It's hot, it heats and it hurts _ yet many people enjoy eating chillies, commonly found in Thai food. Such people must enjoy torturing themselves as these little balls of fire produce a burning sensation.
Thai chilli sauce can immediately burn when we pop a pinch of it into our mouths. A couple of minutes later, it leaves us with a hotter mouth than when we first tried it. By the time we finish the spicy dish, sweat is pouring down our faces and tears are welling up in our eyes. This might be one of the downsides of eating chillies. However, when eaten correctly, the positives overweigh the negatives because chillies provide many health benefits and promote well-being.
"Well, spiciness is in fact not a flavour, not like sweet, salty and sour," said Asst Prof Aikkarach Kettawan from Mahidol University's Institute of Nutrition.
"When we eat spicy food, a burning sensation is activated by pain receptors in the tongue and then the message is sent to the brain, creating the impression that the tongue is truly on fire."
Many people think that the tiny white circular seeds in a chilli are the hottest bits. But Prof Aikkarach revealed that, in fact, it is the central white kernel that accounts for the fiery sensation.
The substance that is responsible for the painful feeling when enjoying chilli is capsaicin, and this chemical provides a wide range of potential health benefits.
Capsaicin can help control insulin levels after a meal when people regularly consume dishes containing chillies.
Prof Aikkarach cited a 2011 trial he conducted with diabetic rats that were fed with food that contained chilli paste twice a day for eight weeks. It was found that the sugar level in the rats' blood had fallen to near-normal levels. It can be concluded that people with diabetes can benefit from regularly enjoying spicy dishes.
Capsaicin in chilli, Prof Aikkarach continued, can be good for the heart as this natural substance serves as a blood thinner. "As a result, it helps promote blood circulation and prevent blood clotting that can lead to a stroke," he said. "Also acting as an antioxidant, capsaicin can help with inflammatory diseases."
What's more, it has been found that capsaicin can relieve pain. The substance is often used in creams for the relief of common muscular pains as well as inflamed joints caused by arthritis.
Prof Aikkarach noted that some people with nasal congestion eat a spicy dish containing chilli and then the symptoms quickly clear up, allowing them to breathe more easily.
"This is because capsaicin helps open nasal passages and temporarily eases common colds," he said.
Chillies are also a good source of vitamin C, helping to strengthen the immune system and heal injuries. However, Prof Aikkarach noted that not everyone can handle spicy dishes made with chillies as they may cause stomach pain, and eating too much chilli can also lead to painful bowel movements.
"Try to avoid very hot, spicy food when the stomach is empty," he advised.
He recommended people enjoy dishes containing small amounts of chilli instead of taking capsaicin in the form of dietary supplements.
"Capsaicin supplements may irritate the stomach and cause heartburn. People should take the supplement with their meal or immediately afterwards," he said. "By eating chilli in their food, people will gain other nutritional benefits including vitamin C and beta-carotene in addition to the capsaicin."
Due to these health benefits, the expert advised adding some spice to our daily diets as it not only makes dishes tastier but also helps keep people healthier.
"People should start with a small amount of spice. When their taste buds get used to it, then increase the amount in order to boost the tolerance," he said.
If you cannot handle the pain, Prof Aikkarach advised drinking milk to reduce the burning sensation in the mouth.
"Capsaicin is fat-soluble. Milk can help dissolve the substance. But make sure that the milk contains fat," he said.
"I think adding chillies to our daily diet is easy as there are so many spicy dishes in Thai cuisine. So, let's enjoy Thai food so that people can maintain good health."
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- Writer: Sukhumaporn Laiyok