OK, I admit that is one of those headlines that seems far too good to be true. Full disclosure, I must confess that I (Joe G.) am a pepperhead, ie, someone who loves (actually craves) hot chili peppers. That said, there is solid science to support the claims that there is something magical about hot peppers. Research suggests that people who like to eat spicy food frequently may live longer, healthier lives. There are even data to suggest that the active ingredient in hot peppers, capsaicin, has potent anti-cancer activity.
Capsaicin vs. Cancer:
A study in the highly respected journal Pharmacology & Therapeutics (online March 26, 2022) demonstrates that sustained release capsaicin formulations have potent anti-cancer activity. Capsaicin is the compound that gives chili peppers their heat.
Ordinary capsaicin has a few drawbacks, though. Many people find the spicy taste unbearable.
In addition, capsaicin is not very soluble and not well absorbed. Encapsulating the hot spice in special extended-release drug formulations allows for pharmacologic doses to be administered.
The investigators believe that a number of cancers may be responsive to capsaicin:
“Early studies showed that capsaicin displayed robust chemopreventive activity in a several types of human cancers including lung, prostate, pancreatic, and skin cancer. Subsequent research demonstrated that capsaicin suppressed the growth and progression of human breast, lung, prostate, gastric, renal, oral cholangiocarcinoma and hepatocellular carcinoma in cell culture and animal models.”
The researchers describe the development of sustained-release drugs that use the essence of hot peppers as their active ingredients:
“The improved bioavailability and anti-neoplastic activity of capsaicin-containing sustained release drugs and related nanoparticle drug delivery systems have the potential to revolutionize cancer therapy in patients by enabling the development of novel treatment regimens in this lethal disease.”
To be published in Pharmacology & Therapeutics, Oct. 2022
The Science Behind the Health Benefits of Hot Peppers:
This is not the first hint that capsaicin may hold health benefits. Scientists studied nearly half a million Chinese adults for more than seven years (BMJ, Aug. 5, 2015). The folks who ate dishes with fresh or dried chili peppers in them several times a week were 14 percent less likely to die during the study than those who hardly ever ate them.
The investigators point out that capsaicin has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of cancer and fight inflammation. Capsaicin is also an antioxidant and has antibacterial activity.
The scientists suspect that eating chili pepper-laced food might alter the balance of bacteria in the digestive tract. The ecology of these bacteria can affect diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
Healthy Nutrients in Hot Peppers:
They observe that fresh chili peppers are also a great source of vitamins C, A, B6 and K as well as potassium and capsaicin. Which of these nutrients might be contributing to the apparent health benefits is unknown, and the epidemiologists are careful to note that their study was not able to determine causation. In other words, while we know that people eating peppers live longer, it’s not clear that it is their hot pepper habit that is responsible.
Nonetheless, many readers of this column have long been enthusiastic about the benefits of capsaicin. This hot essence has a long history of use in liniments for sore joints, and the FDA even approved a capsaicin cream, Zostrix, to treat the painful rash due to shingles.
Hot Peppers vs. Plantar Warts:
One mother reported putting capsaicin to work against resistant plantar warts:
“Our son suffered from plantar warts for more than eight years. After a long succession of procedures and medications, we were told to sprinkle cayenne pepper in his socks and have him sleep in them. We washed them each morning. After a week, the giant warts on his soles disappeared for good and have not returned.”
Hot Peppers vs. Bad Headaches:
One unexpected use for hot peppers is to stop bad headaches. We have heard from many readers who find that sipping spicy soup at the first onset of a migraine may be capable of averting it.
One woman wrote:
“My husband has been plagued with headaches from an early age, so we’re always on the lookout for something new. Although it is early in our trial of using hot salsa with chips at the onset of a headache, it has definitely stopped two headaches which would have been doozies!”
