Bring the Heat: The Surprising Benefits of Spicy Food


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It’s hot, hot, hot and good for your heart!

We’ve all been there: Sweating uncontrollably and uncomfortably on a date after daring to try the dish with three pepper signs next to it. An evening like that will have you swearing off spicy foods forever, and wondering why you ever decided to put capsaicin in your body. But don’t be so hard on yourself: You weren’t wrong to opt for a dish with some kick. You may have a hard time believing it, especially when your mouth feels as if it’s been inside an incinerator, but spicy food does have health benefits. We know it runs counter to conventional wisdom (which says that an extra splash of Tabasco will wreak havoc on your stomach lining), but it’s true, says Vincent Pedre, M.D, an internist and the author of the forthcoming book, The Gutsmart Protocol

Foods with a little extra kick can aid in digestion, help jump-start metabolism, promote heart health, and much more. We’re taking a look at some of the surprising benefits and what you should know before peppering your food with, well, peppers.

Spicy food can improve heart health

Your heart might be pounding as you endure the pain caused by that irresistibly spicy buffalo wing, but believe it or not, there’s some evidence that regularly eating hot foods (specifically those spiced with chili peppers like jalapeños or habanero, which contain the compound capsaicin) reduces the risk of cardiac disease. In one large study conducted at the University of Vermont, scientists found that people who regularly consumed capsaicin had a 13 percent reduction in total mortality — primarily in deaths caused by heart disease or stroke. 

Other studies have shown that fiery fare can even lower blood pressure by triggering the release of compounds that cause blood vessels to expand. And it may also play a role in lowering cholesterol: In a small 2017 study, participants who took 4-mg capsaicin supplements twice daily for three months moderately reduced their cholesterol levels.

Spicy food can also boost metabolism

Have you ever bitten into a chunk of nachos only to discover that a jalapeño was hiding under the chili and cheese — and instantly broken out into a sweat? That may be wickedly delicious or a brutal bite, based on your palate, but either way you taste it, that experience illustrates spicy foods’ power to rev up the metabolism. Foods high in capsaicin raise your heart rate and your internal temperature, which leads the body to burn more calories. 

A 2012 review of scientific studies on metabolism and capsaicin found that research participants whose diets contained healthy amounts of peppery foods burned about 50 extra calories a day. Some research also shows it helps curb appetite too, Dr. Pedre says. 

Is spicy food bad for the gut?

It’s a common belief that a diet heavy in hot sauce is bad for your stomach and can lead you to develop ulcers. But that’s not the case. And in fact, capsaicin has been shown in multiple studies to help ulcers by inhibiting acid production in the stomach, gastroenterologist Edwin McDonald, M.D., wrote for the University of Chicago.

Researchers also believe capsaicin can help diversify and modulate the gut microbiome — the colony of bacteria living in your intestinal tract. “This can really have a lot of beneficial effects on the mucus layer, the protective layer of the gut, and the immune system as well,” Dr. Pedre says.

It keeps you cool

This may also sound counterintuitive as you wipe the sweat off your brow and reach desperately for the ice water, but hot foods do have some cooling effects. Just look at the cuisine developed in some of the world’s hottest climates: From Southeast Asia to the Caribbean, the fare packs serious heat. And part of the reason for that is because ingesting spicy food can help you beat that heat. As we explained earlier, a hot dish raises your internal temperature and heart rate, causing you to sweat, which, when it evaporates, cools down the body. Just one more reason to stock up on hot sauce this summer.

So spicy food is healthy?

There’s a big caveat here. If you’re someone who pops antacids like Altoids, you’ll want to steer clear of ultra-hot foods. Dr. Pedre warns that those who suffer from acid reflux or heartburn should pass on that extra side of jalapeños, because they have the potential to trigger uncomfortable symptoms. 

Plus, there is such a thing as overdoing it. Too much capsaicin can irritate the stomach lining, leading to nausea or abdominal pain. And if the chemical isn’t broken down before it’s well, expelled, it can make for quite a painful experience in the bathroom afterward.