By: Ruhidayati Binti Awaludin


“Quit your job, take two tranquilizers, and cut out spicy foods.  Thirty years ago, this dictum would have summed up the advice given by well-meaning doctors, like myself, who learned in medical school that ulcers of the stomach and duodenum were due to- hurry, worry, and curry,” wrote Dr John A. McDougall in his book, Dr. McDougall’s Digestive Tune-Up.  Most people believed that the burning sensation produced after ingestion of spicy foods, burn holes in the stomach.  Some would limit their intake due to fear of gastric upset in spite of the tempting hot spicy flavor.  This is the commonest misconception people have about spices and spicy foods.

Chili pepper contains an active ingredient called capsaicin, which gives it the spicy taste.  Capsaicin has been widely used as topical analgesic, insect and animal repellents, as well as pepper spray agents.  A great deal of research has been conducted recently on the effects of capsaicin to the delicate gastrointestinal system.  Capsaicin was reported to have gastroprotective action, capability to inhibit tumor growth, and improving digestion.

The study of gastroprotective effect of capsaicin against mucosal injuries has been carried out since 1970’s by the Department of Pharmacology and Pharmacotherapy, University of Pecs in Hungary.  They concluded that the effect was brought about by enhancement of submucosal microcirculation which was induced by the release of calcitonin-gene related peptide (CGRP) after introduction of capsaicin.  Their results were supported by another group conducting similar study in Japan.  They found out that mucosal application of capsaicin does increases the gastric mucosal blood flow.  Another study proved that capsaicin plays a role in the regulation of gastric functions such as decreasing gastric acid secretion, increasing gastric emptying and increasing ‘buffering part’ of the gastric secretion.

Transient receptor potential vanilloid (TRPV1) receptor is a sensory receptor found in epithelial tissues perceiving thermal, mechanical and chemical stimulus particularly.  A research on mice conducted at the University of California in San Diego revealed that TRPV1 can also be activated intrinsically by epidermal growth factor receptor (EFGR).  EFGR when binds to epidermal growth factor will subsequently causes proliferation of the epithelial cells in the gastrointestinal tract.  An uncontrolled signaling of EFGR or presence of mutation in EFGR will results in tumor development.  Interestingly, the researchers found that activation of TRPV1 by the EFGR initiates a direct negative feedback loop on EFGR activity which in turn reducing the risk of excessive cell growth and intestinal tumor development.  This phenomenon was successfully demonstrated by feeding the mice with capsaicin to produce a chronic activation of TRPV1 receptor on the cells lining of the intestine with reduction in tumor growth.

In respect to the fact that capsaicin can increases the mucosal blood flow and at a faster rate, digestion of foods that are consumed with it is rendered easier.  Secretion of more gastric mucus and digestive enzymes speed up the process.  Harmful gut bacteria present in the digestive tract sometimes cause infections with resultant diarrhea which hinder the digestion process.  Capsaicin has the capability to fight against these bad microorganisms as proposed in an article from the New York University, Langone Medical Center few years back.

Capsaicin is now considered as the ‘irritant’ chemical that heals.  It protects the gastric mucosa from injury by various mechanisms, prevents the growth of intestinal tumor simply by counteract the inducer, together with encouragement of the digestive system.  The myths and rumors on spices are vanishing as more people become fully aware of their benefits.



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