Another very surprising medicinal use of hot peppers is to help ease heartburn. One individual wrote of a difficult struggle getting off omeprazole for heartburn:
“Feeling discouraged, I ate some jalapeno-topped snacks even though my doctor had warned me to avoid anything hot. My reflux is now kept in check by jalapenos every few days without needing anything else! The reflux pain only returns if I go a week without eating any jalapenos. It eases within an hour of eating them and the relief lasts for several days.”
One woman was so worried about her husband’s love affair with hot peppers that she asked the following question:
Q. My husband loves hot chili peppers. He puts hot sauce on just about everything but ice cream-eggs, spaghetti, burgers, vegetables, you name it. He loves salsa, but I fear that all this hot stuff could cause an ulcer. Am I worrying needlessly?
A. Although spicy food is thought to be bad for digestion, there is little data to support this belief. There is even a suggestion that the essence of hot peppers (capsaicin) might be good for combating indigestion (New England Journal of Medicine, March 21, 2002).
Other Pepperheads We Know and Love:
Our friend Peter is also a pepperhead. He loves hot chili peppers. What we call hot he considers barely warm. What he considers spicy is for most people a nuclear meltdown of the mouth.
Dinner at Peter’s is always exciting. On the surface he looks like a mild-mannered, middle-aged professor-type, with a slight paunch and a little gray around the temples. He is the opposite of macho. But just put him in the kitchen with his favorite combination of hot peppers and he gets a gleam in his eye and is likely to challenge his guests to a fire-eating contest.
The last time we ate at Peter’s he introduced us to his latest discovery–scotch bonnets, also known as the hellish habanero. This makes jalapeno peppers taste like bell peppers in comparison.
Peter’s latest culinary creation was a curry that would have done justice to an erupting volcano. He had us sweating, gulping beer, and gasping for breath while he smirked with each heaping forkful.
Scoville Units–A Measure of Hotness:
Rather than rely on crude comparisons like hot, hotter and hottest or two- vs. four-alarm chili, scientists have come up with a scientific measure of spiciness. Capsaicin can be measured in something called Scoville Units, named after Wilbur Scoville, the pharmacologist who invented it. He was working at the pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis, the maker of a number of arthritis rubs that contained capsaicin. The topical application of capsaicin is thought to deplete nerve endings of something called Substance P which is necessary for the transmission of pain messages to the brain.
If you think a jalapeno pepper, like the ones you find sliced up on nachos, is hot, think again. They are only about 5,000 Scoville Units. Hot Thai peppers can reach 50,000 Scoville Units. Peter’s Scotch bonnets, purported to be the world’s most explosive pepper, can reach 300,000 units.
Hurts So Good:
Why would a grown man like Peter, who seems normal in all other respects, subject himself and his guests to periodic torture? According to Peter, the hotness “hurts so good” that he has become addicted to hot peppers and wants to share the pain/pleasure with his friends. He also touts the health benefits of his fiery recipes to his guests.
Capsaicin has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries. Herbalists have employed it to aid in digestion, to combat sore throats, colds and rheumatism. Aside from its uses in treating nerve pain, capsaicin cream is being tested for its effectiveness against skin problems such as psoriasis and vitiligo. Researchers are also looking into capsaicin’s ability to dissolve blood clots and prevent heart attacks. Animal studies show it may also lower cholesterol.
Hot peppers have long been popular in Latin America and Southeast Asia. They are now catching on in the US as well. The new research from China suggests that this may be a healthy trend.
Scientists are now figuring out exactly how hot peppers taste hot. Capsaicin activates the transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 ion channel, TRPV1 (Protein & Cell, online Jan. 2, 2017). This TRP channel is also responsible for sensing heat. No wonder hot peppers taste hot! The family of TRP channels appears to protect the kidneys from damage (Acta Physiologica, online Nov. 7, 2016).
What About You?
Do you enjoy spicy food? Do you consider yourself a pepperhead too? Share your own experience with hot peppers below in the comment section and please vote on this article at the top of the page.
If you would like to read more about hot chili peppers, here is a link to our article:
It tells you the hotness of various spicy products, which might be helpful the next time you are shopping for hot sauce.