Jan. 31. 2020
Health Articles
McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Dietitian, Founder and CEO

Is spicy food actually good for us?

From the health benefits to the myths and active compounds, we’re breaking it all down so you know everything you need to about spicy food and nutrition.

Some people love it, others tread lightly, while the rest avoid it at all costs; spicy food preferences differ greatly from person to person.

Yet albeit popular belief, spicy food actually has some pretty great health benefits that come along with the heat.

But before we jump into the benefits, what exactly is going on when we feel that heat?

What Makes Food Spicy

When we hear spicy, we automatically think of heat. Spicy food is hot, right?

Kind of, but not exactly. There are two specific compounds that start a chain of events in the body as soon as spicy food is consumed.

Let’s start with the most prevalent one!

Capsaicin

Capsaicin is a colorless, odorless compound. It naturally occurs in the fruits of plants within the Capsicum family. Think jalapeño peppers, cayenne peppers, serrano peppers, cinnamon and cilantro (the last two in much smaller amounts than the peppers).

This compound is an irritant, meaning it actually triggers pain receptors in your tongue, mouth, and throat. Stay with me! I promise it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Once these receptors relay the message to your brain, it’s actually perceived as heat. Hence the reference of heat with spicy food! This is the brain’s way of telling you to eat or drink something in response to the irritant, or to “put the fire out”.

Capsaicin will actually cause this irritation when it comes into contact with any human tissue, not just the mouth. Ever rub your eye after slicing a jalapeño? Same here, not great.

Allyl isothiocyanate

Allyl isothiocyanate is the second most common compound responsible for the spicy sensation. It’s also colorless but instead has a slightly irritating scent.

As opposed to being innately present such as the case with capsaicin, allyl isothiocyanate is actually created in response to chewing food items with the enzyme myrosinase naturally present.

In this case think wasabi, hot mustard or horseradish. While it’s also found in many cruciferous vegetables, it’s not found in high enough quantities to create the same intense sensation. Due to the fact that this particular chemical is so volatile (essentially meaning it vaporizes really quickly), the flavor and burning sensation hit the nose very fast.

The same pain response is sent to the brain as with capsaicin, but since the majority of its presence is in vapor form, the sensation subsides much more quickly than that of capsaicin!

Health Benefits Of Spicy Foods

This doesn’t exactly sound like it’s good for us, right? We’re tossing around words like pain, heat, and fire. Yet somehow the consumption of spicy food can lead to some pretty substantial health benefits.

Let’s talk about what those health benefits are and how spicy food contributes!

May Reduce Inflammation

Technically speaking, inflammation is a part of the body’s defense mechanism. There are two major types of inflammation, acute and chronic.

For acute inflammation, think of tangible, physical damage or trauma. The inflammation that occurs when you get a cut or break a bone to help protect the body

Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is long term inflammation, that when left untreated, can cause secondary complications and disease states.

Spicy food containing capsaicin has the potential to reduce chronic inflammation (1,2, 3). A reduction of chronic inflammation can reduce the chances of developing complications such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes as well as arthritis.

Wasabi may also reduce chronic inflammation (4, 5). While studies have not yet been conducted on humans, preliminary research is interesting.

Keep in mind that depending upon your specific situation, an addition of spicy food may not be the best idea for reducing inflammation. Always consult your registered dietitian and physician before making any significant adjustments to your diet.

May Promote A Long Life

Who doesn’t want to promote longevity through their diet?

Research has shown that consuming spicy food daily can reduce your chances of death by about 14%, specifically relating to death caused by cancer, heart disease and respiratory diseases (4, 5).

May Help Prevent & Possibly Treat Ulcers

Have you ever heard that eating spicy food may cause an ulcer? Technically, this isn’t very truthful.

H. Pylori is the most common cause of peptic ulcers. It’s a type of bacteria found in the stomach. While almost 50% of the world’s population is infected with this bacteria, not everyone will develop an ulcer because of it.

The formation of an ulcer from H.Pylori is often caused by an excess of gastric acid, overuse of NSAIDs (think aspirin, ibuprofen), smoking, stress, and many more lifestyle factors.

Research has shown that capsaicin in spicy food actually inhibits the production of acid in the stomach, ultimately acting as a preventative measure against peptic ulcers (6).

Allyl isothiocyanate may also play a role in treating said ulcers after they develop. Additional human trials must be conducted to further support this conclusion, but some animal-based studies have shown that wasabi may help treat ulcers caused by H. Pylori as well (7, 8).

With all of this being said, every body is different and therefore every person’s diet should be different as well. Depending on your particular situation, there may be some contraindications to these recommendations. Be sure to consult your registered dietitian and physician before making any significant additions or changes to your diet.

May Increase Satiety and Decrease Leptin Resistance

Spicy food has the ability to slightly increase satiety as well as decrease both appetite and leptin resistance (9).

Just to give you a little background, leptin is a hormone that lets us know when we’re feeling full. Therefore, leptin resistance occurs when this process doesn’t happen appropriately and we’re then left feeling hungry all the time.

May Prevent Certain Types Of Cancer-Causing Mechanisms

Last but certainly not least, spicy food has the ability to possibly prevent certain cancer-causing mechanisms.

Capsaicin has been shown to protect against some chemical carcinogens and mutagens (chemicals that have been linked to cancer) (11). Not only this, but mice trials have also shown capsaicin to specifically inhibit the growth of prostate cancer cells as well (12).

How Much Is Too Much?

Just as with most other things, too much of anything can be bad.

When it comes to spicy food, you want to be sure to listen to your individual body and do what’s best for you. While spicy food does have quite a few health benefits, we wouldn’t necessarily recommend subsequently adding it to every meal every day after reading this article.

Additionally, there are certain conditions and disease states that call for a reduction or possible elimination of spicy food intake. For example, spicy food may exacerbate symptoms of IBS, IBD, or gastroesophageal reflux in certain individuals. These are just three of the many examples that fall within this category.

As always, be sure to consult your registered dietitian if you’re wondering whether or not spicy food intake is a good choice for you.

NS Recommends

Whether you’re a spicy food lover or completely new to the food group, we have some great recipes for you to try out!

  1. Spicy Tahini Roasted Cauliflower
  2. Spicy Coconut Curry With Sweet Jasmine Rice
  3. Gluten-Free Jalapeño Cornbread

You can also add spice to your old favorites! Try simply topping your dishes with a couple of jalapeño peppers or red pepper flakes. Or maybe use a little wasabi with your next sushi dinner.

A little goes a long way! We recommend starting small and working your way up. Just remember, you can always add a little more heat but you can’t always take it out.

Connect With Us

I would love to hear about your experience with spicy food! What are your favorite ways to incorporate spice into your cooking? Do you enjoy spicy food or would you rather do without?

As always, you can also connect with us on Instagram via @nutritionstrippederica@nutritionstripped, #nutritionstripped.