New research out in the The BMJ yesterday suggests that the spice of life may be - well, spice. At least when it comes to longevity. The large-scale study that included almost half a million people found that those who had more spicy food - generally in the form of chili peppers - more than once a week had a reduced overall risk of death over the seven-year study period. They also had reduced risk of death from certain diseases like cancer and ischemic heart disease. Though cause-and-effect can’t be shown in a study like this one, there’s good existing evidence that some of the compounds in chili peppers, namely capsaicin, have some important health benefits, and might be behind the connection.
The researchers at Harvard's T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences looked at data from 485,000 people in China who reported on dietary habits, including how often they ate spicy foods, red meat, alcohol, and vegetables. They excluded anyone who had a history of heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. At the end of the seven-year study period, the researchers looked to see if there were any connections between diet, disease, and mortality risk.
They found that people who ate spicy foods one or two days per week had a 10% reduced risk of overall mortality, compared to those who had a spicy meal less often than once per week. Eating spicy food more than two days per week was only linked to a slight additional increase: Those who ate spicy foods three to five times and six to seven times per week all had a 14% reduced risk of dying. People who didn't drink alcohol seemed to have the most benefit.
When they looked at death from specific causes, they found that spicy foods were linked to reduced risk of death from cancer, ischaemic heart disease, and respiratory system diseases. These benefits were slightly greater for women than men.\r\n\r\nWhere was the spice coming from? It generally came from some form of chili peppers, and the team also wanted to determine whether eating dried or fresh ones made a difference. They found there was a slight one: Those who consumed fresh chili, as opposed to dried, tended to have a lower risk of death from cancer, ischemic heart disease, and diabetes.
Again, cause and effect can’t be “proven” here, it’s just a correlation. But if there is a causal link, there are certainly some strong possibilities for how it works. A compound called capsaicin is the active ingredient in chili peppers, and has been linked to an array of biological benefits in earlier studies. Also, fresh chilis are high (higher than dried ones) in vitamins C, A, K, B6, and potassium.
“Spicy food or its active components have been related to improved inflammation, reduced body adiposity, or improved lipid profiles,” says study author Lu Qi. “In addition, spicy foods may also affect gut bacteria which has been related to various chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. However, we know little about why these may occur. More studies are definitely needed to clarify the mechanisms.”
The team tried to control for variables like age, marital status, education, and physical activity, but it’s certainly possible that something else might be going on to explain the connection. It could be that spicy food is just a marker for other lifestyle choices that lead to good health.
Still, the connection is feasible, given the existing evidence on capsaicin. And it might explain why, despite how burningly painful spicy food can be, it's pretty ubiquitous in most parts of the world, and some people just can't seem to get enough of it. It's too early to prescribe the stuff for health purposes, but if you currently enjoy a spicy dish a couple of times a week, go ahead and carry on. It might provide a kick in more ways than one.
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