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Spicy Honey Is the Sweet-Hot Cure for Coughs, Congestion + Sore Throat, Say MDs

Doctors advise why you want to have a pot of this delicious TikTok trend at the ready!

For a stuffy nose, sore throat, or a persistent cough, many folks’ go-to home remedy is a symptom-soothing spoonful of honey. But did you know that giving the natural sweetener a little kick can dramatically speed your body’s healing process? It’s true! And spicy honey packs a payload of health benefits beyond soothing cold symptoms: It aids digestion, safeguards your heart and even lifts your mood! Here, experts explain what spicy honey is, how to make it at home, and the feel-good benefits of this sweet-and-hot mashup.

What is spicy honey?

“Swicy”, or sweet + spicy, foods are TikTok’s latest trend. The app has posts with thousands of clicks on ways to make and enjoy spicy honey, including using it as a complement to shrimp, chicken, wings, sushi, and even eggs. Restaurants are also embracing the spicy honey trend. According to QSR magazine, the appearance of hot honey on restaurant menus grew by 187% between 2016 and 2020 alone.

So what exactly is in spicy honey? Basically, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Spicy honey is made by taking regular honey and adding chili peppers, red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, or a hot sauce like Tabasco to it. There are a slew of recipe variations online, with some folks adding a third ingredient such as apple cider vinegar or lemon juice for sweet acidity to balance out the honey and pepper flavors. But no matter how you bring the heat to your honey, the combo is a great condiment to have at your fingertips. Aside from tickling your tastebuds, spicy honey has far-reaching health benefits.

Spicy honey is rich in healing compounds

The two main ingredients of spicy honey each boast unique benefits. First, let’s take honey. It has a long history of not only being a sweetener, but also as a natural medicine. “Some of the earliest health benefits of honey were documented by the ancient Greeks, specifically with its ability to help heal wounds or burns,” says Michael S. Fenster, MD, a cardiologist and professor of culinary medicine at the University of Montana College of Health in Missoula, Montana.

“In modern times, we know now that honey contains a combination of bioactive compounds, minerals, probiotics, enzymes, and antioxidants, all of which can do a whole lot more to bolster our health,” Dr. Fenster explains. He adds that bioactives can, in essence, turn the gene “on” that allows us to ramp up our innate ability to make ant-oxidants and reduce inflammation. Plus, he says, probiotics are necessary for good gut health and critical for a healthy immune system.

Next, we have chili peppers. Chili peppers contain capsaicin, the natural component that gives a pepper its fieriness. Aside from bringing the heat, capsaicin is also an antioxidant, explains internist and culinary medicine specialist Jaclyn Albin, MD, an associate professor and director of the culinary medicine program at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.

When chili peppers are combined with honey, you have a potent mixture that can keep you healthy. “Both honey and capsaicin have each been shown in small studies to have either antiviral or antibacterial properties,” says Dr. Albin. “And antioxidants in food have an anti-inflammatory effect, thus they can help neutralize oxidative stress, a type of free radical which causes cellular damage.”

Chili peppers in a jar of honey used to make spicy honey
Fudio/Getty

How spicy honey speed-cures colds and viruses

While the two ingredients have compounds that can improve your health from head to toe, where they really shine is soothing symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection like a sore throat, chronic cough and congestion. Here’s how spicy honey benefits your body’s healing process.

1. Spicy honey calms a cough

When you have bothersome cough that just won’t quit, it’s spicy honey to the rescue! Honey reduces the frequency and severity of a cough, according to research in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine. The study even suggests honey may be superior to antibiotics, providing a more widely available and less expensive alternative to prescription drugs for upper respiratory tract infections.

And when you add in capsaicin-rich peppers, you only boost the benefit. Research in OTO Open found that when folks took an oral capsaicin spray four times daily, they experienced up to a 75% reduction in their chronic cough after two weeks. Scientists suspect capsaicin may reboot over-sensitized cough reflex nerves, blocking them from misfiring and triggering a chronic cough. (Need extra help? Click through to find the right throat lozenge the can help soothe a cough.)

