When was the last time you ate a spicy curry or enjoyed a hot and sour soup? New research published in the medical journal The BMJ (formerly The British Medical Journal) found that enjoying a spicy meal at least once a week just might save your life.
Scientists from Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, the University of Oxford, Peking University Health Center, and various departments of public health throughout China, explored the relationship between eating spicy food and the risk of death from all causes as well as specific causes like cancer and heart disease. The study examined 288,082 women and 199,293 men aged 30 to 79 from ten geographically diverse regions throughout China to determine possible links. People with cancer, heart disease and stroke were excluded from the study.
During the 3,500,004 person-years of follow-up between 2004 and 2013, the researchers determined that eating spicy food at least once a week significantly reduced the risk of all-cause mortality. The results were especially good in those individuals who did not drink alcohol than for those who did. The study also found that eating spicy food reduced the risk of dying from heart disease, cancer and respiratory diseases. Additionally, those who ate spicy foods six or seven times weekly had an additional 14 percent reduction in mortality over those who ate spicy foods only once a week, showing that the results are dose-dependent, or increased based on eating spicy food more frequently. There was no significant difference in the results between women and men who participated in the study.
The researchers believe that the results are likely linked to capsaicin, one of the active ingredients found in chili peppers—the common ingredient used in spicy food in this study and in most spicy food. Capsaicin has been linked to a reduced incidence of cancer in an earlier study published in the journal Experimental Biology and Medicine. The most obvious link between the reduced incidence of cancer and other causes of death is capsaicin’s ability to reduce inflammation. Inflammation has been linked with many diseases, including: cancer, heart disease, arthritis and obesity.
But, suppressing inflammation isn’t the only way that spicing up your food can help reduce the likelihood of disease and death. According to the Experimental Biology and Medicine study, spices like chili peppers can suppress cancer cell survival, proliferation and invasion, as well as the creation of new blood vessels that feed tumor cells (known as angiogenesis).
According to the BMJ study, the chilies in spicy food may also have an impact on microbes in the gut. The capsaicin in chilies may offer protection against mortality by killing harmful bacteria while allowing beneficial bacteria known as probiotics to flourish. More studies are needed in this area to determine the gut-specific effects of capsaicin and chilies outside of their anti-inflammatory effects which are well-documented.
You can reap the benefits of the study by incorporating more fresh or dried chilies into your soups, stews, curries, salsas, and other dishes. Wear gloves when slicing fresh chilies and wash hands thoroughly afterward. Check with your doctor if you suffer from ulcers before eating spicy food.
While the researchers continue to study the effects of spicy food on health, I’m heading to my garden to pluck a few cayenne peppers to add to my dinner. I’m already a spicy food lover, but now there’s more reason than ever to spice up my life.