Even though hot chile peppers are integral to the culinary traditions of Asia, they originate from The New World - Bolivia, to be exact. From there they spread throughout the entire world. So even though people in China and India imagine that hot peppers have been part of their culinary traditions for eons, they have in fact only been known in those parts of the world since the arrival of European explorers in the Americas.
The chile plant is any of five domesticated species of Capsicum peppers. The fruits of the chile plant concern us most. As a rule mature chiles are red, orange, or yellow. The shape of chiles varies greatly. And there can be tremendous varieties of heat among peppers of the very same species. The popular jalapeno pepper, for example, is one of the least hot of all chiles, while the habanero pepper, cultivated by Mexico’s Maya, will practically blow your head off.
The Blazing Capsaicinoids
The substances that make chiles hot, and provide pleasure to chile eaters, are a group of natural oleoresins called capsaicinoids. These substances account for between 0.1 – 1 percent of the total composition of a chile pepper. Of these compounds the hottest is capsaicin. A single drop of pure capsaicin will burn a hole right through healthy tissue. The sensation of burning produced by the capsaicinoids is physiologically similar to the sensation of burning caused by heat or fire. Imagine the surprise of the very first person who ever bit into a hot chile pepper!
Chiles and Health
From arthritis to asthma, colds to constipation, hemorrhoids to high blood pressure, lethargy to lumbago, and tonsillitis to toothache, chiles have played prominently in the formulas and practice of herbal medicine. Chiles have been made into decoctions, compresses, tinctures and ointments.
As researchers delve into chiles and their heat components the capsaicinoids, their studies show that many of the traditional folk uses of chiles as medicines can be understood by modern scientific means.
Take chiles to heart - Chiles perform a number of functions which enhance heart health. They reduce platelet aggregation, the process by which disk-shaped structures in the blood accumulate and clog vessels. Chiles are vasodilators. They open up blood vessels, thereby stimulating blood circulation and warming the body. Chiles help to reduce oxidation of LDL cholesterol, a primary risk factor in heart attack and stroke. Chiles also reduce triglycerides, stored fats in blood cells. All around, chiles are very good for cardiovascular health.
Burn calories! Eating chiles actually helps you to burn calories, and shed pounds. Research conducted at Oxford Polytechnic Institute shows that eating chiles increases thermogenesis, the body’s caloric burn rate. If you eat chiles or chile sauce with a meal, your body will burn calories at an increased rate of about 25 percent. This translates into maybe 45 calories more burned per 700 calorie meal.
That’s pretty good.
Cancer prevention - Capsaicin in chiles fights cancer by preventing carcinogens from binding to DNA. This does not mean that chiles are a cancer treatment, but it does mean that eating chiles can help to reduce the risk of certain typers of cancer. As part of your dietary intake on a regular basis, chiles provide some measure of cancer protection.
Headache – Chiles provide relief for some types of headaches, especially painful cluster headaches. It may be that in the instance of cluster headaches, consumption of chiles wears out the mechanism by which pain is transmitted. Some people take cayenne capsules for relief. These are found at health food stores under several brands. But you can also pour some hot sauce on food, or eat a chili-laden soup.
General pain – Hot chiles provide pretty good relief for pain. Chiles contain pain-alleviating salicylates. Aspirin itself is a salicylate-based drug, acetyl-salicylic acid. Remember, when you eat chiles, you also get a pleasant endorphin buzz going, which also helps to reduce pain. Instead of reaching for the Tylenol, try a habanero instead.
Open that stuffy nose - If you have a cold or allergy accompanied by clogged sinuses, there’s nothing quite like a steaming bowl of soup just loaded with fiery hot sauce to blast open your airways. Your nose will run like a river for a while, but then you’ll be able to breathe.
Sluggish digestion, constipation – Chiles get your digestive juices going. So if your digestion is slow or weak, a good dash of hot sauce in your food will prove useful. If your bowels are clogged and you wish otherwise, sprinkle chile flakes (crushed red pepper), seeds and all, on your food. The chile will act like a blasting cap, helping to eliminate backed up waste. It may burn a bit, but it’ll help.
Live healthy - In your longevity plan, factor in a regular intake of hot chile peppers, and you’ll gain a host of powerful benefits.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter, and researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. Chris teaches ethnobotany at U Mass Amherst where he is Explorer In Residence. He advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies , and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Visit his web site at www.MedicineHunter.com