2. Spicy honey soothes a sore throat

One of the more common (and most irritating) symptoms of an upper respiratory virus or bacterial infection is a persistently scratchy, dry, and sore throat. Enter honey. Honey has natural analgesic effects, says Dr. Fenster, referencing a study in the Brazilian Journal of Otorhinolaryngology. Researchers found folks who gargled with and then swallowed honey every 6 hours for 10 days had significantly less throat pain than those who skipped the sweet swish. They also reduced their need for painkillers to ease their sore throat. Credit goes to honey’s wound healing abilities along with its moisturizing, coating effect on the throat.

Capsaicin is also a natural pain reliever, often used as an ingredient in topical creams for joint and muscle pain. But consuming peppers can deliver the same soothing results. Here’s how it works: Molecules in capsaicin desensitize receptors that relay pain signals to the brain, quelling sore throat pain. Plus, capsaicin can tamp down pain-triggering inflammation.

A cold or flu virus, bronchitis, strep throat, and sinus infections can all cause irritation and inflammation in the throat. “Much of the pain from a sore throat stems from inflammation,” says Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, an associate professor and the director of nutrition programs in the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, Florida. “Having honey and hot peppers together brings the anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce the swelling and help with the pain,” says Wright, president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Woman with her hands touching her sore throat while sitting on the couch
Moyo Studio/Getty

3. Spicy honey clears nasal congestion

If you’ve ever bitten into a hot pepper and gotten a runny nose or felt your sinuses clear, you have capsaicin to thank. “Capsaicin initially irritates or stimulates the nerve endings, that’s the burning sensation, often causing a runny nose or watery eyes as well,” says Dr. Albin.  

One Cochrane review suggests nasal sprays containing capsaicin improve symptoms like nasal congestion and sneezing even better than a common nasal steroid (budesonide), thanks to its anti-inflammatory proprieties.

But honey can also lend a hand when it comes to clearing congestion. Inflammation of the linings of the nasal cavity (also known as sinusitis) constricts airflow, making it difficult to breathe and expel mucus. “The combo of swollen and inflamed tissues plus backed-up mucus is what causes your nose to feel stuffed,” Dr. Albin explains. Anti-inflammatory honey helps curb this swelling, plus thins mucus so it’s easier to expel. (Click through to our sister publication for more spicy recipes to clear your sinuses and for essential oils that relieve congestion.)

An illustration of sinusitis, or swollen and inflamed nasal cavities
sabelskaya/Getty

3 more health benefits of spicy honey

Spicy honey can do more than just soothe cold symptoms. Here’s why you might want to make it a part of your daily diet long past sick season ends.

1. It aids digestion

Foods like honey are powerful adjunctive agents that help keep our gut microbiome healthy, says Dr. Fenster. “Research has found that honey can function as a symbiotic, which contains both probiotics, colonies of active beneficial bacteria, and prebiotics, food sources such as certain types of fiber that help healthy bacteria to grow in your gut,” he adds. (Click through to learn how eating oats can promote healthy digestion.)

Honey also contains oligosaccharides, carbohydrates made up of single sugars that pass into the intestines and help feed healthy gut biomes, says Wright. “A healthy microbiome leads to better digestion. We know the gut is linked to and part of the immune system. So a healthy gut helps the immune system so much more,” she adds.

Capsaicin can also alter the gut microbiome in a good way, a study in the journal Molecules shows. It increases beneficial bacteria for flora balance, and decreases a type of bacteria that can induce inflammation. Note: If you have a sensitive stomach or gastrointestinal issues such as an ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), you might want to skip the capsaicin. Its spiciness can trigger abdominal pain. (Click through to our sister publication to see why yogurt is one of the best natural treatments for SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.)

2. It keeps your heart healthy

The most important ingredients in spicy honey help ward off cardiovascular disease. According to the American Heart Association, honey’s phenolic acids and flavonoids help improve cholesterol levels and curb heart disease risk. How? it lowers total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol while increasing “good” HDL cholesterol. And a University of Toronto study found honey lowers triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood that ups the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Chili peppers’ capsaicin also protects your ticker. A study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found people who eat chili peppers on a regular basis (more than 4 times a week) are 33% less likely to develop fatal heart disease than those who rarely or never ate spicy peppers. Researchers believe capsaicin helps reduce the inflammation and other harmful processes involved in fatty plaque build-up in the arteries.

