Is chili peppers good for your health?

Probably not, according to recent studies. A common concern is that hot peppers or other spicy foods cause ulcers, but there’s no evidence that they do. Studies of areas where hot peppers are used extensively in cooking, such as Brazil and Thailand, have found no higher incidence of stomach ulcers among their populations. And in a study conducted at a Veterans Administration hospital, researchers ground up about an ounce of jalapeno pepper and injected it directly into the stomachs of volunteers. Follow-up observation showed no damage to their stomach linings. Neither do hot peppers aggravate or cause hemorrhoids as has often been claimed, since capsaicinoids, the ‘hot’ substance, are broken down before they reach the lower intestine.

“Several medical studies have concluded that hot peppers and other spicy foods do not cause ulcers.
Nor do hot peppers cause hemorrhoids, as has often been claimed”…

Substance P
In the Jan/Feb 2000 issue of Chile Pepper magazine, Dave Hirschopf, maker of Dave’s Insanity sauces, wrote an interesting article on ‘Substance P’. This is the chemical that may lead to the desensitisation of your reaction to hot peppers, i.e. the more you eat hot peppers, the less the effect they have on you. Substance P is a neurotransmitter, discovered in 1931 by Swedish scientists, that is thought to transmit pain signals, and well as other functions. It is also a neurokenin, known as NK1. As well as being found in nerve cells, substance P can be found in the brain, spinal cord and intestines.

The cause and effect sequence is thought to be as follows: You eat a hot chile pepper, the capsaicin in the pepper causes the nerve cells in the spinal cord to release substance P, this informs the brain that you are in pain. As you eat more peppers, your nerve cells become hypersensitive to substance P and no longer react in the normal way, i.e. your brain no longer gets the pain signals.

David Julius and Michael Caterina, of the University of California in San Francisco, have found the protein ion receptor for capsaicin, the pungent ingredient in hot chile peppers that causes painful heat sensation.

The protein, known as vanilloid receptor subtype 1 (VR1), is activated by binding to capsaicin. High, painful temperatures work in a similar way and cause the same sensation.

“In the same way that the study of morphine led to the discovery of nerve pathways in the brain that suppress pain, we believe that our having found the target of capsaicin activity will illuminate fundamental mechanisms of pain production”.

Julius says that the VR1 channel opens up when it is activated by hot peppers and allows an influx of calcium and sodium ions to react to sensory nerve cells called nociceptors. They send impulses about tissue damage to the pain processing centers in the spinal cord and brain which cause the hot sensation in the mouth. Hot temperatures that produce pain in humans produce the same response.

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