The following excerpt is from the book The Healing Powers of Peppers, released in May 1998 by Three Rivers Press, New York, NY (available from online used book stores).
Illustration by Harald Zoschke
Exercise, diet, and deprivation–the dreaded regimen of many a New Year’s resolution. But keep in mind, as you pound through endless miles on the treadmill and puff your way up imaginary flights on the stair machine, that healthy eating does not necessarily mean unsatisfying food served with a flourish of blandness. As you feel the burn in your thighs, remember that burning your mouth with chiles, hot sauces, and salsas is a much more pleasurable way to boost your metabolism. And take heart, while you breathlessly race to increase your cardiovascular rate, that chile also helps control cholesterol by reducing fat deposits in the arteries.
Cheat Cholesterol With Capsicum
Cholesterol is found almost exclusively in foods from animals (meats, eggs, oils), and is constantly made in the body, mostly in the liver and kidneys. While some cholesterol is essential in the formation of hormones and cell membranes, too much is dangerous. Many people process excess cholesterol naturally and never encounter any problems.
However, there are others who accumulate cholesterol in the blood, resulting in high serum cholesterol counts that lead to atherosclerosis, which is plaque deposits of cholesterol, fats, and other remains in the walls of medium-sized and large arteries. This condition causes the affected vessel to narrow as its walls become thick and hardened, which reduces circulation to organs and other parts of the body. These conditions are the major causes of heart attack, heart disease, chest pain, and other circulatory disorders.
Chile in the diet can enhance the means by which cholesterol and fats are processed. Studies have found that capsaicin works in two ways to reduce cholesterol levels: it decreases cholesterol absorption by the body so that more is excreted in the feces; and it increases the enzymes responsible for fat metabolism in the liver, so that more triglycerides, the hard insoluble fat, are secreted by the liver rather than accumulated in the body.
Studies have found that dihydrocapsaicin, a constituent of capsaicin, can lower blood levels of lowdensity lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), which contributes to atherosclerosis, and raise high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL), which retards atherosclerosis. A study in India found that rats eating a highfat diet that included chile and adequate protein experienced less weight gain and exhibited lower serum and liver triglyceride levels. Additionally, they found that capsaicin, when added to an established high-fat diet, actually reduced triglyceride levels in the blood.
However, capsaicin does not work alone. Studies have shown that the metabolizing benefits of capsaicin are dependent on sufficient amounts of protein in the diet. One such experiment found that rats fed capsaicin on high -protein diets maintained their growth rates, but that capsaicin added to low-protein diets actually decreased growth rates, possibly due to a reduction in fat absorption. Protein is essential for the processing and transportation of fat and the delivery of nutrients throughout the body. Capsaicin binds to protein after it is activated by metabolites in the liver, and this protein then carries the benefits of capsaicin, which include increased waste disposal and the enhanced absorption of nutrients, throughout the system.