Drug Made from Capsaicin in Chili Peppers Shown to Be Effective At Fighting Obesity

A vendor sells chili peppers in the Philippines. Capsaicin, which makes chili peppers spicy, has been shown to have health benefits. NOEL CELIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Chili peppers have long been thought to have health benefits, and now scientists have wrangled those to fight obesity.

Scientists from the University of Wyoming's School of Pharmacy have developed a new anti-obesity drug, called Metabocin, derived from an active component in chili peppers called capsaicin. The team will present its findings at the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior's annual meeting on July 20 in Bonita Springs, Florida.

Capsaicin, which makes chili peppers spicy, has been known to have health benefits. However, scientists have struggled with how to use the compound without it irritating the stomach or making it difficult to swallow, due to how fiery it is.

"In order to decrease this effect, we've prepared a polymer-coated formulation for capsaicin. This is going to release capsaicin in a much slower fashion," Baskaran Thyagarajan, an associate professor of pharmaceutics and neuroscience at the University of Wyoming and leader of the study, told Newsweek. "The person who takes it will not feel the burning pain but will enjoy the effect of capsaicin for a longer time."

According to the study, Metabocin, an oral drug, causes white fat cells to stop storing energy and instead burn energy. This turns the white fat into brown fat, which is more metabolically active and helps you burn calories. In Thyagarajan's study, the capsaicin-containing Metabocin was given to mice. Thyagarajan said the researchers expected the mice to eat less food than the mice who did not take the drug. However, what they saw was much different.

"Both the groups ate equal amounts of food and received equal amounts of energy, but the capsaicin-fed group lost weight," Thyagarajan said. "We were totally surprised."

The scientists studied the mice for eight months and found no toxicity in them as a result of the drug. They plan to test the drug for longer periods of time, but the lack of negative effects was highly encouraging. Not only that, but they found the drug could do more than just treat obesity.

"Capsaicin not only prevented obesity or promoted weight loss. It was also very effective in increasing insulin sensitivity in mice," Thyagarajan said. This finding could help people with diabetes who struggle with low insulin sensitivity.

Despite these findings, this doesn't mean that eating chili peppers will help someone lose weight. Thyagarajan calculated the exact amount of capsaicin needed to help humans lose weight—an amount someone can't get just from eating a chili pepper. He explained, "Consuming chili peppers will definitely have benefits, but you won't be able to get the full benefits of capsaicin."