Hot Peppers: Part of a Spicy Life
I was asked to write about the health benefits of chilli peppers. To do that earnestly and comprehensively, I must first ensure that we all agree what food is. If only I was joking, I would never have needed to work in healthcare. Today’s Western human does not tend to eat food. He eats instead food-like products which are constructed with unpronounceable toxic chemicals and which wait on soulless supermarket shelves to wage a microscopic war on our bodies.
And I, alas, must also check before we start that you know what medicine is. If you believe that medicine only comes as pills or labelled liquids and is something that must be purchased from the pharmacist, you are making one of the great mistakes of the modern age. I use the term ’modern’ here loosely – Hippocrates was recorded in 431 BC as saying “Let food be thy medicine”.
Uncountable respected scholars, academics, thinkers, philosophers, healthcare professionals have extolled the link between eating real food and having a longer, healthier life. This phenomenon is obvious. What has become less obvious as we have drifted from our own nature and innate wisdom, is which food has which effect. Naturopathic nutritionists know, people in remote villages in Laos (in which I recently spent some time listening) know. But us Westerners, with our First-World distractions, have thoroughly forgotten. So here I will expand, dear jury.
I would like to call to the stand an observant witness by the name of Thomas Edison.
What say you on food and medicine, Mister Edison?
The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.
So, let us acknowledge that food means an edible, nutritious thing, eaten as it occurs in nature, and as such, is laden with the bioactive vitality it was made with. Manna from Heaven. And that it is THIS which will work so perfectly, beautifully, understandingly, therapeutically with the human body. That this is medicine. After all, tell me a medicine which is not merely a patented, artificialized product derived from a food, plant or other natural organism.
Now to the specifics of chilli peppers. Let’s cut straight to the biggest hitter: cancer. The trendiest of all our industrialised ills (there was no cancer before industrialisation). Being a nurse and a health promotion lecturer, I value credible research. I don’t look so clever if I tell an audience of professional carers that eating chocolate donuts will cure your gout because a beardy man called Mystic Bob who writes a blog in his attic says so. So I was pleased to know that those who performed or reported successful cancer treatment tests with chilli peppers included such heavyweight organisations as Cancer Research UK, the American Institute for Cancer Research, and the BBC.
Capsaicin, the glorious compound that makes chillies chilli, responsible for their stimulating heat (more about this shortly), is the key. One of the exciting ways that chilli peppers work in the human body is by attacking the mitochondria (energy supply) of cancer cells. The more capsaicin, the greater the attack on cancer cells.
A Nottingham University study showed that chilli peppers’ capsaicin bonds to cancer cell mitochondrial protein, and forces it to undergo apoptosis. That is, it commits suicide, without harming any surrounding healthy cells. Call me an elderberry-gargling hippy but I think that’s pretty groovy. The study saw humble chilli peppers successfully munching through human lung and pancreatic cancer cells. The head researcher Doctor Timothy Bates (his brother Norman was unavailable for questioning) said: “The biochemistry of the mitochondria in cancer cells is very different from that in normal cells. As these compounds [capsaicin] attack the very heart of the tumour cells, we believe that we have in effect discovered a fundamental ‘Achilles heel’ for all cancers.” This wonderful medic will no doubt now be wearing a proud grin incessantly, until tracked to his house and shot by the FDA or a large pharmaceutical company for messing with their profit predictions. They don’t like that level of competition. The man who discovered that bitter apricot kernels contain very promising things for the survival of the human race didn’t fare to well at the hands of the medical elite either. Bitter apricot kernels are eaten en masse in some areas of Russia and South America which are said to be cancer-free. These kernels crushed with fresh chilli pepper and ginger are recommended in a blog I read (possibly written by a beardy man in an attic, but the ingredients do sound plausible), as the filling for an anti-cancer wholewheat sandwich.
A Berkley study concluded that chilli pepper consumption is “protective against stomach cancer”, linking Mexicans’ low gastric cancer rates to consumption of chilli peppers.
Capsaicin stops prostate cancer spreading in various magnificent and potent ways. I shan’t bore you with the handsome chemical processes – you can read the study in the March 15th 2006 issue of Cancer Research if you wish.
