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Hot Chili Peppers - Friend of Foe?

Health Benefits of Eating Hot Chili and Cayenne Peppers

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Thai chili peppers in marketplace
Gavriel Jecan/Stockbyte/Getty Images
Hot chili peppers.... Never has there been a food to inspire both wonder and wariness, love and hate. If just the sight of some hot chilies in your Thai dish makes your stomach spasm, I have news for you: not all chilies are created equally. In fact, some are actually good for your stomach and can help heal it. But first let’s start by looking at the benefits of adding this wonder of nature to your diet:

  • You’ll sleep better. Recent studies prove that consuming just a little chilli pepper (fresh or dried) each day helps us fall asleep, and stay asleep longer. And adding a little fresh-cut chili to your evening meal may also help you feel more awake the next day. (For more on this, see: Eat Chili and Sleep Better!)
  • Your heart will be healthier. Studies show that eating chili regularly helps keep your heart healthy by lowering cholesterol, keeping your blood pressure in a healthy range, and allowing more blood to reach the heart. See: The World's Healthiest Foods
  • Your body will be able to fight inflammation, a leading cause of disease. Everyone these days seems to be talking about inflammation—not the type you get when you get a cut or a pimple, but inflammation inside our bodies and cells, the kind that can’t be seen, preventing diseases like arthritis and diabetes, and possibly cancer. In fact, studies have shown that those cultures whose diets includes plenty of hot chillies have lower rates of certain types of cancer, including colon and stomach cancer. See: Benefits of Chili/Capsaicin.
  • Now, having touted the health benefits of hot chillies, I must also add a cautionary note. Six years ago, when I developed breast cancer, the treatments left my stomach raw and inflamed. Around that time I had also switched to an Asian diet, believing it would help me heal from the cancer and prevent it from coming back (which it did). The only problem was that I continued to eat my chili sauces and fresh-cut chili peppers. My stomach couldn’t take it, and I was soon going back to the hospital for an inflamed stomach lining and possibly ulcers. I was told NOT to eat chilies—-that this was the main culprit. Actually, the culprit was chemotherapy, and the cure? Well, none other than chili peppers! Not the ones I had been eating, however.

    After doing a lot of research, I discovered that, while regular chilies can disturb sensitive stomachs like mine, a specific type of chili—-cayenne pepper—-could actually heal and kill off any bad bacteria that might be causing my inflammation, pain, and heartburn. My main source of information for this was Dr. Weil (see:Dr. Weil's advice.)

    So I began seeking out fresh cayenne chilies for my Thai cooking. When I couldn’t find them, I bought the dry ground cayenne pepper in the spice aisle. I began using it to make Thai Nam Prik Pao Chili Sauce, and added it in all my recipes whenever I wanted some “heat”. I even began growing my own fresh cayenne peppers, which I still do to this day (pots of them can be found all over my deck and garden during the summer months!). For me, cayenne was the answer to my stomach problems. That, and laying off regular chilies (e.g. any other type of chili). I also had to stay away from coffee and anything acidic for a long while.

    Now I find I can eat any type of chili peppers, but only sparingly (a meal here and there at a Thai restaurant is fine). If I eat them regularly, however, my stomach tends to grow sensitive again, and I have to go back to eating my cayenne pepper.

    So, if you suffer from a sensitive stomach, ulcers, or heartburn, I highly recommend trying cayenne pepper. You can also get it in the form of a supplement (capsule) from your health food store, but I myself find this too potent a dose which seems to burn and make my stomach feel worse. Better to just add it to your food everyday, or make your own chili sauce and add a little to your meals. It really works for me, and my husband too, who used to suffer from chronic heartburn. Try my own chili sauce recipe, which is quick to make and includes instructions for using cayenne pepper: Homemade Thai Chili Sauce Recipe (Nam Prik Pao).

    So go ahead and eat that chili--and get the wonderful health benefits that come with it!

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