In Mexico, the consumption of chili (Capsicum spp.) began in pre-Hispanic times and since then it has been part of the daily diet of Mexicans. So much so that it is said that consumption per person (per capita) varies between eight and nine kilograms, and most of it is fresh. Besides being part of Mexican dishes, it is mentioned that approximately 700 thousand tons, out of 1.9 million tons per year, are destined for foreign trade.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the benefits and possible uses of chili or capsaicinoids, mainly capsaicin, in the prevention of various ailments that affect people's health. Without minimizing some of the risks that may arise from consumption in large quantities.

The Capsicum genus belongs to the Solanaceae family and is native to the American continent, comprising around 33 species and ten varieties. Mexico is one of the main centers of origin and domestication of the Capsicum genus, as evidenced by archaeological remains of seeds located in the valley of Tehuacan, with an antiquity of 8,500 years. Among the most cultivated species worldwide are C. chinense Jacq., C. frutescens L., C. annuum L., C. pubescens Ruíz & Pav and C. baccatum L., of which the first four are present in Mexico, being C. annuum the most cultivated species both in the open air and in protected agriculture.

Aside from being part of the dishes, chili has many medicinal properties, such as stimulating digestion and as a natural analgesic to relieve pain.

Nutritional value and heat

The chemical composition of chili bell pepper fruits depends on the species, variety, and environmental conditions where they are grown. Among the chemical compounds detected are volatile oils, fatty oils, vitamins, proteins, fibers, minerals, carotenoids, and capsaicinoids. Among these, the most important are carotenoids and capsaicinoids. The former are related to color and antioxidant properties, while capsaicinoids provide the pungency (pungency) characteristic. The level of pungency varies from one species to another and is reported on the Scoville scale, in honor of the pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, who established the method in 1912. However, it has been replaced by chromatographic methods that are considered more reliable and accurate.

Tongue and capsaicinoids

Ever wonder why chili peppers irritate your tongue, mouth, and throat? Capsaicin is an irritant molecule that triggers a sensation of heat and forces the body to drink fluids in an effort to get rid of the itch. It turns out that the tongue, mouth, and throat possess receptor proteins that interact with capsaicin. And when this happens, calcium ions accumulate in the sensory neurons which in turn trigger the release of neurotransmitters that send a message to the brain, which it interprets as pain, burning, or heat. However, if the heat tolerance level of chili peppers is low, not only will the pain receptors trick the brain into thinking it is burning, but the body may exhibit an inflammatory response.

Chili and its health benefits

The use of chili peppers in traditional medicine began in ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations, who used them to treat various ailments related to asthma, coughs, sores, and toothaches. Currently, advances on the potential of the two main components, capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin, which represent 80% and 90% in the fruits, respectively, have been increasing. Creams, patches, and injections are the products available on the market. The pharmacological effects of capsaicinoids depend on the concentration, route of administration, and target organ.

Capsaicinoids and the sensation of warmth

Capsaicinoids (capsaicin, dihydrocapsaicin nordihydrocapsaicin, homodihydrocapsaicin, homocapsaicin) are a group of molecules that give chili peppers their spicy flavor and the sensation of heat when consumed. Its beneficial properties were first recorded in 4000 BC and its main use was for the treatment of pain. Today it is known that the beneficial effects of capsaicinoids depend on the dose and time of exposure. Some of these effects are described below:

Capsaicin as an analgesic

The analgesic activity was described in older papers and there is now interest in the development of new products in addition to those available on the market. Low dose oral or local administration of capsaicin reduces inflammation and pain in rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. In high doses, it is used as an option in the treatment of neuropathic pain, postoperative pain, and headaches.

In general, it can be said that the mechanism of action to reduce pain is based on chemical interaction with the receptors of sensory neurons. In these neurons, depolarization of the membrane occurs due to the movement of ions across the cell membrane. In such a way that capsaicin causes excessive heat (abrasive sensation) and leads to the reduction of pain sensation and inflammation without damaging the neurons.

Anticancer effects

Studies indicate that capsaicin in low doses prevents the development, growth, or proliferation of tumor cells and also works as a chemopreventive agent in several types of cancer (breast, prostate, colon, and stomach).

Cardioprotective effect

According to research, this protective activity may be due to the blocking of platelet aggregation and the activity of coagulation factors VIII and IX. And to the inhibitory action of LDL (low-density lipoproteins) oxidation and the reduction of total serum cholesterol.

Capsaicin activates brain mechanisms: medical studies suggest that capsaicin is known as a taste because it activates the ventral part of the insula of the brain, which is known as the gustatory area. The burning sensation caused by capsaicin in the mouth causes the body to produce endorphins as a countermeasure. Endorphins are biological molecules that the body naturally synthesizes to relieve pain by blocking the nerve's ability to send pain signals.

Another molecule called dopamine (neurotransmitter), which is responsible for the feeling of reward and pleasure, is also released. In essence, the consumption of capsaicin (fresh fruit, sauces, or concentrates), in addition to inducing physiological responses, such as facial sweating, salivation, and reduction of cardiovascular problems, can also maintain a sense of happiness that is believed to be produced through endorphins and dopamine.

Despite the benefits of capsaicinoids, there are studies indicating adverse effects. Exposure to high doses of capsaicin (above 100 mg capsaicin per kg body weight) for a prolonged time causes peptic ulcers, accelerates the development of prostate, stomach, duodenal, and liver cancer, and accelerates breast cancer metastasis.

Source: CIENCIA UANL No.104