Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death for Americans, with more than $ 219 billion spent annually to treat the millions who have some form of the disease.1 This is true for people of almost all races and ethnicities, and 1 in 4 U.S. deaths is caused by the condition.
For decades, researchers have sought answers in the form of diet and exercise recommendations, new drug therapies and additional lifestyle interventions. A group of Italian scientists offers new insights into prevention of the disease with what is considered a kitchen staple in many parts of the globe: the colorful chili pepper.
Citing the need for more careful examination of the role of this vegetable in a Mediterranean diet, Marialaura Bonaccio, Ph.D., and a team of 12 others from Pozzilli, Italy, conducted a longitudinal analysis involving 22,811 men and women.
They used a food frequency questionnaire to determine how often each person consumed chili peppers; this was then compared to disease and mortality rates in the group.
As reported in the December 2019 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, it was found that “regular consumption of chili pepper is associated with a lower risk of total and CVD death independent of CVD risk factors or adherence to a Mediterranean diet.”2
Those who ate the spicy vegetable had a 40% lower risk of having a fatal heart attack; their risk of stroke went down more than 50%.3 The effect was noted to be stronger in those who did not have high blood pressure.
Bonaccio noted that the effects were not tied to whether someone followed a Mediterranean diet, known to offer a wealth of heart-protective health benefits. The researchers also noted that regular consumption of chili peppers was inversely associated with cerebrovascular and ischemic heart disease death risks.
While this does not mean that chili peppers are the cure for CVD, it does offer insights into the importance of eating healthily and embracing natural options to pursue optimal health.
CVD: Multiple Causes, Multiple Approaches to Address It
CVD is influenced by a number of factors, including lifestyle choices.4 The CDC reports that 47% of Americans have at least one of three risk factors for developing heart disease, such as smoking and high blood pressure.
While those numbers are daunting, the good news is you have a great deal of control over your heart health. The CDC also notes that drinking too much alcohol, failing to get enough exercise and regularly choosing unhealthy foods can also raise your heart disease risk.
By taking control of your daily habits you can tip the scales in your favor, so to speak, to help prevent the development of obesity and diabetes, which also contribute to your risk for CVD. Chili peppers, as part of an overall healthy diet, can spice up your meals while potentially offering additional health benefits including reduced risks for rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and even acne.5,6,7
The Capsaicin Connection
Chili peppers belong to the nightshade family with varieties that include cayenne, jalapeno, habanero and serrano peppers. They were first cultivated by ancient farmers in Central and South America, regions where cuisines are famous for their piquant flavor.
Today, they are grown all over the world, but Mexico, China, Spain, Nigeria and Turkey are among the largest commercial producers. Chili pepper contains a bioactive plant compound called capsaicin, which is responsible for its hot and spicy kick. Capsaicin is concentrated in the seeds and white inner membrane; the more capsaicin it contains, the spicier the pepper.
Capsaicin is a compound produced to protect the peppers from fungal attack.8 It is colorless and odorless, but when you eat it, it tricks your brain into perceiving heat where it touches your body. The burning sensation the compound imparts is not actually a taste.9
Rather, it’s caused by the stimulation of nerves sending two messages to the brain of intense stimulus and warmth. The burning sensation is due to the combination of these two messages.
A High-Quality Component of Your Overall Health Strategy
Capsaicin has been studied comprehensively, and you may be surprised at what it can do. The following are prominent examples:
Pain Relief — Capsaicin may help relieve pain by exhausting your body’s supply of substance P, a chemical found in your nerve cells that plays a role in transmitting pain signals to your brain. In one study, heartburn sufferers were given 2.5 grams of red chili peppers per day. They noted that at the beginning of the treatment, pain slightly worsened, but then gradually improved over time.10
In another study, 80% of those treated with capsaicin experienced a reduction in pain after two weeks. The authors of a separate investigation found that in those with moderate pain, a topical capsaicin treatment was effective in reducing intensity regardless of the site of application and dose.
Weight Management — Spicy foods, quite literally, can help burn fat and help you lose weight. In a study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, participants were given 10 grams of red pepper during a meal.
