Chili peppers nutritious, may aid variety of ailments
By Amy Tousman
Q. Are there any health benefits from eating chili peppers?
A. Chili peppers were cited growing in Hawai'i in 1897. They have a great nutritional profile. Chili peppers are excellent sources of vitamin C. Red chili peppers are also high in vitamin A. Chili peppers provide fiber, potassium, folate and vitamin B6.
The burning sensation you feel in your mouth after eating hot peppers is caused by a substance called capsaicin. Capsaicin is in some analgesic ointments used to relieve pain. It stimulates pain-sensitive nerves in the mouth and skin, causing a burning sensation, and then numbs the nerves so no further pain is felt.
Capsaicin has many topical uses. It may help decrease the pain from shingles, diabetes-related nerve pain and arthritis. More research is needed, but studies so far have shown promising results.
There may be a role for capsaicin in treating skin cancer. The Sept 4, 2002, issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported that capsaicin may force skin cancer cells to self-destruct by starving them of oxygen. After applying capsaicin and a related compound to human skin cancer cells, most of the skin cancer cells died.
If more research confirms these findings, the compounds may be used in creams or skin patches to prevent or treat skin cancers.
Hot pepper juice helps relieve arthritis pain when rubbed over the affected area.
Topical application tricks the nerve endings to forget about the pain from joints. It has been moderately effective in several small trials.
Chili peppers may help lower blood sugar in diabetics. Researchers have found that capsaicin helped lower blood sugar levels in dogs. Studies have not yet been done in humans, but adding hot peppers to a healthy diabetic eating and exercise regimen couldn't hurt.
When cutting chili peppers, don't let the seeds or inside membranes come into contact with your skin or eyes. This part of the pepper contains the most capsaicin and will cause a burning sensation in these areas.
If you feel like your mouth is on fire after eating chili peppers, drinking water actually makes the problem worse. Water spreads the pain around your mouth.
Try dousing the fire by drinking milk or eating yogurt, rice or bread.
If you suffer from heartburn, hot peppers should be avoided.
Otherwise, enjoy the flavor and reap the nutritional benefits of chili peppers.
Amy Tousman is a registered dietitian with the Health Education Center of Straub Clinic and Hospital.
Hawai'i experts in traditional medicine, naturopathic medicine and diet take turns writing the Prescriptions column.
Send your questions to: Prescriptions, Island Life, The Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802; fax 535-8170; e-mail email@example.com. This column is not intended to provide medical advice.