Spicy Food Is Healthy: Hot Chili Pepper Health Benefits

Love a good, fiery chili pepper? Nutritionists explain all the reasons they love you back.

Kristy Del Coro is a registered dietitian nutritionist, RDN, and professionally trained chef with more than 10 years of experience in the field of culinary nutrition. Her strong background in nutrition science, sustainable food systems, and culinary education makes her exceptionally qualified to write about food that is good for us and the planet—while not sacrificing flavor. Food Herbs

Spicy Food Is Healthy: Hot Chili Pepper Health Benefits

For some people, spicy food is a way of life, with every culinary experience aimed at finding the most delicious, fiery foods. Most cultural cuisines offer at least one dish or condiment that will make a bead of sweat drop from your forehead with every bite, many of them thanks to the use of spicy chili peppers—whether it’s North African harissa, Mexican salsa, or Korean gochujang. 

We know that it's delicious, but is spicy food good for you? Without giving too much away, if you didn’t love spicy food before, this might inspire you to give it another try (with a large glass of milk on the side to cool down!). Here’s exactly what makes spicy food—especially chili peppers—so good for your immune system, metabolism, and more.

The world of hot peppers is wide, with some dedicating their lives to learning about the estimated 50,000 varieties of peppers in existence across the globe. The history of hot peppers dates back at least 9,000 years ago, to the region of Bolivia, and use quickly spread throughout Central and South America, thanks to the birds who ate their spicy seeds (poor things). Soon, chili peppers took hold within these cultures as a central component to the dishes they’re known for today.

Without any knowledge of what a hot pepper is, you may walk into the grocery store thinking you’re picking up a long, mini green bell pepper—and end up crying into your pasta full of jalapenos later that evening. 

This antioxidant compound attaches to receptors that send signals of spice and heat to the brain. Capsaicin is most concentrated in the pith or ribs of the chili pepper, which is why many people remove the pith along with the seeds when looking to moderate the heat in their recipes. 

Whether it be a jalapeño, habañero, serrano, or Thai chile, the spiciness of a hot pepper is based on a measurement system called the Scoville scale. A bell pepper measures in at zero on this scale, whereas a Carolina Reaper comes in at a whopping 2.3 million Scoville Heat Units (SHUs). Now that is some serious spice.

Did you know one of the active ingredients in the Icy Hot is capsaicin? That's right, this compound works topically to relieve pain from arthritis, diabetic neuropathy, psoriasis, or other nerve pain. It also works for pain not related to these conditions, like muscle soreness. 

The caveat: Don’t rub a cut, raw chili pepper onto your skin! That will probably just cause you more pain (anyone who’s chopped a jalapeño then rubbed their eyes knows this all too well). Instead, choose a product containing capsaicin as an ingredient for soothing pain relief.

While there are so many kinds of hot peppers available, most varieties offer similar health benefits, due in large part to the capsaicin and other nutrients they all typically contain. Here are some of the most impressive health benefits of spicy foods, starring fiery-hot chili peppers. 

Since we already have capsaicin on the brain, let’s start with highlighting all the other incredible plant compounds found in hot peppers. Some of the most beneficial include carotenoids, like lutein, capsanthin, and zeaxanthin, and a variety of flavonoids, like quercetin and luteolin. These compounds are antioxidants, meaning they’re effective at preventing and reducing inflammation throughout the body, as well as harmful bacteria and disease-causing free radical molecules.

Chili peppers are known for being excellent sources of both vitamin A and vitamin C. Vitamin A is also an immune-boosting antioxidant and well-known for helping to protect and maintain eye health. Vitamin C offers the same antioxidant and immune-boosting benefits while also helping the absorb iron and promote glowing skin.

“Capsaicin positively influences the gut microbiome, which impacts nearly every system of the body,” says Brianna Wieser, RDN at MOBE. “Plus, this compound has been known to be supportive of optimal digestion.” Research shows that capsaicin can also inhibit acid production while increasing alkaline and mucus secretions, helping to prevent and treat stomach ulcers. Further, a 2022 review found that capsaicin works through multiple pathways to treat and prevent many kinds of gastrointestinal disorders.

