Chili peppers not only burn tongues, but also help hearts by breaking down and getting rid of cholesterol along with keeping arteries from constricting, according to research presented Tuesday at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego.
Capsaicin, the compound that gives chili peppers heat, and related compounds called capsaicinoids, lowered cholesterol levels and improved blood flow in hamsters, researchers found.
Previous research suggested chili peppers lowered blood pressure and cholesterol and improved blood flow, but scientists were uncertain how. Researchers found capsaicin lowers cholesterol not only by reducing the accumulation of cholesterol in the blood but also by helping the body break it down and get rid of it. Capsaicin also blocked a gene that makes arteries contract, improving blood flow, the research team found.
We now have a clearer and more detailed portrait of [capsaicin's effect] on genes and other mechanisms that influence cholesterol and the health of blood vessels, Zhen-Yu Chen, lead researcher and professor of food and nutritional science at the University of Hong Kong, said during the presentation. It is among the first research to provide that information.
Capsaicin reduced the levels of the bad cholesterol but didn't affect the levels of good cholesterol, researchers said. The heat molecule also helped clear cholesterol deposits in blood vessels that narrow arteries and can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
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While researchers concluded capsaicin is good for your heart, they said people shouldn't consume massive amounts of chilies.
A good diet is a matter of balance, said Chen. And remember, chilies are no substitute for the prescription medications proven to be beneficial. They may be a nice supplement, however, for people who find the hot flavor pleasant.
The latest findings add to the wide range of possible medical applications of capsaicin used in topical creams and patches to relieve pain that comes from shingles, arthritis, simple muscle aches and psoriasis. Other studies have shown capsaicin may be useful in managing blood sugar levels and may help with weight loss as well.
Capsaicin may have also anti-cancer properties. A study by the American Association for Cancer Research found capsaicin may be able to kill prostate cancer cells and a study from the University of Nottingham found capsaicin may be able to kill lung cancer cells.