A funny thing happened recently when I was sampling hot sauces -- my stuffy nose disappeared as well as the remnants of my cold. So I started to wonder, is this normal, or was I just having a weird reaction to chili peppers?
"Chili peppers are a great source for anti-oxidants which support a healthy immune system," said Ashley Koff, a registered dietician and CEO of The Better Nutrition Program.
"Another component of chili peppers is capsaicin, (the key ingredient for many creams used to treat muscle and joint pain) and this can help with inflammation, which would explain your nose becoming less congested." Other health benefits of the chili pepper include plenty of unique plant nutrients that can help the body fight infections.
"Chili peppers are full of folic acid and vitamin C," said Robyn O'Brien, author of "The Unhealthy Truth," a book about the food industry. "They also contain potassium, vitamin A, beta carotene, antibacterial and anti-fungal properties." Koff said it's "not as hard as one might think" to start bringing peppers into your diet, and suggested replacing the use of salt or even ketchup with chopped peppers, cayenne pepper or pepper flakes.
"I like to use those chili flakes and just sprinkle them on anything I would normally use salt," Koff said. "Tacos, even salad. It boosts your food flavor and you get some nutrients at the same time." And while increasing the pepper intake could help the immune system, both Koff and O'Brien said sugar has the opposite effect.
"Sugar can overwork our immune system and makes it harder to fight off certain conditions and diseases because the body works twice as hard to process it," O'Brien said. As we get ready for the change of seasons, both Koff and O'Brien said it's important to up our intake of fruits and vegetables to have our immune system firing on all cylinders.
"I think so many eating choices are habitual, and it's easy to make a change if you're inspired," said O'Brien. "I grew a lot of hot chili peppers this summer and I just harvested everything…My sister-in-law saw them on my counter and said 'My grandfather used to put those in his scrambled eggs.' This was our grandparents' wisdom. They used them everyday. Today most people use processed foods everyday so we have to change this way of thinking." Here are some ways to incorporate peppers and healthier eating habits into your lifestyle.
Start your day with a little heat
A great way to kick start your immune system and your digestive system- is to start your morning with a glass of water mixed with lemon juice and a couple shakes of cayenne pepper. "But make sure your cayenne doesn't wind up at the bottom of your glass," Koff said. "This stimulates your digestive system and is a double source for Vitamin C."
Think outside the box
"I'll add a pinch of cayenne to my oatmeal," said Koff. "You can add it to mustard. Pasta sauce. Mayo. Basically, make your own spicy condiments." And while some chefs are even using hot peppers with their chocolate, Koff has another idea: "Peanut butter toast and cayenne pepper is another great combination," she said.
"Don't start eating whole chili peppers if you aren't used to spicy foods," said O'Brien. "When you overdo consumption of anything, there can be consequences such as diarrhea. If you eat too many prunes or dates, or take too much magnesium it would do the same thing. You have to find a dose that works for you." Watch out for sodium and sugar Not all sauces are the same, so Koff said to check labels carefully. "You have to be sure your hot sauce isn't a sugar bomb or sodium bomb," she said.
Remove processed foods
"So many people have written in to me that when they cut out the processed foods, they got their energy levels back," said O'Brien. "One guy said, 'I haven't worn this size pant since high school!' What we can embrace is more real food and integrating small things into your diet once a week. If you do, you will notice a difference. And your immune system will thank you for it."
Jenniffer Weigel is a writer
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