Spicy (or hot) food is loved by a significant amount of people in world and has been enjoyed for a countless time. However, there are many who believe it to be unhealthy or cause certain health risks. In this article, I want to provide evidence showing that, not only does spicy not cause any health risks, but it is actually good for you.
It is important to first take a look at what spicy food we are talking about in particular. My main focus will be on capsaicin which is the active chemical ingredient in spices.
Human use of chili peppers dates back to prehistoric times. Archeologists have shown that humans ate wild chili peppers as early as 7000 B.C.E. and probably domesticated peppers between 5200 B.C.E. and 3400 B.C.E. Preserved peppers have provided evidence that South Americans ate and grew aji, or chili in English, in 2500 B.C.E. Chili peppers became increasingly common and integrated into the diet of particular cultures. However, chili peppers and similar spices remained isolated in these cultures until the 13th century when Marco Polo established trade routes to the Far East. In addition, Columbus made his famous voyage to America to find a new route to these spices. Although he failed in his original mission, Columbus found four additional species of chili peppers in America. With the help of the Portuguese distribution to Africa, chili peppers became a spice available to civilizations throughout world.
Spicy food consists of a specific chemical called capsaicin. As the wiki puts it: Capsaicin is the active component of chili peppers, which are plants belonging to the genus Capsicum. It is an irritant for mammals, including humans, and produces a sensation of burning in any tissue with which it comes into contact. Capsaicin and several related compounds are called capsaicinoids and are produced as a secondary metabolite by chili peppers, probably as deterrents against certain herbivores and fungi. Pure capsaicin is a hydrophobic, colorless, odorless, crystalline to waxy compound.
➡ Spicy Food Does not Cause Ulcers
This is the most common myth I hear about spicy food; that it causes ulcers. However, it does not. In a study by Mortenson and Mortenson in 2009, it was found that capsaicin improved metabolism, alleviated symptoms associated with heartburn and ulcers. Furthermore, there have been many discoveries in what actually causes ulcers; helicobacter pylori.
We used videoendoscopy to investigate the effect of eating spicy foods on the gastric mucosa. We employed four meals: a bland meal of unpeppered steak and french fries (negative control), a bland meal with 1950 mg of aspirin (positive control), a spicy Mexican meal (30 g of jalapeño peppers), and a pepperoni pizza. Twelve subjects (eight men and four women, aged 24 to 43 years) were studied in a randomized, crossover trial with the test meal given at the noon and evening meals; each subject received all four test meals. Each study consisted of a baseline endoscopy, which was repeated approximately 12 hours after the last test meal. Gastric and duodenal damage was scored using a modification of the Lanza scale. Eleven of 12 individuals taking the bland meal plus aspirin developed multiple gastric erosions (median score, C; which equates with “severe” injury). In contrast, the median endoscopic score for the other three meals was 0. Single cases of a single erosion were present after the Mexican meals and after the pizza meals. Another experiment was done to examine the effect of spices directly on the gastric mucosa; approximately 30 g of fresh jalapeño peppers was ground in a food processor and then placed directly into the stomach. Endoscopy after 24 hours revealed no visible mucosal damage. The ingestion of highly spiced meals by normal individuals is not associated with endoscopically demonstrable gastroduodenal mucosal damage.
In fact, it was found that digesting capsaicin actually deters ulcers and stomach cancer:
A case-control study involving interviews with 1,016 gastric
cancer (GC) patients and 1,159 population-based controls in high- and low-risk areas was conducted to evaluate dietary factors and their contribution to the marked geographic variation in mortality from this cancer within Italy. Risks of GC were found to vary significantly with estimated nutrient intake. Risk rose with increasing consumption of nitrites and protein, and decreased in proportion to intake of ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, alpha-tocopherol, and vegetable fat. The associations with nitrite and beta-carotene tended to fade, however, in multivariate analyses adjusting for intake of other nutrients. Ascorbic acid showed the strongest geographic gradient, with highest consumption in low-risk areas. The findings suggest that the protective effects we previously reported for consumption of fresh fruit, fresh vegetables and olive oil may be linked to the vitamins C and E contained in these foods. The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that N-nitroso compounds are involved in GC risks, since elevated risks were apparent for agents (nitrites, protein) that promote nitrosation, while decreased risks were found for nutrients (ascorbic acid and alpha-tocopherol) which inhibit the process.
Biopsy specimens were taken from intact areas of antral mucosa in 100 consecutive consenting patients presenting for gastroscopy. Spiral or curved bacilli were demonstrated in specimens from 58 patients. Bacilli cultured from 11 of these biopsies were gram-negative, flagellate, and microaerophilic and appeared to be a new species related to the genus Campylobacter. The bacteria were present in almost all patients with active chronic gastritis, duodenal ulcer, or gastric ulcer and thus may be an important factor in the aetiology of these diseases.
