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Hot Chili Peppers: How to Add this Healthy Burn to Your Meals

If you're looking for a new way to spice up your meals, you may want to consider adding chili peppers to your dish.

You may think that chili peppers are only prevalent in Mexican, Indian or southern foods, but many other cultural dishes are starting to add them in.

Adding chili peppers to your food takes your taste buds to a satisfying level of heat while also giving you numerous health benefits. According to an article on Life Extension's website, chili peppers are high in vitamin C and fiber, aid in weight loss, alleviate pain, and contain high levels of beta-carotene.

How can you incorporate chili peppers into your diet?

Dr. Mike Smith shares the healthy burn of chili peppers and why you should consider adding them into your diet.

RadioMD Presents:Healthy Talk | Original Air Date: March 24, 2015
Host: Michael Smith, MD

Living longer and staying healthier. It's Healthy Talk with Dr. Michael Smith, MD. Here's your host, Dr. Mike.

MIKE: So, it is a good thing. It's good for your body to feel the burn of chili peppers. Coming from Texas, I love this story.

We put salsa on everything. We just do and I'm pretty good with the heat. I do enjoy the flavor of a lot of peppers and salsas. As a matter of fact, there was a salsa bar in Dallas, Texas. You know how they have tequila bars and such? Well, this was a salsa bar and in one little area, they had maybe 10 different salsas lined up and on the left side it was "mild" and you moved towards the right and it got hotter and hotter. The last couple of salsas are just beyond belief. In fact, one of them, you did have to sign a waiver for. I made it through like half of that. I had a couple of friends that made it close to the end and they were hiccupping and all that kind of stuff. Maybe that's the extreme side of chili peppers, but they are good for you. There's a lot of good evidence that capzasin—that's the key compound in chili peppers—has health benefits to the heart, the brain, immune system, even weight loss. So, we're going to talk a little bit about that today.

By the way, I watched a video, this was a young man, 12 years old, His name was Nick. This was on YouTube. He ate the hottest pepper. This is according to the Guinness Book of World Records, by the way, and this pepper is called the Carolina Reaper. I didn't know that. I thought it was the ghost pepper. Turns out that's not true. The hottest one, it was, I guess, genetically engineered by some guy in the Carolinas and he called it the Carolina Reaper. It has the Scoville measure—that's the measurement. Scoville units measure how hot a pepper is. The more units, the hotter—of 2.2 million.

Now, there are some salsas that they'll make with different peppers and the salsa itself can be hotter, but just as a stand-alone pepper, by itself, taking a bite: 2.2 million Scoville units is the hottest. This kid ate it. He was with his dad in the video. His dad ate it. His dad was dying. I actually thought they were going to have to call the paramedics for his dad. But the kid, Nick, he seemed to be okay. I mean, he had some ice cream and some milk. Milk does help. The reason milk helps, by the way, is that the milk sugar, the lactose, binds to the receptors that capzasin binds to on your tongue. So, milk (dairy) is the best way to decrease the burn, if you will. Very interesting and funny video. So, that's the Carolina Reaper.

But, chili peppers, they're high in beta carotene and vitamin C. That was news to me. I didn't realize peppers were high in vitamin C. Gosh, fiber, and, of course, the capzasin. So, chili peppers can be used definitely in cooking and even in supplement form to improve health.

So, let's look at some of the research about chili peppers. This first one I found really interesting. Capzasin does have anti-cancer properties. As a matter of fact, the first study I want to share with you was a cultured human pancreatic study—pancreatic cancer study. This is important because pancreatic cancer is the number 4 killer in the United States of cancers. It's one of the most malignant, but it's not that the pancreatic cancer in and of itself is any more malignant than, say, lung or breast or prostate or something like that. It's the fact that it's always caught late. What we would call "late stage" where it's already spread and it makes treatment very difficult.

In this study, it was interesting. They did both a petri dish study and a mouse study, all at the same time here using capzasin. They were looking at and they were asking the question, "Could capzasin from chili peppers induce something called "apoptosis" which is cancer cell death, a programmed cell death. All cells in your body have the ability, and it's an important ability, to eventually kill itself. I mean, you don't want old cells to continue to divide and that's when more mutations happen.

I mean, there's a time when cells need to die off and they need to be replaced by newer ones. That's called "apoptosis". Well, cancer cells kind of have a way of inhibiting apoptosis. So, there is a lot of good research looking into ways to reactivate this programmed cell death so we can treat cancer. So, that's what they were looking at here with the capzasin. So, what they did was they took—let's go through the petri dish one first. So, they took a bunch of pancreatic cancer cells and they had these petri dishes and they treated those petri dishes with capzasin. What they found was that there was a dosed-appended inhibition of cell viability, which is important.

So, that means the cancer cells were kind of starting to break down when they were treated with capzasin and, also, there was that induction of apoptosis. They were able to discover the way capzasin was working. Capzasin was activating in these cancer cells what is known as ROS—a reactive oxygen species pathway. That's an oxidative stress pathway. So, capzasin activated this oxidative stress pathway which then caused a decrease in pancreatic cell viability and, eventually, the activation of programmed cell death—apoptosis. Now, when you hear that, you might think to yourself, "Okay, but what would capzasin then do to healthy cells?" Right? So, here you have capzasin causing oxidative stress pathways to activate and in cancer cells that's great.

But, you might think, "Well, is that same thing going to happen to my healthy cells?" And the answer to that was, at least in this study, "no" because they also looked at healthy cells and capzasin added to petri dishes of healthy pancreatic cells did not increase oxidative stress and did not induce an early programmed cell death. So, that's good news. And that's because the cell physiology in a cancer cell is different from a healthy cell.

So, here you have capzasin having a positive effect on pancreatic cancer cells meaning their viability was down; they're killing themselves--apoptosis; but that capzasin had none of those effects in the healthy cell line. So, that's positive. Then, here we had, also, that capzasin was given to mice and, basically, they found the same thing. The authors concluded that tumors from capzasin-treated mice demonstrated increased apoptosis as well.

So, they were able to take that petri dish study, at least into an animal model and it showed a positive result. This was all published a few years ago in the journal called Apoptosis, December 2008. So, that's one property of capzasin. Other properties: weight loss. An article published in The Cochrane Daatabase, 2013, showed that there was an 8% decrease in body weight among rats on a high fat diet given capzasin.

In the study, the capzasin increased the breakdown of fat and increased metabolism and they actually measured resting metabolic rate in these mice and there was an increase of about 4%. So, capzasin does increase what we call "resting metabolic rate". Which, as we get older, by the way, one of the pillars of weight gain is a drop in resting metabolism, meaning you're not burning as many calories at rest compared to when you were younger. So capzasin, at least in this mouse model, showed some benefit there. Capzasin now, I think these kinds of products have been around for a while. Capzasin in topical solutions, topical creams for pain, specifically arthritis pain.

You know, you can take a capzasin-based arthritic cream and rub it right over where it hurts on the knee, the elbow. It seems to work in the bigger joints better and there's been some significant relief of pain for people there. As a matter of fact, a study published in 2013—again, this comes from The Cochrane database—showed that capzasin improved sleep, fatigue, depression and quality of life in people with pain from a herpes neuralgia which is very common. So, capzasin has some properties for cancer cells, weight loss, pain.

Yes. Feel the burn. Don't eat the Carolina Reaper. I wouldn't do that, but, hey, a little chili pepper can go a long way.

This is Healthy Talk on RadioMD. I'm Dr. Mike. Stay well.