Chili peppers are consumed worldwide, especially in China, Mexico, and Italy. Their spicy flavor is caused by the chemical compound capsaicin, and probably evolved that way to keep animals (like us) from devouring them. Ironically, these compounds may offer certain health benefits when eaten – like fighting cancer.
Why is this the case? It appears that capsaicin interacts directly with cancer cells to slow their proliferation. It does so by triggering chemical changes on the surface of the malignant cells that effectively disables them. So far, the research is promising. In one study on rodents, high doses of capsaicin slowed the growth of prostate cancer cells by up to 80%. While more research is needed, one day concentrated capsaicin may be used as a novel cancer treatment.
However, we don’t have to rely solely on the pharmaceutical route to reap the benefits– just eating them seems to work as well. Studies have long shown that consuming spicy foods may improve health and longevity.
For example, a Harvard study that assessed the health of almost a half million adults in China found that those who consumed spicy foods six or seven times a week had a 14% lower risk of premature death than those who seldom ate it. Hand me the hot sauce, please!
Here’s a look at some other compelling reasons to up your chili pepper intake:
Capsaicin has been shown to benefit pain. In fact, a new company called Centrexion Therapeutics is currently investigating a synthetic form of capsaicin in osteoarthritis of the knee and Morton’s neuroma, a painful foot condition. Injected locally, the compound works by de-activating nerve fibers so they can’t send pain signals to the brain. If it pans out in clinical trials, these painful conditions are probably just the beginning of what it could treat.
Immunity, Inflammation, and Autoimmunity
The antimicrobial and antiviral properties of capsaicin have long been known. It kills things like Helicobacter pylori, a type of bacteria that causes stomach infections, and even Group A streptococci, a major human pathogen.
It also has a powerful impact on our immune system. By inhibiting the capsaicin receptors on immune cells, it can help reduce inflammation– as seen in studies on the gum infection periodontitis. Capsaicin can also cause the migration of resident immune cells (microglia) in the brain, which help clean up brain toxins and waste.
Finally, evidence points to capsaicin’s role in autoimmune diseases – diseases that cause the body to mistakenly attacks itself. Rates of these diseases are much lower in populations that live near the equator, where there is a greater intake of spicy food, than in blander-eating polar populations. Capsaicin is already being looked at to treat some of these conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis, where it can be injected in joints to reduce pain, and type 1 diabetes, where it has been shown to reduce symptoms in mice. Other links with weight regulation and glucose regulation suggest capsicum might be a potential target for treating type 1 and type 2 diabetes in the future.
It appears capsaicin does many interesting things in the body and has broad therapeutic potential. If you’re inspired to incorporate more peppers in your diet, there are ways to be sure you’re getting the most benefit. First of all, blending, cutting, and cooking the peppers improves the release of capsaicin.
Also, don’t skip the oil – pairing peppers with fat improves absorption since capsaicin is a lipid-soluble compound.
Dan Pardi is passionate about food, movement, and sleep. Interested in developing low-cost, high value health solutions. Also interested in anthropology, evolutionary biology, exercise and inactivity physiology, cognition, neuroeconomics, decision making, circadian biology, epistemology, gastronomy, food culture and politics, agriculture, sustainable practices, and dogs. Activities include mountain biking, CrossFit, hiking, dancing, and long walks with my headphones. To learn more, and to read the full length article, please visit the Dan’s Plan blog.
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