Spicy food has long been linked to several health benefits, such as low blood pressure, weight loss, even an increased life span. Many of these benefits stem from spicy foods’ ability to heat up the body, which helps calories burn faster and speeds up your metabolism. The components capsaicin and curcumin play a major role as well, especially when it comes to preventing diseases and decreasing inflammation.
And now a study from China has detected another way spicy food enhances your health: by tricking the brain to crave less salt.
High Spice Tolerance = Healthy Heart?
Researchers led by Dr. Zhiming Zhu, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Third Military Medical University, enlisted approximately 600 adults who were divided into three groups.
The groups were based on how well the participants could tolerate a solution containing the aforementioned capsaicin, which is found in chili peppers. Each participant was therefore placed in either the low, medium or high tolerance group. Participants also reported how many grams of salt they typically consume in a given day.
The team discovered that the participants who consumed the most salt were the most sensitive to the spicy solution, while the participants who consumed the least salt had the highest spice tolerance. Members of the high tolerance group also had lower blood pressure than the low tolerance group.
It’s All The Same To Your Brain
To gain further insight on why certain people react different to spicy or salty flavors, researchers performed brain scans as participants tasted spicy or salty solutions. The scans focused on the insular and orbitofrontal cortex, two regions of the brain that are stimulated by salt.
It turned out that the areas stimulated by salt and spice overlapped, and the spicy taste actually increased brain activity in the two scanned cortexes. This suggests that when a spicy food is consumed, it tricks the brain into perceiving that a salty food is being consumed even though the item in question likely contains very little salt.
The team said that the increased brain activity following consumption of spicy food makes the person more sensitive salt and therefore less likely to crave it.
A Potential Substitute For Salt Content
“Our study shows that the enjoyment of spicy flavor is an important way to reduce salt intake and blood pressure, no matter the type of food and the amount of food,” Dr. Zhu told Reuters via email.
“We advise people to enjoy spicy food in their daily life as long as they can tolerate. We do not recommend people who can’t tolerate pungent of chili pepper consume spicy food frequently.”
The results support previous research that found that small amounts of capsaicin might be able to heighten salty flavoring. Adding the component could theoretically allow people to get the salty flavor they are craving even though they are only consuming a low amount of salt.