The unexpected health benefit of spicy foods

If you’ve ever suffered muscle cramps you’ll know they are generally associated with exercise. You might have been woken in the middle of the night gripping your calf as the muscle went into spasm after your afternoon run, or your thighs give way just as your about to return serve in a tennis match, for example.

While your cramps will happen as you’re lying in bed, after you’ve stretched and even before you have had a chance to get your workout in, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Rod MacKinnon says the cause of your cramps could be from a malfunctioning nervous system.

When Dr MacKinnon’s hands and arms cramped up dangerously while he was out kayaking with his colleague Bruce Bean, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School, he knew hydration and electrolytes had nothing to do with the condition, but it was only when they were safely back on dry land that they could investigate further.

For whatever reason, MacKinnon and Bean turned their focus from the muscles to the nervous system to determine the cause of the cramping.

What the pair wanted to do was numb the nerves that triggered the cramp and this led them to ingesting “pungent tasting foods” so as to stimulate the receptors in the mouth and oesophagus and overload the nervous system to cause the numbing effect.

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You’d know that this is commonly what happens when you eat spicy food, such as chilli.

MacKinnon made spicy drinks using vast amounts of ginger and cinnamon in his kitchen and used himself as a test subject. It was a test that lasted more than 10 years, but by the end of it MacKinnon was convinced.

According to MacKinnon there is no benefit to having a muscle cramp, which means that his and Bean’s findings about spicy food aren’t dangerous in any way to your body… Well, except for the obvious.

He says that while the concoction mightn’t be the most appealing flavour to have first thing in the morning he has found that a drink of the cinnamon, ginger and spicy pepper mix has prevented cramping.

Do you enjoy eating spicy food? What other benefits of spicy foods are you aware of?