The Health Benefits of Chili Peppers


By: Dr. Jean Antoine Boodhoo

2014-06-17 04:17 PM



The benefits of chili peppers as a condiment in cuisines worldwide have been known for several millennia.  Likely to have been introduced to the rest of the world from South America, chili peppers are now grown in all corners of the world, with more than 200 varieties described.


The active ingredients in chili peppers are a group of chemical compounds known as capsaicinoids, with capsaicin being the main and most studied compound.  Capsaicin gives chili peppers it’s hot taste by binding to heat and pain receptors in the mouth and throat (1).  Stimulation of these receptors leads to heat and pain sensation being experienced by the brain.  These in turn produce physiological changes such as increased heart rate, sweating and release of the feel good hormones endorphins (2).  The intensity of the heat/pain sensation is measured by the Scoville Heat Scale, with the hottest pepper measuring 16, 000, 000 (16x106 Scoville units).  Currently the two hottest peppers in the world by the Scoville units are the Carolina Reaper (2.2 x 106 SHU) and the Trinidad Scorpion Moruga Blend (2.009 x 106 SHU) (3).


The health benefits of chili peppers have been known since the 15th century, being first highlighted by Dr. Diego Alvarez Chancu, a physician on Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the West Indies in 1490’s.  It has been stated that chili peppers have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine since 5000 BC.


Among the actual and potential health benefits descried so far include:


  • Diabetes
    • The ability of chili peppers to reduce the amount of insulin required to lower blood sugar after a meal(4).  Chili peppers can potentially lower the risk of type II diabetes. 
    • Chili peppers may also have a preventative effect on stomach ulcers (4,6). 
  • Anti-inflammatory
    • It has been shown that capsaicin is an inhibitor of substance P, which is associated with the inflammatory process (4).
    • Chili peppers also contain antioxidants including vitamin C and a complex mixture of carotenoids which may also improve insulin regulation as well as having analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects (5). 
  • Prevention
    • May have an effect as a booster of metabolism and weight management (4,5).
  • Analgesic
    • Has the ability to assist in the management of several painful conditions applied topically including arthritis pain, pain associated with herpes zoster (shingles), diabetic neuropathy, headaches and trigeminal neuralgia (7).
  • Cancer
    • In vitro studies show a potential role of capsaicin in causing cancer cell death including gastric carcinoma (8), human breast and leukemia cancer cells (9), prostate cancer cells (10), pancreatic cells in mice (3), human nasopharyngeal carcinoma (12).
  • Psoriasis
    • Topically applied capsaicin has also been shown to be effective for moderate and severe psoriasis (14).    

While there are numerous health and culinary benefits associated with chili peppers, there are also some noticeable warning in their liberal use. 


In particular, topical application of capsaicin has been associated with an increase in the risk of skin cancer (12).  Reference is also made to population studies in Mexico and India, which have shown an increased risk of stomach cancer when food is loaded with hot chilies (4).  Further, there is at least once reported case of a possible association between ingestion of hot chili peppers and death (13). 


In conclusion, chili peppers have been in use for centuries while their mode of action is gradually being unraveled.  While there are health and culinary benefits that have been described to be associated with their use, there are also words of caution about their use.  The goal ultimately is to be able to enjoy these benefits while ongoing research is needed to clarify the concerns highlighted about their possible risk in increasing certain forms of cancer, and their potential in treating and preventing various cancers in humans. 


So please enjoy, in moderation.  




(1)  The Effects of Capsaicin and Capsiate on Energy Balance: Critical Review and Meta-analyses of           Studies in Humans. 
      Mary-Jon Ludy, George E. Moore, and Richard D. Mattes.  Chem Senses. Feb 2012; 37(2): 103–         121.

(2)  Endorphins: Natural Pain and Stress Fighters



(5)  Antioxidant, Antinociceptive, and Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Carotenoids Extracted from Dried       Pepper (Capsicum annuum L.)
      Marcela Hernández-Ortega, Alicia Ortiz-Moreno, María Dolores Hernández-Navarro, Germán           Chamorro-Cevallos, Lidia Dorantes-Alvarez, and Hugo Necoechea-Mondragón
      Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology Volume 2012 (2012), Article ID 524019, 10 pages

(6)  Do Chili Peppers Cause Ulcers? - A Burning Question
      Ayad, Michael

(7)  [Chili for therapy of trigeminus neuralgia: a case report].
      Loeser J, Pilgram B, Dagtekin O.
      Schmerz. 2012 Aug;26(4):435-7. doi: 10.1007/s00482-012-1180-2.

(8)  Effects of foods and beverages on the symptoms of chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome.
      Herati AS1, Shorter B, Srinivasan AK, Tai J, Seideman C, Lesser M, Moldwin RM
      Urology. 2013 Dec;82(6):1376-80. doi: 10.1016/j.urology.2013.07.015. Epub 2013 Aug 23.

(9)  Tumor Cell Growth Inhibition Is Correlated With Levels of Capsaicin Present in Hot Peppers
      Dan Dou, Aamir Ahmad, Huanjie Yang, Fazlul H. Sarkar
      Nutrition and Cancer 
Vol. 63, Iss. 2, 2011

(10)  Capsaicin, a Component of Red Peppers, Inhibits the Growth of Androgen-Independent, p53                 Mutant Prostate Cancer Cells
        Akio Mori, Sören Lehmann, James O'Kelly, Takashi Kumagai, Julian C. Desmond, Milena                 Pervan, William H. McBride, Masahiro Kizaki, and H. Phillip Koeffler
        Cancer Res 2006;66:3222-3229   

(11)  Capsaicin mediates apoptosis in human nasopharyngeal carcinoma NPC-TW 039 cells through               mitochondrial depolarization and endoplasmic reticulum stress
        S-W Ip, S-H Lan, H-F Lu2, A-C Huang, J-S Yang, J-P Lin, H-Y Huang, J-C Lien, C-C               Ho, C-F Chiu, WG Wood and J-G Chung
        Human and Experimental Toxicology 31(6) 539–549

(12)  Capsaicin can act as co-carcinogen, study finds; Chili pepper component linked to skin cancer


(14)  Effects of topically applied capsaicin on moderate and severe psoriasis vulgaris.
        Bernstein JE, Parish LC, Rapaport M, Rosenbaum MM, Roenigk HH Jr.
        J Am Acad Dermatol. 1986 Sep;15(3):504-7

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