The food writer Doctor Paul Bragg goes as far as to say that chilli pepper “keeps carcinogens from binding to DNA”.
The list goes on. Some dieticians are starting to grasp this rather interesting quirk of chilli peppers, and it is appearing in cancer nursing books.
Now, in an effort to stave off ‘The Big C’, don’t be all silly about this and run off to eat these feisty beauties until you get gastro-oesophageal reflux and your head explodes. Everything in moderation, and appropriate to your body and your ailments. Leave the head-explosions to highly trained professionals like me. I lived in Sri Lanka for a year. Eat local, thinks I. This rickety palm-thatched hut containing a cauldron of angry-looking dark red goo on the boil looks local, thinks I. I learned two valuable lessons that day:
- Sri Lankans were not the same species of human that I was familiar with. They have evolved digestive tracts made entirely from asbestos and recycled industrial plumbing.
- The advice of “the redder, the hotter” that had earlier been lovingly shared with me, was unwise to ignore.
In Sri Lanka, as with India and probably many other colourful places, many of the Sun-kissed local folk eat a special curry once a month, to kill all the bacteria in their guts. They would immediately follow it with buffalo curd, which contains a good dose of probiotics to replace only the good bacteria necessary for gut-health and proper food absorption (you should always take probiotics after antibiotics by the way, if you must take antibiotics at all).
Sri Lankans tend to throw rocketfuel-hot curries down their gullets every day like they were going out of fashion. But once monthly they clench their buttocks, take the safety control off the chilli-o-meter, book a nearby toilet, and enjoy a medicinal marvel. The concerning cauldron I saw in the hut contained this very same panacea, I quickly realised as I sat down to my ‘authentic’ meal. The peach-powder sand under my feet, and idyllic palms leaning over the sea, faded from my consciousness. Suddenly all I knew was pain. The curry was cooked so expertly that the taste was still exhilarating and multi-layered, but nonetheless my pale city-dweller insides were not equipped for attempted murder by capsaicin. Going deaf was the most concerning of all the marvellous bodily reactions that befell me. Luckily, once the inflammation had relaxed and the hideous burning let me go, I also got my hearing back and can now once again join bongo sessions on the beach.
Chilli peppers qualify to be called ‘extreme’ food, in terms of both taste and physical experience when eating them. Their extreme health benefits are analogous then – part of Nature’s logic – and are now well researched and enjoyed. It’s the capsaicin, Captain. Capsaicin is an alkaloid compound present in large quantities in chilli peppers, mainly in the pithy white core – the appetizingly termed placental tissue. It stimulates human chemoreceptor nerve endings.
This magic ingredient was first extracted by a gentleman by the name of Christian Friedrich Bucholz in 1816. (Bucholz happened to look like a kind but harshly windswept albino gorilla. Don’t say I never teach you anything.) He named it after Capsicum, the genus of the peppers.
The Scoville Heat Scale is the measurement of how much capsaicin is in a chilli pepper, and therefore how hot it is (in terms of spice, not how attractive in a miniskirt, although the bell pepper is rather shiny and voluptuous).
The scale is named after American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, who invented it in 1912. He must have been having a moment of disillusionment over antibiotics while enjoying a good curry.
Scoville’s Organoleptic Test uses precision liquid chromatography to directly measure a pepper’s capsaicinoid levels and remains the usual method for quantitative analysis of how much spicy bang for your buck you get.
A sweet bell pepper registers zero Scoville Heat Units (SHU). A Pimento pepper around 300 SHU’s, Jalapeño pepper 3,500, Thai Pepper 75,000, Habanero 250,000. And that’s as hot as it gets. Right? Lots of scales stop there. Most certainly wrong. The Dorset Naga Pepper: 900,000, the awesome Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Pepper: 2,000,000. Yoikes. The word reverence comes to mind. Pure capsaicin is 16,000,000. Drinking extracted pure capsaicin is only recommended if you are around 90 years old, have had a rich and colourful life filled with love and adventure, and now wish for a speedy and very sweaty death before your hearing goes.
