Chilli is not unknown to many. In fact, it is a fiery berry (yes, you read that right!) enjoyed by people all around the world. It can be found in dishes like mala, ramen, pasta or even made into dipping sauces for our familiar local dishes like chicken rice and nasi lemak.
But did you know other than flavouring our food, chilli could actually play a part in improving our health?
The secret lies in the active component found in chilli, also known as capsaicin (CAP). Ironically, capsaicin is also what causes the burning sensation in the mouth and digestive system after eating chilli! Nevertheless, let’s take a closer look at CAP, and what role it could play in improving health.
CAP has been most closely linked to the maintenance of glucose levels in the body (also known as glucose homeostasis) and, by extension, could have influence on related diseases like diabetes.
A study conducted in obese diabetic mice has proven that CAP improves glucose homeostasis, which is essential in keeping our weight and diabetes control on track.
CAP was found to inhibit the increase of fasting blood glucose and insulin levels. This inhibition plays a massive part in glucose homeostasis – the balance of hormones like insulin and glucagon to maintain blood sugar levels – which in turn prevents diseases such as diabetes from occurring.
Insulin and Glucagon
Insulin is a hormone that allows glucose in the blood to enter cells, thus providing them with the energy to operate. Cells also convert the glucose obtained into glycogen for storage purposes.
On the other hand, glucagon is also a hormone, but it works to counterbalance the actions of insulin. When there is too little glucose in the bloodstream, it signals cells to convert the stored glycogen back into glucose for energy.
It is important to be able to properly balance the interaction of these two hormones to ensure there is always the right amount of glucose in the blood.
CAP and the Gut Microbiome
Further, CAP was found to increase the abundance of Roseburia in the gut microbiome. Roseburia is a bacterium that helps produce butyrate – a type of short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) – which helps to regulate gastrointestinal hormones and inhibit pro-inflammatory cytokines. Butyrate in particular increases insulin production and reduces glucagon production in the pancreas – this results in lower levels of glucose in the bloodstream. It also slows the stomach from emptying by slowing down digestion, thus preventing blood sugar levels from spiking.
Additionally, butyrate helps in inhibiting the secretion of ghrelin – also known as the “hunger hormone”. With lower ghrelin levels, the body would not get hungry as quickly and hence there will be a declined intake of food that causes the blood sugar to rise.
Lastly, the study showed that butyrate also helped to lower the level of inflammatory cytokines (or compounds) in the mice. By reducing these, inflammation in the mice’s body will decrease, resulting in lower insulin resistance. This means that cells in the body can respond well to insulin and use the glucose available in the blood. On the other hand, increased insulin resistance would cause the pancreas to produce even more insulin, increasing blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance is a precursor for prediabetes and diabetes.
In summary, the study showed that CAP intake could lead to improved glucose homeostasis, which could in turn fend off related diseases like diabetes.
Further research still needs to be done to fully comprehend the positive effects of CAP in humans and how we can then maximise these benefits by incorporating chilli into our daily lives. In the meantime, you can still enjoy a spicy kick with your meals – just remember to have a glass of milk nearby!
 Song, J., Ren, H., Gao, Y., Lee, C., Li, S., Zhang, F., Li, L., & Chen, H. Dietary capsaicin improves glucose homeostasis and alters the gut microbiota in obese diabetic ob/ob mice. Frontiers in Physiology, 8, 602-602. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2017.00602. Published 2017.
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