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Spice It Up!

April 2007
Spice It Up!

Bite into it—immediately it sets your mouth on fire, opening sinuses and releasing fluid from nose, mouth, even pores! After a few bites, you wonder why you still continue eating!

Jalape�o, habanero, cayenne, or Thai peppers—cultures around the world have been spicing up their foods for thousands of years with the most common type of spice, the chili pepper. First consumed by the Aztec, Inca, and Mayan civilizations as early as 7000 B.C., chili peppers were introduced to Europe, Africa and Asia by explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries.

These peppers come in many varieties with unique flavors, colors, shapes, and heat factors. Generally, the hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains. About 80% of the capsaicin is in the veins and seeds, so seeds are usually removed. But if you get too much, don't reach for water—that just spreads it around your mouth! Since capsaicin is fat soluble, try milk or yogurt.

The burning feeling can be addictive. When nerve receptors in the mouth feel the pain brought about by eating chilies, they transmit a message to the brain, which releases endorphins, natural pain killers. Endorphins create a temporary feeling of euphoria (a natural high), which can become addictive, causing one to crave spicy foods and chilies. Do chilies and spicy foods have any health benefits? This has become a "hot" topic of study for the medical and pharmaceutical communities. According to the latest research published in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, capsaicin in chilies may kill cancer cells without hurting healthy cells. A study led by Dr. Timothy Bates from Nottingham University found that capsaicin can bind proteins in cancer cell mitochondria, their energy source, indicating that people might control or prevent the onset of cancer by eating a diet rich in capsaicin.

"This is incredibly exciting and may explain why people living in countries like Mexico and India, who traditionally eat a diet that is very spicy, tend to have lower incidences of many cancers that are prevalent in the Western world," Bates said.

Researchers tested the compound in a laboratory on human lung cancer cells, which Bates said produced "startling results." "As these compounds attack the very heart of the tumor cells, we believe that we have in effect discovered a fundamental ‘Achilles heel' for all cancers," Dr. Bates said.

It has also been documented that Chinese women who pickled peppers with their bare hands did not complain as much of Arthritic pain as their peers even though they visibly had so much Arthritis. The direct skin and joint absorption of capsaicin juice did for them what the pepper cream based Zostrix topical arthritis cream does.

The benefits of capsaicin do not stop there. It increases secretion of saliva and gastric juices, thus promoting intestinal activity and helping constipation. It has been proven to combat several common health issues such as cluster headaches, sinus symptoms, congestion, inflammation, cholesterol absorption, and poor blood circulation. Though the old view was that chilies irritate the lining of the stomach and cause ulcers, latest research indicates the opposite: their antibacterial properties may help people with stomach ulcers.

Benefits of the pepper go beyond oral consumption. Topical capsaicin has been proven to reduce arthritic pain, muscle strain, psoriasis, herpes (shingles), and neuralgia.

Finally, capsaicin is also a thermogenic agent, which is why I love to bite into that fiery pepper: the body's metabolic rate increases, burning extra calories for several hours after it has been consumed.

Instead of buying traditional Indian chili pickle which is usually high in fat, why not make your own? Slice up a variety of peppers—banana, chili, Thai, habanero, jalape�o, red chili, and green chilies, mix equal parts of apple cider vinegar and white vinegar in a jar, add the peppers, and now you have a heart healthy version of pickled peppers that can be refrigerated and enjoyed for several weeks!

A couple of hot chilies accompanying your meals will provide many health benefits, but remember, as with everything else, moderation is the key. So go ahead, use your imagination—pickle it, cook it, or just eat it raw—but remember to always pick a chili pepper!

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