capsaicin intake increases satiety and decreases energy and fat intake. [5] However, it is important to note that capsaicin has a short-term effect of preventing people from reaching for their seconds and thirds.

Potentially reduces tumors

Capsaicin has been shown to inhibit prostate tumor growth in men and lead to pancreatic cancer cell death in mice studies. [6, 7] More research is still being done to identify the therapeutic effects of capsaicin, but until then—popping jalapeños anyone?

Relieves pain

The slight burning sensation of capsaicin has been shown to ease pain. A study in the British Journal of Anaesthesia found that capsaicin skin patches are effective in relieving topical pain. [8] Time to pop out the patches, sisters.

 

Ha-ha-hold up!

Though there are said health benefits to spicy foods, there are certain precautions that individuals should take prior to indulging in them.

Insomnia

As you may experience an awakening of your sinuses from that hot chili pepper, it may very well keep you awake at night as well. [9] If you have insomnia, or a general sleeping difficulty, consider limiting spicy foods to morning or earlier meals.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Individuals with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), may be more sensitive to the sensations of capsaicin. [10] A study in Neurogastroenterology  found that individuals with IBS attribute spicy foods to their abdominal pain symptoms. In this case, it maybe wise to turn the dial down a mild.

 

With all considered, adding some heat into your life may spice things up. Not only are we neurologically wired to enjoy spicy foods, but there are also various health benefits!

Don’t mean to get jalapeño business, but…

if you Cayenne, consider adding some heat into your life!

 

 

References ▾

  1. “Capsaicin.” pubchem.gov. (2017).
  2. “Effects of chili on postprandial gastrointestinal symptoms in diarrhoea predominant irritable bowel syndrome: evidence for capsaicin-sensitive visceral nociception hypersensitivity.” Neurogastroent Motil. (2008).
  3. “It hurts so good: oral irritation by spices and carbonated drinks and the underlying neural mechanisms.” Food Qual Prefer. (2002).
  4. “Learned flavor preferences induced by intragastric administration of rewarding nutrients: role of capsaicin-sensitive vagal afferent fibers.” Am J Physiol. (2007).
  5. “Sensory and gastrointestinal satiety effects of capsaicin on food intake.” Int J Obesity. (2005).
  6. “Induction of apoptosis in prostate tumor PC-3 cells and inhibition of xenograft prostate tumor growth by the vanilloid capsaicin.” Apoptosis. (2006).
  7. “In vitro and in vivo induction of apoptosis by capsaicin in pancreatic cancer cells is mediated through ROS generation and mitochondrial death pathway.” Apoptosis. (2008).
  8. “Topical capsaicin for pain management: therapeutic potential and mechanisms of action of the new high-concentration capsaicin 8% patch.” Br J Anaesth. (2011).
  9. “Spicy meal disturbs sleep: an effect of thermoregulation?” Int J Psychophysiol. (1992).
  10. “Capsaicin Stimulation In Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Toward Understanding Visceral Perception and Pain Symptom Generation.” Am J Gastroenterol. (2014).