Spicy Compound May Boost Heart Health

Some people can't get enough of the painful pleasure of spicy foods. Now, new research on hamsters suggests that those who like it hot may get some added heart-health benefits from capsaicinoids, the compounds that give chili peppers from jalepenos to habaneros their kick.

Scientists from the Chinese University of Hong Kong studied how capsaicinoids - capsaicin and its chemical relatives - affected the blood vessels of hamsters. Researchers fed hamsters diets high in cholesterol, and spiced up the food for some groups of the animals with varying levels of capsaicinoids.

The hamsters fed any capsaicinoids had lower levels of cholesterol in their blood, particularly LDL or "bad" cholesterol. They also had decreased plaque in their arteries compared with the hamsters that got no capsaicinoids.

The findings were presented today at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego.

Zhen-Yu Chen, a professor of food and nutritional science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and one of the study's authors, said the findings give scientists a better idea of just how spicy foods might work to improve heart health in humans.

"But we certainly do not recommend that people start consuming chilies to an excess," Chen said in a press release. "They may be a nice supplement, however, for people who find the hot flavor pleasant."

Scientists have been hot on the trail of capsaicin's potential health benefits in recent years. The compound is currently used as an effective remedy for pain associated with arthritis, neuropathy and psoriasis. Dr. Paul Bosland, co-founder and director of New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute, told ABC News that capsaicin works against pain by prompting the body to produce endorphins.

"The endorphins work to block the heat. The body produces them in response to the heat, which it senses as pain," Bosland said.

Some studies have also suggested that capsaicin may help prevent prostate cancer.

Spicy foods may even improve metabolism. A 2011 study found that foods flavored with spices like turmeric, paprika, cinnamon, rosemary, oregano and garlic powder lowered insulin and triglyceride levels after a meal in overweight but healthy male volunteers.

More work is needed on the connection between spicy compounds and cardiac health, but for now, some researchers say, that burn in your mouth should make you feel good.

ABC News' Kim Carollo contributed to this report.