As this is an article and not a book, I can only briefly outline the massive list of chilli peppers’ health benefits (perhaps I’ll write that book one day):
Diabetes:as well as being effective in treating diabetic neuropathy, chilli peppers lower blood sugar levels. Published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (July 2006), Australian researchers from the University of Tasmania proved that the amount of insulin the body needs to lower blood sugar diminishes when the meal contains chilli pepper. And that if chilli pepper is used regularly in meals, the insulin requirement drops lower still. Interesting, no? The chilli pepper is not just a pretty mace. If by now you are not swooning with love and respect for the magnanimous design of Nature as neatly manifest in the chilli pepper, may I politely suggest you take some time out of a life of distractions and hypnosis to consider the structure of the wonderful world we live in.
Obese, and feeling hopeless about food’s ability to heal? No fear, the higher the BMI, the harder a chilli pepper works. In an obese body, chilli pepper not only lowers insulin required, but also causes a lower ratio of C-peptide to insulin, meaning that the liver’s speed of insulin-clearance has increased.
The collected data showed that eating a meal containing chilli peppers reduced the amount of insulin required to lower the blood sugar level by (and I share this with a slightly strange feeling of emotion and pride for this strange and humble fruit-pod that I have fallen rather in love with) 60%. This staggering healthful effect deserves repetition: 60%.
There are things all around working hard in our favour. We merely need to connect with them.
Still think foods are meaningless random growths and that there is no intelligence in Nature’s design? Sigh. How about this. Make sure you haven’t got your glasses on upside down or dropped them in gravy and do me the favour of perusing this list of other health benefits of chilli peppers:
Antioxidant / immune booster – “The more capsaicin, the higher the antioxidant level,” says Malena Perdermo, a major pepper fan who also happens to be Professor of Nutrition at Denver College, and the American Dietetic Association’s Latino Nutrition spokesperson.
Chilli peppers contain serious amounts of vitamin C, vitamin A (the ‘anti-infection vitamin’ needed for healthy nasal passages, lungs, intestinal and urinary tracts – the mucous membranes that are the human body’s first defence against invading pathogens), ß-carotene, a-carotene and lutein, which work to protect the body from free radicals generated during stress or illness. Free radicals are famous for their involvement with cancer, but are also linked to atherosclerosis.
Vitamin C, the ‘wonder vitamin’, as well as boosting the immune system, also improves red blood cell and blood vessel health, helps to heals cuts and connective tissue damage, and is good for skin, bones, teeth, and gums.
100g of fresh chilli pepper, red or green, contain about 143.7µg or 240% of the RDA. And that’s bioactive vitamin C which can be metabolised, not the laboratory-made nonsense in most multi-vitamin tablets which passes straight out in your urine. Sixwise.com includes chilli peppers in their list of the world’s 7 most potent disease-fighting spices.
Laos traditional folk medicine – it’s hard to pin down a recorded source of knowledge on this wonderful mainly oral tradition. But one exists in the form of Jaruwan Thammawat. He writes that chilli peppers (some spicy, some not) are one of the main ingredients in the ‘longevity medicine’ some Laotians eat every morning.
An identifier of Asperger Syndrome – heightened sensitivity to chilli pepper is one of the common indications.
Anti-inflammatory – chilli peppers’ capsaicin is a powerful inhibitor of substance P, a neuropeptide and key mediator of inflammation, also associated with vomiting and pain.
Pain killer – chilli pepper is now used by many against pain, often in the form of ointments, and a great deal of research has been carried out in this area. It is used for pain associated with arthritis (chilli pepper has also been proven to delay the onset of arthritis) and psoriasis. Topical capsaicin is now a recognized treatment for osteoarthritic pain, sore muscles, herpes zoster-related pain, post-mastectomy pain, and headaches and migraines. There’s more on this in the respected healthcare book Cancer nursing: principles and practice.
Decongestant – eating chilli pepper clears mucus from the lungs and nose.
Weight loss agent – chilli peppers increase a human body’s metabolic rate. This is fairly plain to see when sweating and energised after a good curry. Capsaicin is a thermogenic compound, aiding in the fat-burning process. I’ve read two studies on this. Both agree on the above, but disagree on the degree. One says the metabolic increase is modest (80 calories per day, comparable to that of drinking green tea), the other says chilli pepper raises metabolic rate by up to 23% for about 3 hours. Chilli peppers all contain zero cholesterol.
