Turn up the heat: The health benefits of chillies
THEY’RE HOT, SPICY AND GOOD FOR YOU. SARAH MARINOS LOOKS AT HOW CHILLIES CAN IMPROVE YOUR HEALTH
Researchers believe capsaicin may prevent obesity, and may also help to balance gut bacteria
It took just a single Carolina Reaper chilli to put a 34-year-old man in hospital. He was taking part in a chilli-eating contest when, as the event ended, he began experiencing recurrent ‘thunderclap’ headaches. Doctors initially thought he had a neurological condition, but a scan showed the pain was due to the chilli – one of the hottest in the world. It caused vessels supplying blood to his brain to constrict, and it took about five weeks for them to return to normal.
The Scoville scale rates the heat of a chilli and was developed in 1912 by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, who measured how many times different chillies had to be diluted in sugar water before they stopped burning. Before the arrival of the Carolina Reaper (which measures 1,569,300 Scoville Heat Units), Australia claimed to grow the world’s hottest specimen. The Chilli Factory in NSW produces the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T chilli (1,463,700 Scoville Heat Units); growers even wear protective clothing when handling it.
The magic ingredient
The root of a chilli’s hotness is in the tiny yellow or cream-coloured sacs inside it. They contain capsaicin, and the more capsaicin there is, the hotter the chilli. Capsaicin doesn’t really burn the mouth, but acts on a receptor found in the skin, called TRPV1, that sends a signal to the brain and fools it into believing our mouth is on fire.
If you’re a chilli lover, enduring the heat can be part of the fun. But if you take a bite and it’s too hot too handle, how do you soothe the burn? A glass of cold water won’t help because capsaicin doesn’t dissolve easily in water. Instead, experts suggest a glass of cold, full-fat milk or some plain full-fat yogurt, because fat removes capsaicin from the TRPV1 receptor and begins to shut down the signals sent to the brain.
Researchers from the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University believe people first began growing chilli peppers in the Western world about 15,000 years ago, initially for medicinal purposes. Chillies contain antioxidants, flavonoids, minerals and more, so they’re as nutritious as they are fiery.
A study at the University of Vermont found hot red chillies may reduce our risk of dying by as much as 13 per cent, mostly by cutting the risk of heart disease and stroke. Researchers believe capsaicin may prevent obesity, keep blood flowing freely to the heart, reduce the risk of high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and may also help to balance gut bacteria.
“Chilli pepper or spicy food consumption may become a dietary recommendation,” says researcher Mustafa Chopan.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Connecticut are investigating the potential for hot chillies to ease diseases such as colitis and type 1 diabetes. Laboratory experiments that fed capsaicin to mice found those eating the spice had less gut inflammation, and mice with type 1 diabetes were cured of the disease. This may be because when capsaicin binds to the TRPV1 receptor, it causes cells in the body to make a compound called anandamide, which has a calming effect on the gut and immune system.
And there’s more…
The weight-loss industry could soon be in on the act as well. University of Wyoming researchers believe capsaicin stimulates a process called thermogenesis, which helps burn body fat. “Therapeutic agents, such as dietary capsaicin, [offer] new business potential for developing pharmacotherapies and treatments to manage obesity,” says Davona Douglass, director of the Research Products Center at the University of Wyoming. “Dietary capsaicin may be used by individuals looking for a non-invasive therapeutic treatment for abnormal body-weight gain.”
So for the sake of your heart, gut, waistline and more, next time you decide to make a spicy dish, don’t spare the chillies!