Disclaimer: This article does not seek to encourage you to eat delirious amounts of chili and laugh like maddened wolves into the night sky (personal experience). We are seeking to examine and observe the wonders of plant compounds applied to diseases through scientific study and research. When we have a deeper understanding of what plants do for us, it raises the conscious thought and appreciation that we put into our food choices. That is all. Carry on.
I’ve been obsessed with chili since childhood. My family’s fridge was always stocked with a few different kinds of chili sauce, chili-pickled lemons, green mango pickle, kumquat pickle and of course, chili-pickled chili. Ha! I can’t imagine not having a bit of heat in my food, and not just because I am Indian. Other food cultures like Chinese, Thai, Jamaican, Korean, Mexican, Spanish, Malaysian and Hungarian also indulge in worshipful use of their own indigenous chilies.
My own chili adventures include mixing chocolate habanero into Macadamia truffles, Thai chili in raw avocado gazpacho, green chili in mint chutney and fermenting fresh, locally-grown jalapeños with watermelon and tomatoes. When I eventually opened my own restaurant, some of our favorite moments were found in deseeding large basins full of fresh red chili, processing them with dry-roasted cumin, coriander, black pepper and a fresh supply of dried tomatoes, as we made jars upon jars upon jars of harissa, finally sealed with olive oil.
Sichuan cuisine uses chili with such psychopathic abandon, turning diners into messy, giggling heaps of invigoration. Every sip of holy broth, allowing them to reach glorious peaks of chili highs, blessing the taste buds with great, sweeping landscapes of flavor, dichotomous sensations and temperatures, all the while delicately respecting the nuances of a finely cooked mushroom or a beautifully expressed whole, black cardamom.
The bass of boom box speakers pounded my internal organs on techno dance floors through most of the early-2000s. I passed many a night laughing hysterically like a deranged hyena into the night. I often felt the resonance between the sensations of consuming chili and those youthful experiences. Why exactly do I feel so invigorated and happy after eating chili?
The Link Between Chili, Endorphins and Dopamine
Capsaicin, the main compound of chili and that which creates the false burning sensation on the tongue, triggers the release of pain inhibitors in the brain, endorphins and dopamine. The rush of endorphins and dopamine create that much-loved chili high. You may experience global warmth around the periphery of your body. You may giggle maniacally, and you may befriend a wolf or two. For me personally, my ears deliciously warm up, and I feel my imagined halo materialize. Surely you see it, too. Okay, we have our chili highs but what else does the beloved chili deliver?
Capsaicinoids and Heart Health
The International Journal of Molecular Sciences states that chili contains phenolic compounds such as luteolin and quercetin. These capsaicinoids were traditionally used to treat pain, stem blood, and improve blood circulation. Further research shows that Quercetin, in particular, has the action of inhibiting cardiac hypertrophy, a precursor to hypertensive heart disease. These studies show that quercetin reduces blood pressure in patients with cardiovascular disease by reducing the amount of cholesterol buildup in the arteries. Quercetin bonds to cholesterol, carrying it out of the body.
Capsiate and Anti-Obesity
Yet another compound, capsiate, derived from sweet pepper fruit is known to enhance fat loss in humans. It works by “accelerating the oxidation of basal fatty acids (the bottom layer of fats in a cell) in the mitochondria.” My mind hearkens back to 7th Grade biology with an image of the teacher frowning at me as I was loafing in the corner of the lab, up to no good while she repeated, “mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. It makes energy.” But, as my test scores disappointingly reflected back to my parents, that’s about all I remember. Listen, like any other girl. I want clean mitochondria. More energy, faster metabolism and better health is soooooo cool. Mitochondria are not only energy producers but also responsible for spring-cleaning the immune system of dead cells (apoptosis) and of holding onto calcium ions. In turn, they are responsible for communicating between neurotransmitters and the endocrine system. When mitochondria malfunction, it leads to neurological and muscle diseases.
When administered orally, capsiate trips TRPV1, the pain receptor, which in turn leads to the breakdown of fat through thermogenesis. Imagine holding a pan with last night’s dinner grease on it, under a hot tap. Maybe you’re hung over, maybe you’re not. I’m not judging. The pan is the fatty tissue, the faucet is TRPV1 and the hot water is thermogenesis, the action of raised heat breaking down the fat and washing it down the sink. If only you could do that with ex-boyfriends, too. Sigh.
There is an abundance of research that further describes the many benefits of capsicum on human health and we have covered only just a few here, but I would like to conclude on the traditional uses of chili in indigenous cultures because I am ever-fascinated by the origins of food as medicine and by our intuitive and ritualistic uses of it. (Excluding that really awful memory of my Ma rubbing raw mulberry leaf paste all over my measles-stricken body when I was but a weasel. It stank.)
In Oaxaca, chili is burned and the smoke used to purify burial sites and the people who bury the deceased. Roads leading from churches to burial sites are also purified with chili smoke. In Native American cultures, chili was traditionally used to treat colds, fever and as a poultice for infections. In India, chili was used to treat gastrointestinal upsets, toothaches and arthritic joints. Finally, the Encyclopedia of Korean Folk Culture describes its use of chili thus:
“Upon the outbreak of a contagious disease, three red peppers are hung over the gate of a home along with the fastening ribbons from a shirt that belongs to a patient, while in some other regions, ten peppers are strung together with thread and hung near the gate. In some regions, if no smell was produced after burning peppers, it was believed that the disease had been caused by a spirit angered by the breaking of a taboo, and a shamanic ritual or a village ritual was held.”
Also by Prashantha: Raw Vegan Gnocchi with Asparagus & Beet Cream
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