Cardiovascular Benefits – chilli peppers reduce blood cholesterol and platelet aggregation. They have been shown to reduce LDL levels in obese people, while increasing the body’s ability to dissolve fibrin, a substance which facilitates stroke-causing blood clots. Those who live in cultures where a good amount of chilli pepper is eaten regularly, have significantly lower incidence of heart attacks, strokes and pulmonary embolisms. Chilli Peppers are excellent for the circulation. They help lower high blood pressure and can warm your feet.
Vitamins and minerals – Chilli peppers do not scrimp on dishing out beneficent goodies (don’t you think a long red pepper topped with a crown and cut stalk looks somewhat like Father Christmas?)
Peppers contain decent amounts of Potassium (necessary for the proper functioning of cell and body fluids, heart rate and blood pressure).
Peppers contain Manganese
Peppers contain Iron
Peppers contain Magnesium
Peppers contain Copper
Peppers contain Niacin
Peppers contain Pyridoxine (vitamin B-6) – 39% of the RDA in 100g
Peppers contain Riboflavin
Peppers contain Thiamin (vitamin B-1). B-vitamins convert carbohydrates into usable energy. The body requires them from food, it cannot store them.
Aphrodisiac (according to people in ancient Aztec and Mayan societies, and the marketing department of Nando’s).
So get eating well. Put chilli peppers in your Mexican dishes, your salads, salad dressings, breads, dips, omelettes, curries, bean soups, sweet potato soups, pumpkin soups, sauces. Hell, make a sculpture from them and wear it on your head – just eat chilli peppers and healthy food!
Just in case the only thing holding you from embracing medicinal nutrition is the belief that it is the domain only of flaky hippies and barefoot girls with daisies in their hair at the Burning Man festival (which I heartily recommend, partly for the barefoot girls with daisies in their hair), I would like to point out that eating chilli peppers for health is recommended in Peak Performance through Nutrition and Exercise – a book published by the United States Navy.
If humans are to thrive and regain their health (unless the nuclear warmongers blow us all to bits first), there is a shift necessary. From the financially profitable intervention and symptom-relief of ‘big-pharma’ drugs, to prevention. Using food as medicine is not only a matter of curing illness, but avoiding it and living well. You are what you eat. I cannot stress enough the profound connotations and truth of this axiom. Food dictates our energy, mental agility, sharpness, as well as the functioning of all systems of our bodies.
True healthcare reform starts in your kitchen. It does not revolve around giving responsibility for your health away to others. Eating junk so that fat, sugar and dangerous chemicals become the building blocks of your body, then sharing anger with healthcare workers because they can’t fix you. I see that every day. I have also seen food curing people, so of course I have a profound interest and belief in food as medicine.
So I take my hat off to you for taking ten minutes of your life from selling spoons or watching videos of a dog eating peanut butter, to read about food. The world needs more people like you. Food is the applied philosophy of a society, it is the foundation of your body, your mood, your ability to act efficiently.
Living a poisoned life has become the norm. We are bombarded from all sides by social pressures; by deceitful advertisements from big businesses with a profit-at-any-cost agenda; by horrendous laws protecting the government-shared profits of these companies. So the need for food education is on-going. I present now to you the jury, the expert witness Doctor Royal Lee.
Doctor Lee, you’ve been called the Einstein of Nutrition. What say you about eating certain foods to maintain or improve our health?
“One of the biggest tragedies of human civilization is the precedence of chemical therapy over nutrition. It’s a substitution of artificial therapy over nature, of poisons over food, in which we are feeding people poisons trying to correct the reactions of starvation.”
I see, I see. And Roger Williams, PhD. Professor Williams, you are a pioneer of biochemistry and public health education. You discovered vitamin B, you are a prolific author, we don’t have time to list all of your accolades… please, do us the honour of sharing your opinion on whether or not certain foods can heal.
“The human body heals itself and nutrition provides the resources to accomplish the task.”
If, like me, you are open to the concept of a reason for things, and of the intelligence in Nature, you will have arrived at the conclusion that healthy food is more than just stuff that tastes nice. It is part of this planet of human experience which is perfect, all-providing, all-nurturing if we let it be. And chilli peppers’ vital, vivacious traits are hard to overlook.