The phytochemical capsaicin is the substance found in chili peppers that contributes to the hot and spicy flavor of the chili pepper.
This miraculous compound has the unique capacity to promote a wide range of positive effects on human health, including reduced body fat, powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and improved cardiovascular health.
In fact, a recent epidemiological study investigating almost half a million people showed that the habitual consumption of chili-rich foods, loaded with capsaicin, reduced the likelihood of death from certain chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease, relative to those who did not consume chili-rich, spicy foods.1
In addition to capsaicin activating the TRPV1 receptor in certain neurons found within the gastrointestinal tract, triggering a process known as thermogenesis that burns body fat, capsaicin also produces many additional health benefits by activating the same TRPV1 receptor, yet in other tissues throughout the body.
Activation of TRPV1 within these tissues triggers the function of different protein molecules, resulting in unique effects that are tissue-specific.
Incinerate Body Fat
One of the more influential TRPV1-dependent effects from capsaicin intake is the activation of TRPV1-expressing neurons within the oral cavity and gastrointestinal tract, which ultimately increases the amount of energy expenditure in brown adipose tissue (BAT) by a process known as thermogenesis.2
Although the mechanism of action is not completely understood, some of the details include capsaicin activation of the TRPV1 receptor within the oral cavity and gastrointestinal tract, which triggers the release of noradrenaline.
The release of noradrenaline then stimulates the process of thermogenic fatty acid oxidation within BAT, which has the unique capacity of uncoupling the normally linked process of fatty acid oxidation with cellular energy production in the form of ATP. Consequently, the energy is instead directly converted into heat, which effectively increases energy expenditure.
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Several studies looking at the impact of capsaicin on metabolic rate have shown that capsaicin does enhance energy expenditure while boosting fat oxidation, promoting significant weight loss.3,4
It has also been shown that the positive influence of capsaicin on thermogenesis is greatest in those people with the most BAT5, and there is some evidence indicating that sustained intake of capsaicin can increase BAT levels in humans6 — meaning that long-term capsaicin intake could boost BAT levels, improving the capacity to thermogenically burn body fat.
Curb Your Appetite
The consumption of capsaicin can also reduce appetite and food intake2, further supporting the ability to lose weight— and, perhaps more importantly, keep it off for good. Although the appetite-suppressing effect of capsaicin has been observed in several trials, it is not entirely understood how capsaicin reduces appetite.
That said, some details have been uncovered with the release of noradrenaline triggered by capsaicin, as previously mentioned, appearing to contribute to the reduction in appetite— as the stimulation of the noradrenaline receptors in the brain has been shown to produce feelings of satiety.7
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In addition, capsaicin intake has also been shown to cause an increase in the gut-derived hormone GLP-1, which turns on regions of the brain that diminish food intake by reducing hunger.8
Moreover, this effect appears to be TRPV1-dependent, as the hunger-reducing impact of capsaicin was absent in mice that were genetically altered so they could not produce the TRPV1 receptor in gastrointestinal cells.
Overall, studies have shown that the consumption of capsaicin does decrease hunger3, as capsaicin-treated subjects typically report a reduced desire to eat while also achieving greater satiety after meals.
Improve Cardiovascular Health
Research has also demonstrated that capsaicin can improve cardiovascular health by decreasing cholesterol levels while simultaneously triggering systemic vasodilation, which altogether improves blood flow— supporting superior cardiovascular health.
Capsaicin lowers cholesterol levels in the blood in two different ways. The first approach being TVPV1-independent, where capsaicin intake increases the production of bile acids— which have the unique capacity to interact with and clear cholesterol from the blood, effectively lowering cholesterol levels.9
It has also been shown that capsaicin activation of the TRPV1 receptor in smooth muscle cells lining the arterial wall significantly reduced the accumulation of cholesterol and other lipids within the arteries by increasing cholesterol efflux out of these cells, while also reducing cholesterol uptake into these cells.10
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In fact, in mice models prone to getting plaque buildup within the arteries, dietary capsaicin was shown to slow down the accumulation of plaque within the arteries.11
In addition to its capacity to reduce cholesterol, dietary intake of capsaicin also increases the expression and activity of the enzyme nitric oxide synthase12, resulting in an increase in levels of the signaling molecule nitric oxide (NO)— which then stimulated vasodilation, and blood flow, in mice.13
Furthermore, the use of capsaicin patches in humans with mild coronary artery disease showed better cardiovascular function while exercising, compared to when the same subjects received the placebo patch with no capsaicin.14
Interestingly, use of the capsaicin patch during this study increased serum NO, which improved blood flow to the working muscles and heart for improved overall exercise performance.
Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Effects Reduce Disease
Another positive impact that capsaicin has on overall health is its exceptional capacity to uncouple the normal metabolic process of macronutrient oxidation with energy production throughout the body.
While this capability can be used to increase energy expenditure by thermogenesis in BAT, in other tissues such as the liver and heart, the uncoupling of energy production to the oxidation of fats and carbohydrates can improve health by reducing the production of superoxide free radicals that are normally produced by this process.
This is particularly the case when oxidation rates are very high, overwhelming the oxidative machinery within the cell and ultimately resulting in greater levels of superoxide free radical production.15,16
Reduction of superoxide free radical production within the above-mentioned tissues diminishes the amount of free radical damage to essential biomolecules that are required for normal cellular function, such as DNA. Free radical damage causes essential biomolecules to malfunction, which promotes the disease state.
The accumulation of oxidative damage from these superoxide free radicals also stimulates a devastating immune response that leads to chronic inflammation, further promoting the disease state.17,18
Consequently, the ability of capsaicin to extinguish free radical damage diminishes oxidative damage to key biomolecules, reducing long-term inflammation and thus the development of chronic disease— demonstrating one more way that this miraculous compound supports better health and well-being.
- Lv J, et al. Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality: population based cohort study. Bmj 2015;351: p. h3942.
- Whiting S, Derbyshire E and Tiwari BK. Capsaicinoids and capsinoids. A potential role for weight management? A systematic review of the evidence. Appetite 2012;59(2): p. 341-8.
- Ludy MJ, Moore GE and Mattes RD. The effects of capsaicin and capsiate on energy balance: critical review and meta-analyses of studies in humans. Chem Senses 2012;37(2): p. 103-21.
- Whiting S, Derbyshire EJ and Tiwari B. Could capsaicinoids help to support weight management? A systematic review and meta-analysis of energy intake data. Appetite 2014;73: p. 183-8.
- Yoneshiro T, et al. Nonpungent capsaicin analogs (capsinoids) increase energy expenditure through the activation of brown adipose tissue in humans. Am J Clin Nutr 2012;95(4): p. 845-50.
- Yoneshiro T and Saito M. Transient receptor potential activated brown fat thermogenesis as a target of food ingredients for obesity management. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 2013;16(6): p. 625-31.
- Westerterp-Plantenga MS, Smeets A and Lejeune MP. Sensory and gastrointestinal satiety effects of capsaicin on food intake. Int J Obes (Lond) 2005;29(6): p. 682-8.
- Wellman PJ. Norepinephrine and the control of food intake. Nutrition 2000;16(10): p. 837-42.
- Huang W, et al. Capsaicinoids but not their analogue capsinoids lower plasma cholesterol and possess beneficial vascular activity. J Agric Food Chem 2014;62(33): p. 8415-20.
- Ma L, et al. Activation of TRPV1 reduces vascular lipid accumulation and attenuates atherosclerosis. Cardiovasc Res 2011;92(3): p. 504-13.
- Ching, L.C., et al. Molecular mechanisms of activation of endothelial nitric oxide synthase mediated by transient receptor potential vanilloid type 1. Cardiovasc Res 2011;91(3): p. 492-501.
- Lo YC, et al. A novel capsaicin derivative VOA induced relaxation in rat mesenteric and aortic arteries: involvement of CGRP, NO, cGMP and endothelium-dependent activities. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol 2003;42(4): p. 511-20.
- Yang D, et al. Activation of TRPV1 by dietary capsaicin improves endothelium-dependent vasorelaxation and prevents hypertension. Cell Metab 2010;12(2): p. 130-41.
- Fragasso G, et al. Nitric oxide-mediated effects of transdermal capsaicin patches on the ischemic threshold in patients with stable coronary disease. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol 2004;44(3): p. 340-7.
- Negre-Salvayre A, et al. A role for uncoupling protein-2 as a regulator of mitochondrial hydrogen peroxide generation. Faseb J 1997;11(10): p. 809-15.
- Echtay KS, et al. Superoxide activates mitochondrial uncoupling proteins. Nature 2002;415(6867): p. 96-9.
- Haffner SM. The metabolic syndrome: inflammation, diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease. Am J Cardiol 2006;97(2A): p. 3A-11A.
- Lin WW and Karin M. A cytokine-mediated link between innate immunity, inflammation and cancer. J Clin Invest 2007;117(5): p. 1175-83.