Hot Is Cool
THE HOTTER THE CHILI, the more therapeutic it is. But you don't need a high pain threshold to benefit. All chilies, even the milder ones, have healing properties. Besides being packed with vitamin C--and, in the case of red chilies, beta carotene--they contain capsaicinoids, compounds that cause "heat" by stimulating pain receptors in the mouth and nose. Researchers have found that capsaicin, the hottest of the capsaicinoids, is a powerful antioxidant that inhibits several types of cancer. Recently, investigators at The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that capsaicin made pancreatic cancer cells self-destruct without harming healthy cells. "Capsaicin may help prevent cancer and someday be used to treat cancer," says study leader Sanjay K. Srivastava, Ph.D., an assistant professor of pharmacology.
Chilies are also heart-friendly. Capsaicin lowers cholesterol and triglyceride levels and reduces the stickiness of blood platelets, "which may help prevent atherosclerosis," explains Eric Yarnell, N.D., assistant professor of botanical medicine at Bastyr University near Seattle.
Then there's capsaicin's research-backed reputation for pain relief, especially in treating arthritis, shingles, and migraines. "Capsaicin turns on the nerve so strongly that it actually runs out of transmitters," says Yarnell. "It's like turning the radio up so loud, you can't hear it."
TRADITIONALLY, chilies have served as a sort of internal housekeeper. "Chilies are anti-microbial, so they keep intestinal 'baddies' like certain bacteria in check," explains Paul Bosland, Ph.D., a Regents professor of horticulture and director of The Chili Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. You can, however, get too much of a good thing: While eating moderate amounts of chilies may protect against stomach cancer, eating too many of them--the equivalent of 10 jalapenos or more a day--can increase your risk, notes Yarnell.
For all the good chilies do, one may question the effect their fiery natures has on the digestive system. Surprisingly, capsaicin helps protect against ulcers and other digestive diseases by sending more blood to the lining of the stomach.
WHILE PROTECTING your inner self, chilies may help trim your outer self. Not only do these hot properties temporarily spike your metabolism, but they may also take some air out of your appetite.
That was the theory Heidi Allison was going on when she began to add chilies to her meals and snacks. After dropping 60 pounds over the course of a year--and keeping the pounds off--Allison conducted a study with the aid of a registered dietitian and a UCLA internist. Fourteen subjects ate a low-fat diet with and without chilies; in chili phases, they lost an average of 9.4 pounds (in 56 days), compared to .9 pound during the chili-less intervals. The participants also reduced their levels of LDL, the "bad" cholesterol, while maintaining or slightly raising their levels of HDL, the "good" cholesterol.