If you’re the kind of person who can’t eat anything without slathering on the Sriracha sauce, a new study published today in the journal Hypertension has some good news for you: Spicy foods may not only add some oomph to your meals, but may be giving your health a boost, too.

Researchers from Third Military Medical University in Chongqing, China analyzed the taste preferences and health of 606 people in China, and found that those who enjoyed eating spicy foods not only preferred less salty food, but ate an estimated half a teaspoon less of it per day than people who didn’t like spicy foods. What’s more, their blood pressures were lower by 8 mmHg systolic (the top number in a blood pressure reading); and 5 mmHg diastolic (the bottom number).

Additionally, when the team looked at brain scans of humans and mice after eating both salt and capsaicin—the spicy component of chili peppers—they saw that both ingredients elicited similar responses in regions of the brain known to be involved in perceiving salty taste. Spicy foods might trick the brain into thinking it is saltier than it actually is, the researchers report.

These results “may provide a new strategy for preventing high-salt-induced hypertension,” says study co-author Zhiming Zhu, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of cardiovascular medicine and metabolism and director of the Center for Hypertension and Metabolic Diseases at Daping Hospital at Third Military Medical University.  

A Simple Salt Intervention

For decades, public health officials have warned that the overconsumption of sodium (a major component of table salt) can increase the risk of high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease and stroke. A staggering 90 percent of Americans consume an average of 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day—nearly 50 percent more than the maximum 2,300 milligrams per day recommended in the Dietary Guidelines For Americans.

The study did not prove that eating spicy foods causes reductions in blood pressure, says Richard D. Wainford, Ph.D., an associate professor of pharmacology and medicine at The Whitaker Cardiovascular Institute at the Boston University School of Medicine and author of an editorial that accompanied the study. However, it does suggest that adding more spice to the diet may help people stay within recommended sodium limits.

Public health strategies aimed at getting people to lower their sodium intake have been challenging, Wainford says, because people tend to find salt tasty. “Getting somebody to stop doing something they like is incredibly hard,” he says. “Adding something that’s nice or pleasurable to your food may more palatable to the general population.”

For people who enjoy spicy food—or even those who don’t but might grow to like it with time—this study offers a compelling case that eating more of it might be a good alternative for those who have a hard time cutting salt, Wainford says.

The new findings also jibe with previous research, Wainford says, which has shown that capsaicin increases sensitivity to the taste of salt, and provides some protection against cardiometabolic diseases, such as obesity

And while the study design was solid, says Wainford, it does need to be repeated on more diverse groups of people to ensure that the results are universal. Longer-term studies are also needed to see if adding spicy foods to the diet can actually lower blood pressure.

Still, both the study authors and Wainford see no harm in rotating spicy foods or ingredients into your diet on a regular basis: “As far as I’m aware, there are no long-term negative health consequences of adding spicy food to your diet,” says Wainford, “and there could potentially be a health benefit, too.”

People with certain digestive issues, however, such as gastritis—an inflamed or irritated stomach lining that can cause stomach pain, belching, abdominal bleeding, and nausea–should limit their spicy food intake. Talk to your doctor if you’re not sure if incorporating spicy foods into your diet is a good idea for you.