Almost everyone knows what capsaicin is, though perhaps not by name. It’s the chemical in chili peppers that gives them their famous heat. This heat makes capsaicin ideal for spicing foods and also provides a range of medicinal properties.
Dating back to roughly 7,000 years in Mexico, chili peppers are known for their nutritional value (they're rich in vitamins and minerals). Capsaicin is also known for its antimicrobial and anticancer properties.
Capsaicin is the main ingredient in ointments, lotions, and patches that are used for pain relief. It interacts with a nerve receptor called TRPV1, which is found in the brain, peripheral nerves, bladder, blood vessels, and other areas. Since this receptor is so widely distributed throughout the body, there may be many potential health benefits of capsaicin that haven’t been researched.
Capsaicin, which doesn’t have any calories or nutrients, binds to TRPV1, a channel of nerves that detect internal or external sources of heat. Exposure to heat sources like capsaicin makes these TRPV1 receptors less sensitive over time. That means your body gradually gets more and more tolerant of capsaicin.
Capsaicin's health benefits are thought to include:
Capsaicin’s anti-inflammatory qualities are believed to be responsible for its heart-health benefits. For example, one 3-month study found that capsaicin significantly reduced the risk factors of heart disease in adults who had low HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) levels.
Some studies have found that capsaicin could slightly increase metabolism, the rate at which you use energy and burn fat. Others have indicated it might also reduce your appetite, which could help you eat less.
Capsaicin is a key ingredient in various pain-relief treatments that can be used in the form of a cream, lotion, or patch. You can buy over-the-counter versions to help with mild joint or muscle pain. Prescription-strength capsaicin patches are applied at the doctor’s office to treat conditions like postherpetic neuralgia and diabetic nerve pain in your feet.
While capsaicin does have health benefits, it's not for everyone. Some people are more sensitive to its effects than others. You might have unpleasant side effects from capsaicin, especially if your body isn't used to it.
Possible side effects of capsaicin include:
Capsaicin patches may help with pain relief, but their higher concentrations of capsaicin could cause problems for some. Nausea and vomiting are commonly reported side effects of these patches.
Capsaicin is known to irritate the lining of the digestive tract, which could cause an upset stomach and diarrhea. It may also cause food to be digested too quickly, which can make your stool burn as it passes through your body.
Capsaicin could worsen symptoms of acid reflux. The sensation of heat it creates can irritate your stomach lining, possibly causing reflux, heartburn, and other issues.
Amounts and Dosage
In a study of the use of capsaicin-based treatments for weight loss, participants reported few problems when they took 6 milligrams of capsinoids (substances that are chemically similar to capsaicin) by mouth each day for 12 weeks.
Another study that followed 27 people for 4 weeks found they were able to eat approximately 30 grams of chopped chilis per day without any noticeable negative effects on their health.