3. It lifts your mood

Spicy honey not only fires up your food, but it improves your mood, too. Research in Psychiatry Investigation suggests capsaicin triggers the release of endorphins and dopamine, two feel-good hormones that lift your spirits. Honey has also been shown to improve your mood, according to research in Frontiers in Aging. It decreases anxiety and depression levels in part by spurring the release of uplifting serotonin. (Click through to see how else you can quickly ease anxiety.)

How to make spicy honey

Ready to tap into the feel-good power of spicy honey? While there are some pre-made hot honey products out there, it’s better (and cheaper!) to make it at home. “If it’s simple to do, I always recommend making things yourself at home because it allows you to control the ingredients,” says Dr. Albin. “Pre-made bottled hot honey you can buy is less likely to be locally sourced, and you can improve freshness while minimizing additives and preservatives if you make your own.”

Wright agrees, adding that making your own spicy honey gives you the option of how sweet or spicy you want to go. “When you prepare spicy honey yourself, it gives you the chance create it to your own palate, deciding whether to go less or more intense on the amount of peppers or pepper flakes you add.” 

Sweet and spicy honey recipe

Making spicy honey couldn’t be easier, thanks to Lauri Wright’s simple recipe.

Ingredients:

  • 1 to 1 ½ cup honey
  • 3 – 5 fresh chilies 

Directions:

  • Pour honey into a medium saucepan and add the peppers. Bring to a boil over medium heat.
  • Reduce the heat and simmer for about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
  • Allow the honey to cool and remove the pepper pieces. If you have loose seeds, strain the honey to remove them. 

Store spicy honey in an airtight jar and refrigerate. It should last at least a month. 

How to use spicy honey to soothe cold symptoms

For relief from a cold, virus or upper respiratory tract infection, your best bet is enjoying spicy honey in a warm cup of tea. While some people combine cayenne, honey, and warm water, Dr. Albin suggests adding spicy honey to tea is an easier and more pleasant way to enjoy its benefits. “Hot honey pairs well with herbal teas like chamomile or a turmeric ginger herbal tea to soothe a sore throat,” she notes. One to try: Traditional Medicinals’s Tumeric & Ginger Tea (Buy from Target, $5.79).

A glass cup of tea with honey, ginger and lemon
Dmitrii Ivanov/Getty

More ways to use spicy honey

“I’ve personally have used and enjoyed spicy honey in many culinary forms,” says Dr. Fenster. “You can add hot honey to coffee, use it to top off a dessert like a bread pudding or honey cake, or with some naturally aged cheeses such as goat or blue cheese. These are all a great way to end a meal.”

Dr. Albin also touts the tasty combination of spicy honey with cheese. “I recently tried spicy honey drizzled on goat cheese and served with whole wheat crackers and found it’s a great combination of sweet and savory.” Other options? “Hot honey would also be tasty on baked salmon or fish, and pair well with roasted vegetables such a sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and Brussel sprouts to add complexity to the flavor,” Dr. Albin says.

Wright suggests using spicy honey as a topping for ice cream, yogurt, or fresh fruit. “You can even use it to make a dip to serve along with cheese and crackers,” she suggests. Need more ideas? People on Reddit have posted some creative ways to use spicy honey, including using it to flavor chickpeas, pizza, fried chicken and waffles, oatmeal, cottage cheese, or even drizzled onto a peanut butter sandwich. (Click through for a mouthwatering hot honey chicken recipe.)

Brie cheese with honey, nuts and fresh fig
Alexandr Vorontsov/Getty

Read on for more ways to outsmart colds and viruses:

MD: The Active Ingredient in Star Anise Is the Same One That Powers Tamiflu — Here’s How to Reap the Immune-Boosting Benefits

4 Affordable, Immunity-Boosting Supplements Doctors Take to Stay Healthy

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