After eating, the researchers monitored the participants’ energy expenditure and learned that chili peppers increased it after consumption.11 It is believed that your body can burn an extra 50 calories per day if you consume capsaicin regularly.12
Reduce Hunger — Several studies have shown that capsaicin may help reduce hunger.13,14,15,16 According to a study published in the European Journal of Nutrition, capsaicin works by reducing the production of ghrelin, the hormone responsible for triggering hunger.17
Blood Pressure Maintenance — Capsaicin may help promote long-term heart health. According to the authors of one study, mice affected with high blood pressure experienced relief after they consumed food mixed with capsaicin. The researchers went on to suggest that capsaicin activates the transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 (TRPV1), which contributes to vasorelaxation and lowered blood pressure.18
Boost Digestive Health — Aside from reducing hunger, capsaicin may help promote a well-functioning digestive tract. Scientists found that in one study, it enhanced the buffering component of gastric secretory responses and gastric emptying and it prevented gastric mucosal damage from ethanol-based beverages.19
Another group of scientists suggested that capsaicin can help promote the healing of gastric ulcers by inhibiting acid secretion, as well as stimulating alkali and mucus production and gastric blood flow.20
May Lower the Risk of Cancer — Capsaicin may have the ability to fight against cancer by attacking pathways in the growth of cancer cells. Results of one study were presented during the 2019 Experimental Biology meeting held in Orlando, Florida.21 The researchers were interested in evaluating the ability of capsaicin to reduce metastasis in lung adenocarcinoma, which accounts for the majority of all non-small cell lung cancers.
In vitro experimentation led to the discovery that capsaicin stopped metastasis by blocking the activation of a key protein regulating the proliferation and motility of cancer cells, the Src protein.
Add Ginger to Boost Anticancer Activity
While capsaicin alone is a powerful molecule, in combination with 6-gingerol found in raw ginger root, it becomes even more important to your health. Researchers discovered that mice prone to lung cancer experienced a reduction in diagnosis when fed a combination of capsaicin and 6-gingerol.22
Together the chemicals had an increased ability to bind to a receptor that is responsible for tumor cell growth. This ability reduced the potential for developing lung cancer in the experimental animals. During the study, researchers fed one group just capsaicin, another just 6-gingerol and the third a combination of the two.
While under observation, all of the mice that received capsaicin developed lung tumors; half the mice that received 6-gingerol developed lung tumors, but only 20% of the mice given the combination developed cancer.23
However, even on their own, both ginger and capsaicin have powerful health effects. Ginger has a long history of calming nausea related to surgery, morning sickness and chemotherapy.
The anti-inflammatory properties have given many people relief with the pain of osteoarthritis. As ginger also increases the motility of your gastrointestinal tract, it has been used for the treatment of chronic indigestion.
Significantly reducing pain associated with menstrual disorders and improving brain function are other health benefits associated with ginger.
A Natural Immune System Booster
Bright red chili peppers contain beta carotene. According to WH Foods, just 2 teaspoons provide 6% of your daily recommended dose of vitamin C and more than 10% of vitamin A.24 Vitamin A is vital to the health of the mucous membranes lining your nasal passages, lungs and intestinal tract.
Capsaicin supplementation may also reduce your risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).25 In one investigation, researchers evaluated the effects of capsaicin on serum lipid profiles in those who had low high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
Using a randomized, double-blind, controlled clinical trial with 42 participants, half were assigned to take capsaicin daily while the other served as the control group. Those in the experimental group experienced a reduction in triglycerides and C-reactive protein.
Capsaicin appeared to improve risk factors in those who had low HDL, and the researchers concluded it may contribute to the prevention and treatment of CHD.
The authors of another study, published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, found those using an over-the-counter pain salve with capsaicin could reduce damage to the heart during a heart attack. Keith Jones, Ph.D., a researcher on this study, commented:26
“Both this and the capsaicin effect are shown to work through similar neurological mechanisms. These are the most powerful cardioprotective effects recorded to date. This is a form of remote cardioprotection, using a skin stimulus that activates cardioprotection long before the blocked coronary artery is opened.”
Convincingly Helpful, but Perhaps Not for Everyone
While the benefits of capsaicin-containing foods are notably plentiful, eating chili peppers is not considered a cure-all. Some people cannot tolerate the compound or the flavor, while others may find it upsets existing conditions.
The authors of one study found that long-term topical application of capsaicin increased the risk of skin cancer in mice when applied along with a tumor promotor, for instance.27 For most people, however, eating chili peppers will be a beneficial way to get added nutrition, and may prove to be beneficial for heart health. If you’re considering supplementation, a natural health care practitioner can help you determine if capsaicin is right for you.
Delicious Options to Try at Home
Incorporating nutritious foods into your everyday diet can be easier than you think. Whether you love the textures and flavors of fruits and vegetables or you have to “hide” them in your meals to enjoy their benefits, a number of options are available for meeting your vitamin and mineral needs.
Check out the recipes section of my website for heart-healthy dishes you and your family are sure to enjoy.