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Everyone wants to speed up their metabolism and lose weight, right? Well, there’s been some interesting research regarding capsaicin and fat metabolism. While you may feel like your mouth is on fire, the capsaicin is turning your body into a fat burning machine! All of the underlined words are in the glossary below.
One study found a correlation between those with higher BMIs (Body Mass Index) and capsinoid ingestion (see study here) - those with a higher BMI experienced more fat burning over a 4-week period than those with lower BMIs. However, even those with low BMIs experienced fat burning, just not to the same extent as those who had more mass. What was the most interesting is that these capsinoids were capsaicin analogues (similar on a molecular level) that are much lower in pungency than their capsaicin cousins. So for this study in particular, it would not have mattered if you had chosen a spicier pepper over something more mild.
Another study found that obese mice supplemented with capsaicin had a lower body weight than obese mice on just a high-fat diet (study link). Their findings expanded to observing adipocytes, or fat cells. What’s interesting about adipocytes is that they can be created quickly, however, they can only shrink thereafter - not be eliminated. Many people end up rebounding from their weight loss due to multiple factors, but one reason is that the fat cells aren’t actually purged, just reduced in size. Researchers found that there were fewer large adipocytes in the adipose (fat) tissue of obese mice supplemented with dietary capsaicin than in that of the control.
This means capsaicin has the ability to change the overall size of fat cells!
Moreover, it changes the type of fat tissue. There are two types of adipose tissue - brown and white. In contrast to white fat cells, brown adipocytes contain numerous small fat droplets and a higher amount of iron-containing mitochondria (making it appear brown), as well more capillaries to distribute nutrients and oxygen throughout the body.
Higher deposits of brown fat are found in newborns, hibernating mammals, and metabolically active adults. Typically, brown adipose tissue is activated by cold environments, and its ability to dissipate energy protects the body against body fat accumulation (study link).
Capsaicin imitates the effects of cold exposure to decrease body fat through the activation of brown fat tissue!
Capsaicin’s benefits even extend into blood glucose (sugar) levels - subjects supplemented with capsaicin had significantly lower levels of glucose in their blood after an hour (study link). Red pepper was also able to decrease appetite and subsequent protein and fat intakes throughout the day when added to breakfast (study link), and was shown to increase heart rate after ingestion (as I’m sure any spice foodie can relate to!).
Chile peppers are popular in hot climates due to this increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight reaction), which causes increased sweating. Sweating a cooling mechanism for the body, and is a welcome relief in hotter climates.
Want to increase the fat burning capabilities of capsaicin?
Put it to work with science! Capsaicin is a fat-soluble, non-polar molecule – which is why they recommend drinking milk instead of water to neutralize the pepper sting in the mouth. The casein in milk is a fat-soluble, non-polar molecule that binds to the capsaicin to “neutralize” the sting away from the TRPV1 receptors in your mouth. One study found that adding a mixture of capsaicin and medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) to meals were able to increase diet-induced thermogenesis (fat burning) by over 50%! (study link) In the science world, a margin of 50% is incredible. Turn up the burn in your meals with the combo of capsaicin and medium-chain triglycerides.
? A medium-chain triglyceride is a fat that is easily digested and sent directly to your liver, where they possibly have thermogenic (heat-creating) effects and the ability to positively alter your metabolism (link). Medium-chain triglycerides don’t need bile salts to be digested and go directly from from the digestive system to the blood stream without being modified like longer chain fats. This allows the body to better utilize them over other, more complex fats (link).
Coconut oil is a great source medium-chain triglycerides — roughly 62–65% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are MCTs. While coconut oil has MCTs, concentrated MCT oil is almost entirely medium-chain triglycerides. However, I’m more of a proponent for using whole ingredients over extractions, as coconut oil has other benefits that contribute to overall health. MCT concentrates are often derived from palm and coconut oils, which may not be sustainably sourced or cleanly processed.
Coconut oil has the highest natural concentration of lauric acid apart from breastmilk, which is vital for its antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antiviral qualities.
I’ve heard the concern that peppers are a nightshade, and we should therefore avoid them due to the inflammatory alkaloids found in these plants. However, there are a few considerations. Nightshades are members of the plant family Solanaceae, whose edible members include eggplant, tomatoes, and white potatoes. Some research attributes joint pain and gut problems to certain alkaloids in these plants, due to the nature of alkaloids as a deterrent for bugs and pests. Healthy human digestive systems can handle these alkaloids, but those with compromised digestive tracts and immune systems may have a problem with consuming nightshades. So while the minor irritation of capsaicin triggers an anti-inflammatory response in a healthy individual is beneficial, it can have the opposite effect on someone who is immunocompromised. If you fall into the category of someone who is sensitive to nightshades, cooking them reduces the alkaloid content and may help, as well as addressing the root cause of the sensitivity.
Adipocyte - a cell specialized for the storage of fat, found in connective tissue.
Adipose - body tissue used for the storage of fat.
Alkaloid - any of a class of nitrogenous organic compounds of plant origin that have pronounced physiological actions on humans.
Immunocompromised - having an impaired immune system.
Mitochondria - an organelle found in large numbers in most cells, in which the biochemical processes of respiration and energy production occur.
Non-Polar Covalent Bonds - a type of bond that occurs when two atoms share a pair of electrons with each other.
Sympathetic Nervous System – a part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which also includes the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The sympathetic nervous system activates what is often termed the fight or flight response, which accelerates heart rate, widens bronchial passages, decrease movement in the large intestine, constricts blood vessels, increases peristalsis in the esophagus, cause pupillary dilation, goose bumps, sweating, and raises blood pressure.
TRPV1 Receptor - detection and regulation of body temperature, along with the sensation of scalding heat and pain.