Spicy foods often have a reputation for making our noses drip, and that can actually work in our favor. One review found that intranasal capsaicin treatment helped clear up idiopathic (or cause-unknown), non-allergic rhinitis, which is classically characterized by sneezing, congestion, and post-nasal drip. And a second review reiterated these findings. So chilis really can clear up your sinuses!

Hot peppers work on supporting a healthy metabolism in a few different ways. First, the heat-producing effect of this spicy ingredient helps to boost metabolism. Further, studies show that the activation of TRPV1 by capsaicin stimulates brown fat cells, increasing our metabolic rate. Research also shows that pathways mediated by capsaicin in the body can help improve insulin sensitivity, an important aspect in metabolic syndrome and similar disorders, including diabetes.

Research shows time and time again that cancer cells don’t stand a chance against capsaicin. One review published in Anticancer Research found that this compound targets multiple cancer pathways, from preventing cancer cell growth and survival to springing tumor-suppressing genes into action. Capsaicin also activates what’s known as the transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 (TRPV1) channel, or capsaicin receptor. A review published in Frontiers in Oncology found that the activation of TRPV1 beneficially impacted the inflammatory and immune responses involved in cancer treatment. A further study found capsaicin to even inhibit growth of certain prostate cancer cells.

With the consumption of capsaicin-rich foods comes heart healthy benefits, too. A Nutrients review found that when we eat capsaicin, and activate the TRPV1 channel, a mechanism protecting the function of our organs involving cardiovascular disease is activated. Another review, completed in 2021, found that chili pepper consumption was associated with lower risk of death from heart disease (and cancer). TRPV1 also helps to regulate blood pressure, a key factor in heart disease.

Capsaicin also helps to address health concerns surrounding our brains. One Molecules review found capsaicin to be effective in slowing impairment and neurodegeneration in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease while also proving to be beneficial in treating dysphagia (or trouble swallowing) following a stroke. This magical compound, in spray form, has also been found to alleviate headache and migraine symptoms, interestingly enough.

As if all the health benefits above weren’t good enough, hot peppers trump themselves by addressing the ultimate health aspiration: living longer (and feeling good while doing it). Researchers have found that eating spicy foods containing hot peppers lowers our risk of all-cause mortality. One meta-analysis found a 25 percent reduction in death from any cause with the regular consumption of chili peppers. Another found the same results.

If you weren’t a spicy food lover before, you may well be ready to give hot-pepper-filled foods another try. Before jumping in head first, there are a few things to consider.

“It's important to know that some individuals may not tolerate spicy foods, or experience digestive discomfort, when they consume them,” Wieser explains. If you struggle with indigestion or heartburn, eating very spicy foods near bedtime (a.k.a at dinner) can make it worse and disrupt your sleep. So keep the fiery foods to lunchtime, if you love them.

Beyond digestive concerns, it’s also vital to be super mindful when chopping and handling hot peppers, especially the further up the Scoville scale you venture. These ultra-spicy pepper varieties can literally burn your skin and eyes if you’re not careful! 

How to Eat More Hot Chili Peppers

There are so many delicious ways to enjoy hot peppers. One super easy way is to invest in a hot sauce you love and, thankfully, there are so many brands to choose from. Cholula, Tabasco, Disco Sauce, Frank’s Red Hot, Tapatío—the list goes on and on. Check the sodium content of the hot sauce you’re after, since it can be high if you’re not careful. Otherwise, you can add red pepper flakes (dried, crushed chili peppers), or chili peppers themselves directly to tons of delicious dishes including stir fries, soups, stews, sauces, dips, pastas, and egg dishes.

Here are some favorite recipes with a spicy kick.

A zesty seafood pasta dish with a kick, thanks to gochujang (a Korean fermented red chili paste), paprika (made from smoked, dried chilis), and crushed red chili pepper flakes.

Five different peppers—sweet, jalapeño, poblano, and red Anaheim chili (red jalapeño)—pack a hot punch in this ooey-gooey, game-day-worthy dip.

A bowl of this hearty and spicy Mexican stew is exactly the pick-me-up you need mid-week.

Mexican street corn, meet jalapeño poppers—the ultimate spicy app for a hungry crowd.

Healthy doses of chili powder and crushed red pepper take boring old ground beef to the next level.

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Spicy Food Is Healthy: Hot Chili Pepper Health Benefits

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