The Health Benefits of Spicy Food

Not a fan of the hot stuff? It might be worth getting used to. A ton of new research says it’s good for your stomach and may even ward off disease.

woman cooking spicy food - health benefits of spicy food photo credit: shutterstock

It is a long-standing myth that spicy food exacerbates ulcers and other stomach ailments. But research shows hot chili peppers actually protect the stomach lining and may prevent the gastric damage associated with anti-inflammatory painkillers. They are high in nutrients such as calcium plus vitamins A and C, and there’s some evidence that hot chilies can reduce cardiovascular disease risk, help prevent diabetes and boost metabolism. They may also have some ability to prevent cancer.

Just don’t go overboard: A Mexican study found people who ate the equivalent of nine to 25 jalapeños per day had a slightly raised risk of stomach cancer. (It shouldn’t be too tough for even hot-pepper lovers to stay under that limit!)

Toronto gastroenterologist Dr. Khursheed Jeejeebhoy sees plenty of patients in his office who avoid hot chilies unnecessarily. “Whenever people have stomach problems, they’ll say, ‘I’ll completely avoid spicy foods in order to heal my stomach.’ There is no evidence they have to do that. Spices in moderation are to be enjoyed, and there is no evidence that spicy food is bad for you,” says Jeejeebhoy, who is an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.

Should you turn up the heat?

In fact, there is a lot of evidence that it’s very good for you. Recent research tells us that hot chili peppers are an up-and-coming health power. A laboratory study in the United Kingdom, for instance, found that capsaicin, which is responsible for the burning sensation chilies provide, can kill lung and pancreatic cancer cells without harming the surrounding cells. Researchers believe this may explain why people living in Mexico and India, who eat a spicy diet, tend to have lower rates of some cancers than those eating a bland Western diet.

Two Australian studies provide more good news: One discovered that adding chilies to meals may protect against the buildup of cholesterol in the blood. Another found that regularly eating hot chilies reduces insulin requirements, which may have implications in the prevention and treatment of diabetes.

So what about their effects on the stomach? Hot chilies actually decrease the output of gastric acid, says a Hungarian study. They can also reduce the stomach bleeding associated with taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents such as Aspirin. A further bonus: A study in Singapore found that eating chilies daily reduced the risk of peptic ulcers by 53 percent.

Hot, hot, hot

And that burning sensation you get from hot food? It’s the capsaicin stimulating your nerve endings. “It’s a bad feeling,’ says Jeejeebhoy, ‘but there’s no evidence that it produces a cut or causes an ulceration or injury of any sort in the gastrointestinal tract.” The best remedy to the burning sensation is to build up a tolerance, he says.

Another huge fan of hot food is Dr. Susan Biali, a Vancouver general practitioner with a degree in dietetics. “Chilies add wonderful flavour and kick to foods, and have very few calories,” says Biali, who until recently split her time between Vancouver and Los Cabos, Mexico. She has been gradually adding more heat to her diet for years, and jokes that she can even out-chili her Mexican husband, who grew up on spicy food. “Chili is a guilt-free way to make food more flavourful, interesting and exciting.”

Biali calls chilies a “no-lose food” because they boost metabolism, help burn fat and keep us feeling full longer.