Used as a food, a spice and an herbal medicine for over 9,000 years, chillies are said to be good for the kidneys, spleen, pancreas, lungs and heart. In Victorian England, chillies were prized for their warming properties in treating arthritis, chills, rheumatism, sprains and depression.
Over 3,000 scientific studies are listed in the US National Library of Medicine, supporting the use of chillies in preventing and reversing many common health ailments.
Chillies are also listed in many world pharmacopoeias (official drug lists). According to the American Physicians Desk Reference, several prescription drugs also contain the herb.
About 12% of chilli is comprised of capsaicin, the compound that makes it taste hot — this is where most of chilli’s medicinal properties come from.
Potent painkiller. Capsaicin (an active ingredient in many commercial pain medications) is a natural painkiller that provides pain relief from arthritis and diabetes, and can alleviate headaches (when inhaled), and joint pain (when injected).
Capsaicin blocks Substance P, part of the body’s pain-and inflammation chemistry. In response to the burn, our brain secretes endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers (their pain-relieving effect is similar to that of morphine) and uplifting chemicals.
Medically, it is one of the most powerful local pain relievers available and is regularly used to treat the pain of arthritis, shingles, toothache and surgery scars.
Ointments and lotions with capsaicin are also used as an external remedy for nerve pain and itching.
A 1989 study revealed that capsaicin applied topically had pain-relieving effects among 50% of women who had undergone mastectomies for breast cancer.
A 1991 study found that capsaicin cream decreased the amount of pain caused by diabetic neuropathy (a nerve disorder).
A 1994 study showed that when used with other medications, it produced substantial pain reduction in patients with mouth sores caused by chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Blood circulation booster. It stimulates blood circulation and improves the body’s entire circulatory system, thus wards off disease (disease is caused by poor circulation or lack of fresh blood to various parts of the body). This also feeds the cell structure of arteries, veins and capillaries so they will regain elasticity.
Much of the healing starts in the mouth. As capsaicin touches the tongue it sends signals along nerve endings, sending “new blood” to “sick” parts of the body.
Clot buster. It revs up the body’s blood-clot-dissolving system. A Thai study shows that frequent stimulation from hot chillies (widely eaten in Thailand) continually clears the blood of clots, leaving Thais generally less vulnerable to arterial blockage. This may be a primary reason thromboembolisms — life-threatening blood clots — are rare among Thais.
Because it thins the blood, increases blood flow and extends blood coagulation time (preventing harmful blood clots), it thus helps combat heart attack and stroke.
Heart food. Chillies increase heart action without raising blood pressure. They also prevent blood platelet aggregation and this reduces risk of cardiovascular disease.
Blood pressure reducer. It dilates arterial walls and cuts through mucus in the veins, thus increasing circulation to the extremities and helping overall to lower blood pressure.
Cholesterol fighter. When used in conjunction with a diet low in saturated fats, it may also help to cut triglycerides and decrease bad cholesterol levels. It also prevents cholesterol from turning into harmful elements that block blood vessels.
Lung-friendly. It helps clear blocked airways by thinning mucus in the sinuses. Because it is an expectorant or decongestant, it also helps prevent rhinitis, bronchitis and emphysema. Chillies are thus useful for colds or flu.
Antiviral. In the west, natural therapists add a little chilli to anti-flu tonics in winter to increase the flow of mucus, which helps eliminate viruses and relieve congestion.
Antibacterial. Chillies also act as an internal disinfectant — it can detoxify the colon and help with eliminative functions.
Toxin remover. The seed and oil are used medicinally to help remove toxins from the system.
Digestive aid. Chillies stimulate the secretion of saliva and gastric juices and act as a digestive aid, especially when taken with meals. (Medically, the leaves and stalks are known to be good digestive aids too.)
Weight loss aid. Speeds up the metabolism (that is why we tend to perspire after eating chillies), hence burning off calories.
Mood enhancer. Taken internally, capsaicin triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s feel-good hormones, in the brain.
Anticancer. Studies indicate it also helps stop cancer cell growth.
Health stimulant. Chillies are an excellent stimulant. When we eat chilli, the capsaicin stimulates the trigeminal nerve (the main facial nerve which has branches in the mouth, nose and eyes). This nerve system is a separate sense (different from the senses of taste and smell), which health experts believe is designed to warn and protect us from potentially harmful substances.
When the body is stimulated properly, the healing and cleansing process starts, allowing the body to function normally.
Chillies also initiate the body’s defence mechanisms (eg: the tears and runny nose that often accompany a hot curry) to get rid of “irritants”.
Life sustainer. Capsaicin has been proven to protect DNA cells from attack by toxic molecules (eg: from tobacco and other toxins).
Protects against radiation. Red chilli powder could protect healthy tissue in people undergoing radiation therapy (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry). An Indian study found that chilli ranks above black pepper and turmeric in shielding 2 microorganisms (Escherichia coli and Bacillus megaterium) from irradiation.
Prevent stomach ulcers. Taken internally, chillies help heal disorders of the stomach lining, like ulcers, by creating more mucous and coating the wall of the stomach. In countries like Thailand, Brazil and Mexico, where chilli is a big part of the staple diet, stomach ulcers are uncommon.
Contains Vitamin A (needed for good vision and healthy immunity; and which also smoothens rough skin, clears acne, helps reduce wrinkles, heals wounds, and retards cell ageing). When dried the Vitamin A content increases as much as 100-fold.
Fresh chillies are high in Vitamin C — twice the amount found in citrus fruits (like orange, pineapple and lime). And they contain 6-9 times as much Vitamin C as a tomato. Hot chillies (ie the “Habanero” variety) contain 357% more Vitamin C than an orange.
Vitamin C helps clear blood clots in veins, prevent heart disease by eliminating plaque from the arteries, heals wounds and prevents colds.
Because of their high Vitamin C content, chillies can prevent respiratory infections and can help strengthen the immune system.
Rich in carotenoids (orange and red colouring compounds), which have strong antioxidant properties that protect against cancer. Red chillies are a good source of beta-carotene. A single pod contains a full day’s supply of beta-carotene and nearly twice the recommended daily allowance for Vitamin C, which makes the chilli an invaluable food in the fight against cancer and heart disease.
Provides many other nutrients, including Vitamins B1 and B2, beta-carotene, iron, phosphorus, calcium, iron, sodium, magnesium, zinc, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. 100 grams of red chillies offers a good source of protein (15.9 mg), calcium (160 mg) and phosphorus (370 mg). The same amount of green chillies is a good source of iron (4 mg).
Low in fat, and contains the right kind of fat — 66% linoleic acid and 5% linolenic acid (2 essential fats in the diet of humans).
- To reduce the “heat” from chillies, remove the seeds and membrane, chillies’ hottest parts.
- If your mouth burns from eating chillies, breathe through your nose, not your mouth, as this tends to “irritate” the “hot spots”. Also try one of these: some common table salt, milk, yoghurt, cucumber, mint leaves, ice-cream, chocolate, sugar, or starchy foods (eg: bread). Do not drink water (this can intensify the burning effect).
- Eating large quantities regularly can lead to gastritis and peptic ulcer.
- Not for people with irritable colon.
- Can produce bleeding in a person suffering from piles.
- Excess consumption may induce labour in pregnant women and cause miscarriage.
- May pass into breastmilk, causing it to become unpalatable to the infant. o Can cause stomach upset or diarrhoea in some people.
- Do not allow chilli to come in contact with a cut or graze as it can burn the skin.
Read about how protective foods like fruits and vegetables give us the nutrients that we need in the CAP Guides, Fruits - A Nutrition Guide and Vegetables - A Nutrition Guide