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Food as Medicine: Five Ways Chili Peppers Can Help You Fight Disease & Illness

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May 14, 2019
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Bastyr University adheres to a whole-food philosophy that guides all of its nutrition programs, emphasizing the consumption of a variety of foods in their least-processed forms. When assessing health and wellness, the university integrates mind, body, and spirit by drawing connections between whole food, exercise science and health psychology. This month, Fernanda Larson, MS, CN from Bastyr's Department of Nutrition talks about the ways that adding some spice to your life can help promote your health.

Chili peppers are one of the most intriguing members of the nightshade family of vegetables. Capsicum have hundreds of different species and cultivars varying in size and heat intensity, from the mild serrano peppers to mouth numbing ghost and szechuan peppers, and almost every culinary culture uses them for flavor enhancement of some kind.

Good news for spice-lovers, chilis offer much more than a lovely tingle. Capsaicin, the powerful compound that gives chilis their characteristic heat, also offers some serious health benefits.

Fighting Chronic Disease

Studies have shown that capsaicin exhibits powerful antioxidant properties. Chilis are also rich in vitamins A and C, and the combination of these three compounds make chili peppers potential disease-fighting powerhouses. Studies conducted with different chili peppers show that they act as protective antioxidants in fats and oils, both in foods and in our bodies, which may prove to be an effective agent against chronic disease.

Fighting the Common Cold

In combination with vitamins A and C – which are abundantly present in chili peppers – it appears that capsaicin also plays a role in helping the immune system fight cold and flu viruses, either by its direct antiviral properties or by its thermogenic effect of slightly raising body temperature to trigger an immune response, offering a scientific explanation for the old flu remedy of orange juice with a pinch of cayenne.

Fighting Pain & Reducing Inflammation

Capsaicin inhibits some inflammatory processes in the body, which is why it is widely used in natural pain relievers and topical applications. Using chili pepper sauces as condiments and cooking with fresh chilis may help prevent inflammation in the body long-term and reduce pain stimulus.

Fighting Heart Disease

Cultures that traditionally consume chili peppers as part of their daily diet are less prone to heart attacks and strokes. Studies show that a diet supplemented with cayenne pepper can lead to lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as a lower risk for blood clotting – all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. The protective effects of chili peppers may also be attributed to capsaicin’s action on fibrin, a main component of blood clots.

Fighting Diabetes

Daily chili pepper consumption may help regulate insulin response after meals, which may prevent blood sugar disorders like Type 2 diabetes.

A study that compared bland diets with chili pepper-enriched diets demonstrated that the chili pepper diet led to lower insulin secretion and more effective blood sugar regulation, great news for those seeking to prevent Type 2 diabetes.

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Fermented Hot Chili-Garlic Sauce

This spicy, tangy condiment is full of antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, and beneficial bacteria. The wild fermentation process allows for lactic acid producing bacteria to protect the sauce while providing great food for your microbiome as well. Use it in soups, stews, tacos, omelets – or wherever an extra kick is needed. Recipe courtesy of Fernanda Larson, MS, CN, 2019.