The heat in any hot pepper comes from capsaicin, a natural substance which on its own is both odorless and flavorless. Capsaicin is a super-health-nutrient and medicine is more and more using capsaicin in its products.
In case you do not live in the Southwest, there are about a million kinds of peppers, many of which pack heat. One of the best known is the jalapeno, originating in Mexico, and widely available in the U.S. today. They are most familiar to us as green in color, about 3 inches long, but if left on the vine, they will turn red. Put a jalapeno into a smoker and you get chipotle. However, there are other types of hot peppers as well: poblanos and Anaheim peppers, on the mild side, and Scotch bonnets or habaneros on the hotter end of the spectrum. The heat in any hot pepper comes from capsaicin, a natural substance which on its own is both odorless and flavorless.
Capsaicin is a super-health-nutrient and medicine is more and more using capsaicin in its products. While adding hot peppers to your diet offers health benefits, you may not be able to eat enough of them to get some of these positive effects. That’s why medical products are adding capsaicin to their ingredients. The heat in hot peppers is rated on the Scoville Scale from 0 to over 1 million, based on their capsaicin content. And just so you don’t think you’ve mastered the hot pepper because you can eat a jalapeno—which ranks at around 2,500 on the Scoville Scale—tabasco peppers are 30,000, Scotch bonnets (habeneros) come in at 150,000, and the aptly named Trinidad scorpion tops the list at 1,000,000. As a frame of reference, the pepper spray that the police use is about 5 million on the Scoville Scale. At the tame end of the spectrum, the bell pepper is zero.
It is a known vasodilator which means that it allows the blood vessels to expand and thus improves circulation to the organs of the body. Capsaicin also reduces inflammation. Persistent inflammation in the body can cause pain and promote cardiovascular disease.
Hot peppers contain antioxidants, those age-fighting and cancer-busting agents that promote good health. The hotter the pepper, the more antioxidants you’re getting.
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Capsaicin may be a cancer fighter. It is theorized that capsaicin works at the cellular level to inhibit tumor growth. When a cell in the body becomes damaged (say with cancer), the healthy body orders it to commit “cell suicide” by undergoing programmed cell death or apoptosis. Programmed cell death protects the body by forcing abnormal, diseased cells out of existence. Tumors grow when cells somehow get around this programmed cell death—and capsaicin appears to force these cells to undergo apoptosis.
If you’re dieting, your metabolism slows down by about 10% or 15% and moderate exercise will not get it back to normal. This can make it harder to lose weight. However, capsaicin rev up that dieter’s metabolism a bit, which, in turn, will help you shed pounds. It’s not a weight loss magic potion—you still have to diet and exercise. But it will make weight loss somewhat easier.
Capsaicin elevates body temperature, which may be why eating too many hot peppers can cause you to sweat. That warmth can help burn calories, too.
While your first bite of a hot pepper may cause pain (they actually can trigger pain receptors on the tongue to signal danger to your brain), over time, a person can get desensitized to the heat and find the peppers enjoyable. They may even be addictive, in that hot peppers release endorphins and can cause a mild pleasant sensation.
Can Ease Pain
Capsaicin applied in a cream to the body reduces nerve pain. It is believed that topical capsaicin prevents painful stimuli from reaching the brain. Capsaicin is available in many over-the-counter topical pain relievers.
Capsaicin works on something in the body called Substance P which causes swelling in the head, sinuses, and blood vessels that are associated with migraine and cluster headaches. In addition, capsaicin is a bacteria fighter which further can help sinus headaches.
Capsaicin creams are also used to reduce the itchiness and inflammation of psoriasis.
Treating Allergic Rhinitis
Capsaicin is currently being studied for its beneficial effects in treating allergic rhinitis, which is the runny nose, watery eyes, and congestion associated with certain allergies.
Why People Love Hot Peppers
Not everyone can tolerate hot peppers. Jalapenos are an acquired taste and people with heartburn or other digestive problems may find they aggravate their condition, although there is also some indication that capsaicin may help relieve other types of gastrointestinal problems. The heat in a jalapeno or other pepper is mostly contained in the soft white membrane inside the pepper. If you cook with hot peppers, do not touch this membrane with your bare hands (it’s best to wear disposable gloves when working with hot peppers) because touching the eyes or nose afterward will produce memorably unpleasant effects.
Why do some people seem to love hot peppers? They are known to produce a rush of pleasurable endorphins, so there is a “fun factor” to eating them, at least to those who consume them regularly. Furthermore, you can get used to eating hot peppers to the point that you enjoy their flavor and are not shocked by their heat. In many parts of the world, hot peppers are a normal part of everyday meal time and people like their dishes spicy hot. If you’re a hot pepper beginner, they may be worth a second look. Start small—get some pickled jalapenos from the grocery store and try to munch with other food. Note that if you get that painful burn in your mouth from the hot pepper …
· Water does not help.
· It will go away on its own. It takes minutes.
· You will eventually get used to eating hot peppers if you keep doing it.
By Jo Ann LeQuang
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