Is spicy food good for you?

By Nicola Shubrook – Registered nutritionist

Whether it’s the hottest chilli, a full-flavoured curry or warming cinnamon, find out how spicy food affects the body, and the health benefits it can bring you

Spicy foods form a major part of many global cuisines, thanks to ingredients such as paprika, chilli and pepper. The heat that we experience when we eat spicy foods is down to a substance called capsaicin. Those foods with more capsaicin, such as cayenne pepper or chilli peppers, give off a stronger sensation of heat; while smaller amounts are also found in other spices like cinnamon and coriander.

What makes food spicy?

The heat we experience when we eat spicy food varies from person to person, but it is actually a feeling, rather than any heat from the food itself. Capsaicin binds to pain receptors that are on the nerves in the body. These can be found around our mouth and eyes, in our stomach and on our skin. Normally these receptors react to heat and temperature, sending a signal to the brain to activate the body’s temperature control. Your body then naturally then tries to cool itself down as a response to over-heating.

Eating capsaicin activates the same signals and so when you eat spicy food you are feeling it, rather than tasting it. Your tongue may feel like it is burning, you feel thirsty, and you may go red in the face and start sweating. Your eyes and nose may start to run and, for some, it can actually feel painful.

Why are some people more affected by spice?

How much spice you can tolerate may be down to genetics, but also how often you eat spicy foods. Research has found a specific gene known as TRPV1 is activated by heat and capsaicin. Those of us who have a certain variant on this gene are more likely to feel heat or spicy food more intensely, whereas others with a different variant can eat the hottest chillies and hardly break a sweat.

Some research has also indicates that the more spicy food you eat, the more your pain-threshold and tolerance to spice increases.

What are the health benefits of spicy food?

  1. Reduced blood pressure
  2. Healthy weight management
  3. Reduced risk of metabolic syndrome
  4. Improved gut microbiome
  5. Anti-ageing benefits
  6. Heals stomach ulcers
  7. Reduces pain
  8. Anti-cancer benefits
  9. Improves blood glucose levels
  10. Reduces the risk of heart disease 

1. It may help reduce blood pressure

The same gene that is activated when we eat capsaicin may also be involved in blood pressure. Research has found that the long-term consumption of capsaicin helps the blood vessels to relax and may reduce blood pressure in those with hypertension.

2. It may help with healthy weight loss

Consuming capsaicin on a regular basis may help with weight loss by increasing body temperature, which in turn increases metabolism.

3. It may help reduce metabolic syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors that can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. These risk factors include high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, abdominal obesity, high blood pressure and impaired fasting blood glucose. Capsaicin may help in reducing all these risk factors, when consumed regularly.

4. It may help improve the gut microbiome

There is growing evidence that capsaicin may help improve the gut microbiome by positively influencing its composition, abundance and function.

5. It may help with longevity

Capsaicin contains antioxidant compounds which help to reduce the risk of age-associated syndromes. Some research has demonstrated that capsaicin specifically helps to modulate the health of red blood cells, and offers a protective benefit against ageing.

6. It may help to heal stomach ulcers

Capsaicin may help heal peptic ulcers by reducing acid secretion, whilst stimulating mucus secretions and improving gastric mucosal blood flow, which in turn helps protect the gut lining and thus promotes the healing of peptic ulcers.

7. It helps to reduce pain

Capsaicin has long been known for its pain-reducing properties.  Studies have shown that using topical capsaicin creams and patches can help relieve pain in conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, muscle sprains and migraines.

8. It may have anti-cancer properties

Some research has demonstrated that capsaicin may have real potential for both cancer prevention and intervention, but more research is needed.

9. It may help improve blood glucose levels

Animal studies have so far demonstrated that capsaicin can help reduce blood glucose levels by increasing insulin, which in turn could help reduce the risk or diabetes and improve markers in those with type 2 diabetes.

10. It may reduce the risk of heart disease

A large adult study in 2019 found that regular consumption of capsaicin, in chilli peppers, was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, by reducing inflammation and other harmful processes that may contribute to the build-up of fatty plaque formation in arteries or atherosclerosis.

Can spicy food be bad for you?

For some, eating spicy food can make you feel ill. This may be because you are not used to eating spicy food, ate too much of it in one sitting, or genetically you are more sensitive to the effects of capsaicin.

If you already have a stomach ulcer, or struggle with acid reflux, you may need to minimise or avoid spicy foods in case they cause further irritation.

The heat levels in foods are measured in SHUs (Scoville heat units). A bell pepper that you find in the supermarket has a SHU scale of 0, a jalapeño chilli can reach up to 10,000 SHU and there are even some chillies that have been bred up to 2.2 million SHU. The higher the SHU, the higher the heat, and potentially the greater the side effects.

While it varies from person to person as to how much spicy food you can tolerate, symptoms from consuming too much may include abdominal pain, burning diarrhoea, chest pain, headaches and vomiting.

So, are spicy foods good for you?

Overall, spicy foods that contain capsaicin are good for you but it comes down to your own individual preference and tolerance. If you can’t tolerate a lot of spicy foods you can opt for milder varieties such as paprika or a mild chilli powder, and still reap some of the health benefits.

Further reading

How to use storecupboard spices

Heart-healthy diet: what to eat

How to eat to manage diabetes – top 10 tips

11 dried herbs every cook should own

Nicola Shubrook is a registered nutritionist with the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT), and a Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner at the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFMCP). With over 15 years experience, Nicola runs her own online clinic, Urban Wellness, specialising in mental health and eating disorders, as well as writing health features and articles on the health benefits of specific foods.

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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2024-06-06T11:52:53Z dg43tfdfdgfd