Chilis are one hot secret
Red chili and green chili are staples of Thai and Indian cuisines, and the spices convey many reported health benefits—such as adding years to your life. Well, now you can add helping to ease colds to the list. What makes these spices so special? “Capsaicin, which is found in hot peppers, has been shown to have antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties,” explains Lisa Cohn, RD, a consultant for miVIP Surgery Centers. If you’ve ever taken a bite of a spicy dish, you’ve felt capsaicin in action. It can cause a runny nose and watery eyes—and that’s why it works. “These reactions will help release the locked mucous and open the nasal airways,” says Dr. David Greuner from NYC Surgical Associates. “Capsaicin is a very effective decongestant,” says executive chef Anil Bathwal from The Kati Roll Company. “Green chili, more so than the red variety, is also very high in Vitamin C—another recognized cold fighter,” he adds.
Garlic, ginger and more
Southeast Asian cuisine features other commonly used ingredients that also convey decongestant and antioxidant powers. Garlic has been shown in some studies to help reduce the severity of colds. Ginger, universally used in Thai and Indian dishes, is known for its ability to fight inflammation and soothe sore throats and mucus tissues. Bathwal also points out that most Indian spices are also high in zinc— including cardamom, mustard seed, caraway, cumin, anise, and turmeric—and notes that that zinc has been shown in studies to reduce the effects and duration of the common cold.
One of the most common ingredients in southeast asian cuisine, turmeric, is a wonder drug in itself. When combined with ginger, it’s like a one-two punch to the common cold. “Both turmeric and ginger have been standard components of traditional Indian home remedies for colds and coughs,” says Bathwal. “The combination is meant to have synergistic anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and antiseptic properties.”
How hot can you go?
So, when it comes to these beneficial spices, is there a limit to how much a person can take? “There is a measurement called the Scoville Scale, which measures the quantity of capsicum in a pepper—the more capsicum, the more spicy the pepper is and the more irritated the mucous membranes will become if it is ingested,” says Rebecca Lewis, registered dietitian at HelloFresh. The world’s spiciest pepper is called Bhut jolokia and comes from India. The jalapeno, a pepper most often used in Mexican foods, actually rates pretty low on the Scoville scale. Cayenne pepper is in the middle on the Scoville scale.
If you eat spicy food regularly, you can develop a tolerance to the peppers and they’ll no longer irritate your mucous membranes so much. In that case, says Lewis, only the spiciest of peppers with the highest capsicum quantities will cause your nose to run.
Go hot, not just spicy
Spicy foods that are prepared in warm broth are like a double whammy, as consuming warm liquids can help open and drain sinuses, ease breathing, expand the lungs, and relieve congestion. “Heated spices also help release capsaicin,” says Cohn. Spicy foods also increase body temperature and perspiration, which helps the body fight against viral and other infectious agents.
Simmering to salvation
Zoe Jane McClean/Shutterstock
Cooking down spicy foods like peppers, horseradish, cayenne, and crushed red pepper, into a sauce actually allows for a better release of the active ingredients than consuming the foods alone, providing improved immune system support. “These substances can also create an irritation to the lining of the sinuses and digestive system, which can facilitate a natural cleansing and elimination of bacteria,” says Cohn. Try this curry recipe, or mix it with traditional “Jewish penicillin,” AKA chicken soup, though this is a curried chicken soup, for extra cold-fighting power.
All chilis are not created equal
Southeast asian cooking is not the only cuisine to employ chilis, so why is it so effective at fighting colds? “The difference between cuisines like Indian/Thai and Mexican food is that Indian/Thai actually have more of these main ingredients in raw form as opposed to being mixed with foods like rice and beans that cool down these strong flavors,” says Dr. Greuner. The more raw the ingredient, the more potent it will be in clearing your congestion.