A compound in hot peppers might also boost heart health and lower cancer odds.

By Claire Gillespie
November 11, 2020
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If you like your peppers off-the-scale hot, here's some good news. New research (to be presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2020, which will be held virtually this week) suggests that all that heat makes you less likely to die from heart disease or cancer and more likely to live longer than your mild-pepper-loving counterparts.

The new chili pepper study analyzed more than 4,729 previous studies from five leading global health databases, which included health and dietary records of more than 570,000 people in the US, China, Iran, and Italy. They found that people who ate chili peppers had a 26% less risk of dying from heart disease, a 23% less risk of dying from cancer, and a 25% less risk of dying from any cause, compared to people who rarely or never ate chili peppers.

In an American Heart Association news release, senior author Bo Xu, MD, cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic's Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute in Cleveland, said the researchers "were surprised to find that in these previously published studies, regular consumption of chili pepper was associated with an overall risk-reduction of all cause, CVD, and cancer mortality." Dr. Xu added that this highlights the way dietary factors may play an important role in overall health.

However, the researchers only tried to find a link between chili peppers and mortality, and didn't look for the exact reasons behind one. "It is impossible to conclusively say that eating more chili pepper can prolong life and reduce deaths, especially from cardiovascular factors or cancer," Dr. Xu said. "More research, especially evidence from randomized controlled studies, is needed to confirm these preliminary findings."

Previous research has found that chili peppers (of which there are many varieties, including cayenne and jalapeño) can have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticancer, and blood-glucose regulating effects. Many of the health benefits have been attributed to capsaicin, Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club, tells Health. "This is the plant compound in chili peppers that we recognize as what makes them spicy," she explains. Here are some other potential health benefits of chili peppers.

A stronger immune system

"Red chili peppers, including cayenne peppers, are an incredible source of vitamin A," Tanya B. Freirich, RD, CDN, tells Health. "This is necessary for a strong immune system, and is also known to help with eye health."

Chili peppers are also very high in vitamin C, which helps with immune function and wound healing. "A 1/4 cup of chopped chili peppers packs a full day's worth of vitamin C," says Harris-Pincus.

Protection from free radicals

Vitamin A is also a powerful antioxidant, as are flavonoids like beta carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and cryptoxanthin, which are all packed into chili peppers, too. "These substances help protect the body from effects of free radicals generated during stress and illness," Harris-Pincus explains. Free radicals may contribute to cell damage.

Lower levels of "bad" cholesterol

"Cayenne peppers are known to lower blood cholesterol and LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, increase HDL cholesterol, and prevent clotting, which can all help prevent heart attack and stroke," Freirich says. A large population-based cohort study, published in the journal PLoS One in 2017, found that eating red chili peppers is associated with a 13% lower incidence of death from heart disease and stroke.

Higher metabolism

More than two-thirds of US adults are overweight or obese, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which can increase the risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and coronary artery disease.

While there are many factors that contribute to weight gain, dietary changes can help boost metabolism. "Capsaicin may ever so slightly increase your metabolism, which can help you burn more calories both at rest and during exercise, and could increase the amount of fat you burn," Harris-Pincus says.

Less gut inflammation 

It's not just what's in a chili pepper that offers health benefits—how your body responds to that spicy heat is a factor, too. When you bite into a chili pepper, the capsaicin attaches to a receptor that communicates with other cells and tells your brain right away that it's hot. When capsaicin attaches to the same receptor in your digestive tract, it makes a chemical called anandamide. A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2017 found that anandamide reduces inflammation in the gut, which can be caused by inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), i.e. ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.

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