You’ve spiced up your life, you’ve spiced up your house, and you’ve spiced up your smoothies. But I’m not here to talk about spices – I’m here to talk about spicy. Sriracha or Tabasco, Cayenne or Habanero, how do you heat up your dish?
And what do you get from it? A new study in the British Medical Journal says that adding a bit of spice and heat to your food may actually make you live longer than those who live a more bland-tasting life.
The Spice is Right?
Half a million people in China made up the study wherein researchers found those who eat spicy foods twice a week or more reduce their risk of death by 10 percent. Eating spicy foods 6 times or more per week reduces the risk by 14 percent.
But that’s just one side of the pepper. Spicy foods have some benefits, yes, but they could be damaging for other with digestive disorders, and other internal issues. Let’s talk about healthy heat and how you can realize all of its benefits without succumbing to its setbacks.
Spicy Foods: The Good and Bad
New York City gastroenterologist Dr. Prem Chattoo says one of the biggest benefits of eating spicy food (especially jalapenos, habaneros and cayenne) comes from capsaicin.
This “natural chemical speeds up the metabolism by increasing heart rate and body temperature,” according to Dr. Chattoo. Nutritional health counselor Cindy Kasindorf, co-founder of Joni Juice, points out, “the best time to eat spicy food is with a heavier meal during lunch or dinner. It will stimulate the digestive tract.”
Fountain of Youth
The study found eating spicy food could help you live longer. But what about looking younger?
Dr. Chattoo says spicy food can “slow down the aging process by increasing blood flow to the face and body. This makes skin look and feel more youthful.” Kasindorf adds, “I believe any foods that help with the inside of your body will make you look better on the outside.”
Kasindorf started Joni Juice as a way to help her clients and colicky kids manage certain health issues. She makes it a point of adding some spicy elements to several of the company’s juices. One reason? “Spicy foods are an excellent way to relieve sinus congestion and open up the breathing airway.”
According to Dr. Chattoo, spicy food “not only helps people with sinus conditions potentially decrease their symptoms, but it also helps increase blood flow and overall circulation which improves healing properties.”
Vegan food expert Pamela Elizabeth, the restaurateur behind Blossom and Blossom Du Jour restaurants, crafts much of her menus based on health properties.
Vegan food in particular is known for its spices and Elizabeth says there’s a good reason for that.
“For centuries, chili peppers have been noted as being medicinal. Since they are chock full of vitamins like A and C, they can help boost the immune system and even fight the common cold.”
Dr. Chattoo says “spicy food acts as an antioxidant and blood thinner, which aids in heart disease by improving cardiac blood vessel strength.” Talk about heart healthy!
Physical therapist Karena Wu from ActiveCare Physical Therapy says her favorite side effect from spicy food is its anti-inflammatory properties. Wu not only treats patients for arthritis, but is a rheumatoid arthritis sufferer as well.
She is glad spicy food can “help with pain and healing by increasing blood flow to an affected area.”Mark Bailey, who is a private chef in New York City knows this first hand.
“My grandmother loved making Escovitch fish because the scotch bonnet peppers she believed helped relieve the pain of her arthritis. Capsaicin is the active ingredient in scotch bonnet peppers and it’s known to fight inflammation. So I definitely keep this in mind when cooking for my own parents now.”
This can be also be good for people with auto immune diseases, Parkinson’s and even asthma sufferers. Dr. Chattoo suggests “finding spicy foods with the highest concentration of capsaicin is key. For example, raw chopped peppers would be very high in capsaicin and potentially the most beneficial.”
Who knew spicy food can actually kill stomach bacteria? Dr. Chattoo says this is a big benefit as the peppers help prevent further infections throughout the body.
Elizabeth says one of the most interesting things about spicy food is that “it can heat up your body when it’s cold out and, surprisingly, can cool your body off when you are hot. Eating spicy food makes you sweat and sweating actually helps your body temperature regulate itself. So while it may seem strange, definitely put more heat on your food when the heat is on.”
Dr. Chattoo says while capsaicin has benefits, it also has some downsides. “Capsaicin can be a very potent irritant. It can cause damage to the lining in the stomach, which in turn can cause gastritis, stomach ulcers and even intestinal disease such as colitis.” Ouch!
A Bad Burn
You may like the burning sensation spicy food has on your tongue, but the flipside to that is “spicy food can also cause heartburn and/or reflux disease. The reason being: its acidic and irritant properties can cause a rather unwanted effect once it hits your insides.”
If you experience any of these conditions after eating spicy food, Dr. Chattoo says you should consider “adding a side of cream or yogurt to your dish. This may help protect the digestive system by neutralizing the burning potential and temper the irritant properties that can cause harm.”
Kasindorf also says that when paired with a cooked or raw vegetable, you’ll lessen the burn.
Dr. Sean Lager from Gotham City Orthopedics takes a different approach saying, “If spicy food causes indigestion or GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux) then it is best to avoid such foods. If one insists on eating foods with lots of heat then they need to take a Zantac or Prilosec before hand.”
While you may think spicy food is enhancing the taste of your food, Dr. Chattoo has to be a bit of a Debbie Downer here because he says the fact is “spicy foods can also cause damage to the taste buds hampering your sense of taste.”
This might be the reason why over time you feel like you can turn up the heat even more on your favorite foods — or explain why you can eat the Buffalo wings with the “too hot to handle” sauce.
You probably won’t want to tell your friends if you suffer from this spicy side effect, especially not while eating!
Dr. Chattoo says spicy food can “worsen hemorrhoids by causing further damage and irritation.” He says it can also make IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) worse, and even potentially cause diarrhea. Not fun.
If you’ve ever chopped peppers at home you may know about this unwanted side effect. You are chopping and seeding when all of the sudden you rub your eye.
Kasindorf points out that “you should be careful not to touch your eyes if handling anything spicy and you may not realize it, but even after hand washing it may still be on your skin. To be safe you may want to wear gloves and take them off and discard them immediately after preparing the pepper.”