What’s So Great About Capsaicin?

What’s So Great About Capsaicin?

Webster’s dictionary definition of capsaicin begins with the words “colourless irritant.”  According to several sources, it is the “primary ingredient in pepper spray,” used for riot control and it’s an excellent pest repellent. Oh, it’s also a banned substance in Equestrian Sports. So by now you’ve probably stopped reading so you can run, not walk, to the grocery store (or the “pest repellent/riot control/banned substances depot) and get yourself some of this for tonight’s dinner because “YUM” – ammiright?!

According to Dr. Nicholas Perricone (famed dermatologist and author of several New York Times bestselling beauty and anti-aging books), capsaicin is on his list of “super foods.” To be more specific, peppers and the capsaicin they naturally contain are on the list. Capsaicin is the compound found in all peppers, from the relatively mild bell pepper to the “Sweet Holy Hell, I’m on Fire!” habanero. In an article on www.Oprah.com , Dr. Perricone says that the capsaicin in peppers “can prevent and treat headaches and arthritis, has antibacterial properties, and can treat chronic sinus infections.” He also says that research shows capsaicin to be a useful anti-inflammatory (Hello, cancer prevention!) and potential help for people suffering from gastric disorders like IBS and IBD.

It seems a little counterintuitive at first glance. How can something that tingles and burns and causes a heat-like reaction possible help calm the ache of a migraine or the chronic pain of a digestive disease. It all centres on a nerve response in the body and something called “Substance P.” Dr. Perricone explains “Substance P is the key transmitter of pain to the brain. In fact, Substance P is the body’s main mechanism for producing swelling and pain throughout the trigeminal nerve, which runs through the head, temple and sinus cavity. When the nerve fibrescome in contact with Substance P, they react by swelling—an effect that yields headaches and sinus symptoms. People suffering from arthritis pain typically have elevated levels of Substance P in their blood and in the synovial fluid that bathes their joints. Research has shown that eating foods that contain capsaicin or applying a topical cream that contains capsaicin can suppress Substance P production.” In effect, the capsaicin creates its own slight “burning” sensation, the nerves become “confused” and the message about the pain (of the headache, arthritis etc) fails to be transmitted. Oh human body, you’re neato!

A quick perusal of Science Daily looks promising for capsaicin: it controls blood pressure, helps burn belly fat, encourages healthy circulation, causes the body to release feel good endorphins and may crank up metabolism.  Just one teeny, eeny, weeny little issue. A 2010 study conducted at the University of Minnesota and reported in the journal Cancer Research showed that topical creams containing capsaicin may contribute to skin cancer. Ok, not such a teeny issue. According to Science Daily, the connection is somewhat controversial and needs more study. Other research has clearly shown capsaicin to be an anti-cancer agent. According to another report in the same journal, “capsaicin (basically) caused cancer cells to “commit suicide.” The substance caused almost 80 percent of prostate cancer cells to die in mice, and prostate tumours treated with capsaicin were about one-fifth the size of those in untreated mice.” Research continues and it may be worth a chat with an M.D. if one is using a topical treatment. Otherwise, spice it up people!

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