Whether you love hot peppers or can’t take the heat, here’s some interesting intel about the fiery produce: They may help protect your heart from high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
“Overall, diets or eating patterns that are rich in plant based foods, including the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, have been shown to lower risk of heart disease and blood pressure,” says Kate Patton, a registered dietitian in preventive cardiology at Cleveland Clinic. “I would therefore recommend choosing hot peppers, but there’s no recommended quantity. Choose a variety of different types and colors to maximize intake of phytonutrients.”
The health benefit comes from capsaicin (pronounced kap-say-sin), the same compound that makes chili peppers like cayennes, jalapenos, and habaneros so hot. Capsaicin also has a reputation for relieving certain kinds of pain, and is a widely used ingredient in over-the-counter topical creams and ointments for arthritis.
On the heart-health front, previous studies have suggested chilies can help reduce blood pressure, high cholesterol, and the formation of blood clots. Recent research adds more evidence to their positive effects.
In a study published in August 2014 in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong found capsaicin lowers blood cholesterol levels and blocks a gene that makes arteries contract, which can lead to dangerous blockages of blood flow. Such blockages can cause heart attacks (when blood can’t reach the heart) or strokes (when blood can’t reach the brain).
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For the study, the team of researchers fed hamsters high-cholesterol diets. Then they added foods with capsaicinoids, the broader family of substances of which capsaicin is part, to one group’s diet. They found the spicy addition to the diet went along with lower cholesterol levels, less atherosclerotic plaque, and more relaxed arteries.
Does this mean you should start scarfing down hot peppers? Hardly. But if you can stand the spiciness, adding these types of peppers to balanced meals might give your heart-health plan an added boost.