Chili pepper spice can boost heart health

Here's some good news for all you lovers of spicy foods: A key compound found in chili peppers can help protect your heart.

That compound is capsaicin, part of a family of compounds called capsaicinoids, and it's long been recognized for its heart-friendly benefits (along with another I'll tell you about in a moment). And now, a new study finds it can slash levels of LDL cholesterol and improve overall arterial health.

Researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong gave two sets of hamsters a high-fat diet with one difference: One set of hamsters got plenty of capsaicinoids in their diet, while the other got none.

Those that got all those spicy capsaicinoids had lower levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol. More importantly, the capsaicin also blocked the gene that causes arteries to contract -- allowing blood to flow more freely to the heart.

It's a small study on hamsters, but it's not the first to find capsaicin can protect the heart. Other studies have shown that this spicy compound can help slash your triglycerides, thin your blood and reduce the damage of oxidation in your arteries.

The only "catch" here is that capsaicin is the same compound that gives peppers their heat. Habanero peppers and Scotch bonnets, for example, have the most -- and not everyone can handle those.

If you can't take the heat yourself, you can get capsaicin in capsule form.

Capsaicin is also a key ingredient in some very effective pain-relief balms for people suffering from osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, shingles, diabetic neuropathy, and more.

And for pain relief, you'll want a topical balm rather than capsules or Scotch bonnets.

You'll actually feel the heat when you rub it in -- it might even hurt a little at first. And whatever you do, don't touch your eyes or any other sensitive spots after handling it, or you'll be in for the sting of your life.

One important safety note: Don't take capsaicin in any form if you're on blood-thinning medication.