The Health Benefits of Capsaicin

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Capsaicin, the active compound in chili peppers that makes them spicy, may support weight loss and improve health. Chili peppers (Capsicum annuum) are a member of the nightshade family Solanaceae, which is native to the Americas. They are moderately hot and are commonly used to add spice to recipes that call for heat.

Pure capsaicin, however, is about as hot as it gets—about 16,000,000 Scoville Units. Capsaicin can be ingested through food or dietary supplements. The heat from capsaicin increases the body's temperature, which may help to increase the "thermic effect" of food and burn more calories.

Proponents claim that capsaicin extract in dietary supplements can rev up the metabolism (similar to other spicy foods), reduce fat tissue, promote satiety, and even combat inflammation. Although the mechanism of action is not fully understood, capsaicin appears to stimulate a receptor in the body known as TRPV1. Despite the potential benefits, however, there are a few side effects associated with capsaicin supplements, especially when consumed in excess.

The Health Benefits of Capsaicin

Chili peppers have been used for culinary and medicinal purposes since 7,000 BC. Today's proponents of capsaicin supplements claim that the compound (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide) has disease-preventing properties and can promote weight loss.

While some of these claims have not yet been fully verified by science, emerging research suggests that capsaicin may have certain health benefits. For instance, a 2017 review of the current research found that the compound has "multiple benefits for metabolic health" and has the potential to help treat obesity and reduce the risk of developing other chronic health conditions. Here's a closer look at some of the research on the health benefits of capsaicin.

Promotes Weight Loss

A 2012 study published in Appetite observed an increase in energy expenditure (50 calories per day) with capsaicinoid consumption and concluded that this increase would result in clinically significant weight loss within 1–2 years.

In 2017, another study published in Appetite found that capsaicin intake of 2 mg per day lowered subjects' waist-to-hip ratio at six weeks compared to a higher dosage or a placebo. Body composition, however, was not significantly affected.

Increases Satiety

In 2014, one study investigated the potential benefits of capsaicin compounds (known as capsaicinoids) on energy intake. The authors found evidence that consumption of a minimum of 2 mg of capsaicinoids before a meal reduced energy intake by 74 calories during the meal. This suggests the satiating properties of the compound, which may contribute to long-term weight management.

The study concluded that the mechanism behind capsaicin's purported satiating effect may be attributed to an altered preference for carbohydrate-rich foods over foods with higher fat content.

Boosts Metabolism

Consumption of capsaicin may help boost metabolism, according to a report published in 2016. Researchers reviewed previous research and determined that in studies where participants had an average body mass index (BMI) falling within the overweight or obese range, ingestion of capsaicinoids increased energy expenditure and fat oxidation.

May Help Treat Diabetes

While most studies on the anti-diabetic effects of capsaicin have been animal-based, preliminary evidence in humans is showing potential. For example, a 2016 study found that capsaicin supplementation improved insulin response in women with gestational diabetes.

Improves Heart Health

A 2017 study conducted in China found that capsaicin may be beneficial for the treatment and prevention of coronary heart disease in individuals with low levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C). The double-blind controlled trial administered two 0.05 mg capsules daily to the capsaicin group during the course of the six-month study and found that the compound significantly improved HDL-C levels compared to the control group.

Emerging research shows that activation of TRPV1 with capsaicin may play an important role in the prevention and treatment of heart disease.

Fights Inflammation

Antioxidant-rich foods like chili peppers help fight free radicals in the body, which can lead to chronic inflammation and increase the risk of autoimmune disorders, certain types of cancer, and other forms of chronic disease (including heart disease).

Relieves Pain

When applied topically, some research suggests that capsaicin can offer neuropathic pain relief. Research has also examined the effects of capsaicin injections for relief from certain arthritic and musculoskeletal conditions. As the capsaicin compound activates the TRPV1 receptor, the body responds by decreasing sensitivity to pain to offer short-term relief.

Possible Side Effects

While capsaicin may have certain health benefits, there are safety concerns associated with the compound (particularly when consumed in large amounts) that you should discuss with your healthcare provider. Although capsaicin is generally regarded as safe for consumption for the general population, certain groups should use extra caution. You should avoid capsaicin if any of the following apply:

  • Pregnant or breastfeeding: Due to the lack of evidence supporting capsaicin supplementation during pregnancy or lactation, you should avoid taking this supplement.
  • Children under 2: In most cases, capsaicin should not be consumed in any amount by young children under 24 months. But it is sometimes prescribed to older children for topical pain relief.
  • People with bleeding disorders: While there is still limited evidence, capsicum might increase the risk of bleeding in those with blood clotting disorders.
  • People with gastrointestinal conditions: Capsaicin supplements may cause heartburn and may not be suitable for some patients with inflammatory bowel diseases.

Although capsaicin is generally considered safe when consumed in moderation as a food, capsaicin supplements may cause side effects. Here's what some of the research has to say.

May Cause Intestinal Discomfort

In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2016, capsaicin intake promoted satiety but didn't affect levels of the satiety hormones glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) and peptide YY (PYY). Instead, the researchers suggest that capsaicin-induced satiety may be related to increased gastrointestinal symptoms, such as pain, a burning sensation, nausea, and bloating.

May Cause Skin Irritation

In some cases, capsaicin, when applied topically, may cause irritation to the skin. Though rare, cases of severe burns have been reported. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning to consumers in 2012 about the safety of over-the-counter topical products for pain relief, including products containing capsaicin. The FDA notes that serious skin injuries, ranging from first- to third-degree burns have resulted from using these products, some of which led to hospitalization.