➡ Spicy Food is Good For Your Heart
Another commonly said thing is that spicy food causes “strain” on your heart. However, this is not the case. In fact, capsaicin reduces heart disease and prevents hypertension:
Some plant-based diets lower the cardiometabolic risks and prevalence of hypertension. New evidence implies a role for the transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 (TRPV1) cation channel in the pathogenesis of cardiometabolic diseases. Little is known about impact of chronic TRPV1 activation on the regulation of vascular function and blood pressure. Here we report that chronic TRPV1 activation by dietary capsaicin increases the phosphorylation of protein kinase A (PKA) and eNOS and thus production of nitric oxide (NO) in endothelial cells, which is calcium dependent. TRPV1 activation by capsaicin enhances endothelium-dependent relaxation in wild-type mice, an effect absent in TRPV1-deficient mice. Long-term stimulation of TRPV1 can activate PKA, which contributes to increased eNOS phosphorylation, improves vasorelaxation, and lowers blood pressure in genetically hypertensive rats. We conclude that TRPV1 activation by dietary capsaicin improves endothelial function. TRPV1-mediated increase in NO production may represent a promising target for therapeutic intervention of hypertension.
➡ Spicy Food is Good For Your Colon
The common joke is that ingesting spicy food will “burn yer ass”. However, spicy food is actually good for your colon.
The relaxant effect of capsaicin (300 nM) has been studied on mucosa-free circular strips of the human sigmoid colon in vitro. The response of precontracted preparations to capsaicin (sub-maximal relaxation) was reduced by over 50% by the nitric oxide synthase inhibitor NG-nitro-L-arginine (L-NOARG; 20 µM or 100 µM) or by the guanylate cyclase inhibitor 1H-[1,2,4]oxadiazolo[4,3-a]quinoxalin-1-one (ODQ; 1 µM), but not by tetrodotoxin (1 µM) or the P2 purinoceptor antagonist pyridoxal phosphate 6-azophenyl-2′,4′-disulfonic acid (PPADS; 50 µM). L-NOARG or ODQ caused moderate contraction of the circular muscle, indicating a tonic “nitrergic” control. Anandamide (1-100 µM), an endogenous cannabinoid and capsaicin VR1 receptor stimulant, failed to either mimic or modify the response to capsaicin (300 nM).
It is proposed that capsaicin causes the release of smooth muscle relaxant substance(s) from afferent nerve endings in the gut wall, in a tetrodotoxin-resistant manner. Nitric oxide (possibly released from capsaicin-sensitive afferents) plays an important role in the capsaicin-evoked response. No evidence has been found for an involvement of PPADS-sensitive P2 purinoceptors in the response to capsaicin or for a stimulation or inhibition of capsaicin-sensitive receptors by anandamide in the human sigmoid colon.
Capsaicin can help improve digestion, fight Irritable Bowel Syndrome, prevent diarrhea and stop intestinal infections. It does this by increasing the levels of digestive fluid in the stomach. Capsaicin also helps kill bacteria that may cause infection or diarrhea.
There are many other things said about spicy food, but these were the ones that concerned my attention the most. I may come back to add upon this article as I see fit (ie. nutritional value, etc.). Go enjoy some spicy food.
➡ Follow Ups
First, it’s important to note that humans do not precisely have ileocecal valves but ileocecal junctions:
“A localised muscle thickening at the base of the ileal papilla is consistent with an intrinsic anatomical sphincter. There was no evidence that the ICJ has increased submucosal vascularity or a greater density of innervation compared to the adjacent bowel. The term ileocaecal valve is misleading and should be replaced by ileocaecal junction.”
Following this, I’d like to provide the evidence I have found that capsaicin has no significantly detrimental health effects on the digestive tract:
“Intraduodenal capsaicin had no effect oncontractility. Stimulation of afferent fibers bycapsaicin in the stomach but not in the duodenumaugments contractile activity in local and distantregions of the gut via distinct pathways.”
“It is suggested that capsaicin relaxes the rat ileum via its direct action on smooth muscle, and that capsaicin inhibits contractile mechanisms involving extracellular Ca2+ influx via non-L-type Ca2+ channels, possibly via store-operated Ca2+ channels and Ca2+release from intracellular storage sites.”
“The influence of small- and large-dose capsaicin on systemic inflammatory responses, nitrite/nitrate (NOx), tissue superoxide dismutase, and malondialdehyde (MDA) levels was investigated in the rat model of sepsis. Small-dose capsaicin treatment attenuated the increases in proinflammatory cytokines and decreased NOx and tissue MDA in septic rats.”
” in a concentration of 10(-4)M, further reduced the frequency in the segments representing the proximal 30% of the colon. This effect of capsaicin is like that reported previously with other laxative agents.”
I must first make special note that I am not a doctor. With that said, it is only my opinion, based on what I have read, that those with sensitive digestive tracts’ only concern with capsaicin is a laxative like effect (at worst) with higher doses of spicy food.