If you love eating food so hot that your eyes run, your nose streams, and you're still feeling it several days later, there's good news for you: spicy foods have some health benefits you probably didn't know about. Evidence suggests humans have been adding spice to their food for many centuries. That love for the tingle in our lips has been passed down through generations, and for good reason. While it may seem contradictory that a type of foodstuff that gives us pain while eating it could also have health benefits, science is increasingly revealing that indulging in chili peppers and other eye-wateringly hot spices is a good thing for our hearts, our brains, and our lifespan in general.
Studies on spiciness generally focus on one thing in particular: capsaicin, which is one of the compounds that causes that burning feeling in your mouth when you eat something hot. It's been used in trials to treat pain disorders like fibromyalgia and arthritis because it interferes with the body's pain transmitters — but even in less concentrated form, as part of a tasty meal, it can still have an effect on your health. However, it's always important to eat it in moderation. Here are seven benefits of spicy foods all spicy food-lovers want to know about.
1They Make You Less Likely To Crave Salt
Oddly enough, having a diet high in spice means you'll be more likely to keep your food low in sodium, which is good for your heart health. That's the conclusion of a study in 2017 by the American Heart Association, which showed that the more spicy you enjoy your food, the more you can detect salt in general. And sensitivity to salt means that you're satisfied with a lot less in your dishes — which leads to less of a reliance on the salt shaker, and lower blood pressure.
2They Help Can Promote Longevity
If you have a diet where you eat quite a lot of red chili peppers, you're also likely to enjoy a longer lifespan, according to 2017 data from Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. The scientists looked at 16,000 Americans over 23 years, and found that people who ate a lot of chili peppers saw a 13 percent drop in their likelihood of early death.
Mostly, eating lots of peppers seemed to be protective against heart attacks and stroke. But the scientists behind the study said in a press release that capsaicin "also possesses antimicrobial properties that may indirectly affect the host by altering the gut microbiota." So there are a lot of ways in which chili peppers might be helping us live longer lives.
3They Could Protect Your Liver
Work in 2017 by the European Association for the Study of the Liver found that, in mice, diets including capsaicin appeared to help slow liver damage or stop it from beginning, depending on what was causing the damage in the first place. However, it's not clear whether this would work in the same way in humans. A study in 2011, for instance, found that mice who'd had capsaicin introduced into their diets were more likely to develop cancers of the liver than those who hadn't. So this needs to be explored more before it can be declared as a universal health benefit.
4They May Inhibit The Growth Of Gut Tumors
One area where capsaicin has been the focus of a lot of attention is the gut. It turns out, according to a 2014 study from the University of California San Diego, that spicy food may have long-term benefits for our gut health. The study used capsaicin in the diets of mice, and found that it meant that the cells in the walls of the intestine became highly stimulated when they were exposed to capsaicin. And those cells fought off the development of tumors in the colon and rectum more successfully than in the guts of mice who hadn't had any spice. Does this hold true in humans? More research needs to be done, but it's an impressive idea.
5They Relax Your Blood Vessels
One of the reasons that capsaicin may be so good for overall lifespans when ingested as part of a balanced diet is that it seems to be good for blood flow. In 2010, Cell Press published work that indicated that capsaicin in chili peppers reduces blood pressure, because it makes blood vessels more "relaxed" by blocking genes that tend to make our blood vessels more contracted, stopping their effects, and so widen the vessels to allow better blood flow. Result? Lower blood pressure and better blood supply to your cells.
6They Also Fight Off Bad Cholesterol
Scientists in 2012 found that capsaicin breaks down "bad" cholesterol in blood while leaving "good" cholesterol intact, which has a knock-on effect on blood pressure levels and your overall health. The American Chemical Society explained in 2012 that capsaicin and its relatives "lower cholesterol levels by reducing accumulation of cholesterol in the body and increasing its breakdown and excretion in the feces." Couple that with the blood vessel relaxation, and it's a pretty comprehensive combination for helping your heart.
7They Can Help Sinus Pain
Got bad sinus inflammation? According to a study from 2011, a nasal spray including capsaicin might be one of the best ways to clear it up. This sounds absurd and possibly painful, but the results of the small study, which used a mix of placebo and capsaicin sprays on 44 people who had long histories of nasal problems not linked to allergies.
It was one of the first chemical trials of the idea, and it worked; people felt relief within a minute when they used the capsaicin spray, and the effects lasted longer than an hour. It's important that you don't do this without a physician's advice, though, because the study was for a specific kind of rhinitis and not for every time you have a sniffle.
Many of these studies emphasize that capsaicin needs to be part of a nutritional, balanced diet and active lifestyle to have the proper effects. But it's certainly a revelation that the much-feared chili is actually a pretty healthy friend to have.