The FDA recommends that anyone using OTC topical creams for pain relief that include capsaicin should discontinue use immediately if there are any signs of injury to the skin such as pain, swelling, or blistering. If you are unsure about the proper topical application for capsaicin, ask your doctor for advice.

Increased Risk of Stomach Cancer

Capsaicin may lead to negative health effects when consumed in large amounts. For instance, there's some concern that overconsumption of capsaicin from chili peppers may increase the risk of gastric cancer. (Low intake of capsaicin, however, appears to protect against gastric cancer, according to an analysis.)

Increased Risk of Heart Attack

There is also some concern that the use of capsaicin supplements or topical capsaicin may trigger coronary spasms and increase the risk of a heart attack in some people.

May Cause High Blood Pressure

While evidence in humans is still lacking, one instance of excess pepper consumption by a 19-year-old man in Italy led to an increase in blood pressure.

Contraindications

Capsaicin supplements may interact with certain medications (including aspirin, blood-thinning drugs, and blood pressure medication) and other dietary supplements. To that end, they shouldn't be taken within two weeks of a scheduled surgery.

Consult your doctor for personalized advice to find out if the capsaicin compound is safe for you to use.

Dosage and Preparation

The FDA does not hold dietary supplements to the same standards as prescription and OTC medications, which means that there is no standardized dosage for capsaicin. But an appropriate dosage for capsaicin can help prevent unwanted side effects. For instance, higher levels of consumption have been associated with experiencing an uncomfortable level of heat in the body, and other unpleasant symptoms.

In general, capsaicin is used topically to relieve pain or orally in the form of dietary supplement capsules to promote weight loss and improve health. Of course, many people will naturally consume capsaicin when cooking with dishes that call for chili peppers such as homemade hot sauce or a pot of chili. You could also brew a cup of capsaicin-infused tea by steeping ground cayenne pepper in hot water.

However, food sources alone may not be enough to reap the reported health benefits. Capsaicin supplements, which typically contain cayenne pepper as the primary active ingredient, contain more capsaicin than fresh or ground chili peppers. Cayenne pepper contains about 2.5 mg of capsaicin per gram and most brands that manufacture capsaicin supplements contain 500 mg of cayenne per capsule.

The dosage of capsaicin supplements can vary depending on the desired health outcome. Some studies suggest between 2–6 mg of capsaicin per day for weight loss. Others have indicated much less, showing that 0.1 mg per day was enough to improve heart health.

What to Look For

While it's too soon to recommend capsaicin supplements (or a high intake of chili peppers) for weight loss, adding reasonable amounts of chili peppers to your cooking may be beneficial to your overall health due to the compound's antioxidant effects.

If you decide to purchase capsaicin supplements, keep in mind that health claims made by manufacturers of dietary supplements are unregulated. That's why it's important to read labels carefully and choose dietary supplements from a reputable source. Look for trusted independent third-party labels such as U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLab, which test for overall quality and safety.

In addition, depending on your personal preferences, you may wish to look for capsaicin supplements that are certified gluten-free and/or labeled vegetarian or vegan.

The FDA states that is illegal to market a dietary supplement as a treatment or cure for a disease or symptoms associated with a disease. That means you'll want to steer clear of any products making bold, unsubstantiated claims.

Other Questions

What myths are associated with capsaicin?

Though capsaicin may help some people lose weight, there is not enough evidence to say with certainty that the compound can effectively speed up fat loss. Some reports suggest that capsaicin supplements burn belly fat, but it is not possible to spot reduce fat loss in one area of the body.

Weight loss happens when you create a calorie deficit or essentially burn more calories than you're taking in. In addition to a regular exercise program, it's possible that capsaicin could serve as a weight loss aid. But used on its own it is unlikely to yield substantial results.

In addition, cayenne face masks have emerged as a beauty trend due to their antioxidative properties, but there is no scientific evidence to suggest that capsaicin can improve skin health.

Can you use capsaicin for pain relief?

Research has shown that topical capsaicin can be beneficial for alleviating symptoms associated with arthritis and musculoskeletal pain. In 2009, Qutenza, a topical pain-reliever with capsaicin as the active ingredient, was approved by the FDA for pain relief. You can ask your doctor about a obtaining prescription.

What foods are high in capsaicin?

Any member of the Capsicum family including cayenne peppers, jalapenos, poblanos, banana peppers, chipotle peppers, and serrano peppers will have some degree of capsaicin. While regular bell peppers do contain some of the compound, it's not nearly as much as the spicer varieties. You can also use ground cayenne or paprika as additional sources to add more flavor to your food and get a boost of nutrition.

Is capsaicin bad for your stomach?

While capsaicin supplements are generally safe for public consumption, consuming too much can cause stomach irritation including pain and bloating. However, when consumed appropriately, capsaicin actually inhibits stomach acid production, and with the appropriate dosage, may be of benefit to some people with stomach ulcers.

Can you just eat lots of chili peppers instead of taking a supplement?

If you're looking for a higher concentration of capsaicin to meet your health and weight loss goals, you might opt for dietary supplements. While fresh chili peppers contain more antioxidants than dried peppers, capsaicin supplements may still contain a beneficial amount when consumed regularly. For most people, however, incorporating reasonable amounts of chili peppers into your diet should provide you with the nutrition you need to stay healthy.

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