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Are spicy foods good for you? The health effects of adding heat to your meal

There are some known benefits to adding spices like hot pepper, but can they be dangerous?
/ Source: TODAY

Do you crave spicy foods all the time? Do you challenge the chef at your local Asian restaurant to make your meal as hot as possible? Does the experience feel incomplete if the food doesn’t send streams of sweat down your face?

Your friends may poke fun, but you can tell them you’re eating all those hot pepper spices for your health.

There are plenty of benefits to eating spicy foods, including the possibility of a longer life, albeit just a little bit.

But like so many other things, spicy food has good and bad sides. For most people, the good will outweigh the bad.

The good

A longevity boost

A study in 2015 that included over half a million Chinese found that people who consumed spicy — that is, scorching — foods six times a week reduced their risk of death by 14 percent during the course of the seven-year study. Consuming fiery foods just two days a week lowered the risk by 10 percent, compared to people who ate milder fare.

Weight loss

Studies have shown that hot peppers can help curb appetite and speed metabolism. In a 2011 study, researchers from Purdue University found people felt more satiated after eating spicy foods. An earlier study found that people consumed less fat after eating high amounts of hot peppers. There’s probably also an effect on metabolism, says Dr. Gregory Thorkelson, an assistant professor in the departments of psychiatry and gastroenterology at the University of Pittsburgh.

“That’s why you feel hot after you eat spicy food,” he adds. “And there is some data to show that capsaicin [the ingredient that produces the scorched feeling in your mouth] can increase the ability to burn calories.”

Another possibility is that the fire in your mouth slows food consumption, says Dana Hunnes, a senior dietitian and professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA. “If you eat more slowly, you’re more likely to notice your body’s satiety cues.”

Pain relief

Capsaicin has been shown to spark the release of the body’s own opioids — endorphins, Thorkelson says, although much of the data on this comes from topical administration of the chemical rather than oral consumption.

Anti-inflammatory effects

There is data to suggest that capsaicin might help with autoimmune conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis, Thorkelson says, adding that these types of illnesses are less common in countries where a lot of spicy food is consumed.

Antimicrobial effects

Studies show that capsaicin has antibacterial effects, and possibly also to a lesser degree, antifungal effects, Thorkelson says. This is why hot peppers have been used as a food preservative, Hunnes says.

The bad

The lasting burn in your mouth

If the peppers are too strong, they can not only leave your mouth feeling charred, but they can also scorch taste buds, Hunnes says. Fortunately, the effect is temporary: “Even if you eat Scotch Bonnet, which is the hottest of the hot, and damage your taste buds, they regenerate fairly quickly.” In the short term, the best way to put out the fire in your mouth is to douse it with milk, Hunnes says. And make sure it’s whole milk, not fat free, because the capsaicin binds to fat molecules, she says.

Capsaicin is a blood thinner

Not a problem for most people, and it might even be a benefit to those who are fairly healthy. But if you’re on a medication like warfarin, capsaicin can cause problems by thinning the blood too much, Thorkelson says.

Scorched hemorrhoids

One of the unfortunate characteristics of capsaicin is that it doesn’t break down as it passes through your digestive system. So you can get scorched as it makes its way out of your body. And if you’ve got hemorrhoids: OUCH!