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Spice up your meals, live longer

By Chukwuma Muanya, Assistant Editor   |   29 December 2016   |   2:33 am
Chilli pepper...

Chilli pepper…

• Curry,ginger, chili peppers help slow aggressive tumours growth
• Regular consumption linked to lower risk of early death

Spicing your meals with curry, ginger and chilli pepper this Yuletide could help to fight arthritis, diabetes, breast cancer, heart diseases, and ultimately live longer.

Scientists have found that an active ingredient of pungent substances, such as chilli and pepper, inhibits the growth of tumours.Capsaicin – responsible for the fiery sensation after consumption – also caused triple-negative cells to die in their masses.

Currently chemotherapy is the only treatment option for the most aggressive form of breast cancer. And experts warn that it is unlikely just eating lots of spice alone could help to combat the disease.

Researchers from Ruhr-University at Bochum, Germany, carried out tests on cell cultures designed to replicate triple-negative breast cancer.
Capsaicin was added to them for a period of several hours each day. The existence of the Transient Receptor Potential Channels (TRPV1) was found in nine different samples from patients with breast cancer.

As a result, the cancerous cells divided more slowly, the findings published in the journal Breast Cancer – Targets and Therapy found.It also allowed them to die in larger numbers, preventing the surviving cells to move as quickly – impairing their ability to spread around the body.

Lead author Professor Hanns Hatt said: “If we could switch on the TRPV1 receptor with specific drugs, this might constitute a new treatment approach for this type of cancer.”

Capsaicin is known to provide temporarily relief of muscle or joint pain caused by strains, arthritis and bruising.While previous research has also found it can help to kill other forms of cancer.The compound was discovered by scientists, from the Indian Institute of Technology, to bind to cells’ membranes – the protective outer shell.

But in high enough doses, it helped to pull the membrane apart, triggering cancerous cells to “commit suicide.” And in 2014, French physiologists found that men with a taste for spicy foods tend to have higher levels of testosterone.


They believed their findings were linked to well documented evidence that chilli peppers can increase levels of the hormones in rats. Other studies have found that the chemical arvanil – with a chemical make-up similar to that of the capsaicin – was effective against brain tumours in mice.

However, because of its side effects, the substance is not approved for humans.Also, researchers have shown in mouse studies that the pungent compound in ginger, 6-ginergol, could counteract capsaicin’s potentially harmful effects. In combination with the capsaicin, 6-gingerol could lower the risk of cancer, they say.

The study was published in ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.Both chili peppers and ginger are widely used spices in certain cuisines, particularly in Asia, and have been studied for potential health effects. Although some studies have shown that peppers can have benefits, others suggest that diets rich in capsaicin might be associated with stomach cancer. Ginger, however, has shown promise as a health-promoting ingredient. Oddly enough, capsaicin and 6-gingerol both bind to the same cellular receptor — one that is related to tumor growth. Jiahuan Li, Gangjun Du and colleagues wanted to further investigate this apparent contradiction.

Over several weeks, the researchers fed mice prone to lung cancer either capsaicin or 6-gingerol alone, or a combination of both. During the study period, all of the mice that received only capsaicin developed lung carcinomas while only half of the mice fed 6-gingerol did. Surprisingly, an even lower percentage — only 20 percent — of the mice given both compounds developed cancer. The researchers also dug into the potential molecular underpinnings of how the compounds interact to lead to this effect.

Meanwhile, new study suggests that eating spicy food more frequently as part of a daily diet is associated with a lower risk of death. The association was also found for deaths from certain conditions such as cancer, and ischemic heart and respiratory diseases.

This is an observational study so no definitive conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, but the authors call for more research that may “lead to updated dietary recommendations and development of functional foods.”

The study was published in British Medical Journal (BMJ).Previous research has suggested that beneficial effects of spices and their bioactive ingredient, capsaicin, include anti-obesity, antioxidant, anti-inflammation and anticancer properties .

So an international team led by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences examined the association between consumption of spicy foods as part of a daily diet and the total risk and causes of death.

They undertook a prospective study of 487,375 participants, aged 30-79 years, from the China Kadoorie Biobank. Participants were enrolled between 2004-2008 and followed up for morbidities and mortality.

All participants completed a questionnaire about their general health, physical measurements, and consumption of spicy foods, and red meat, vegetable and alcohol.

Participants with a history of cancer, heart disease, and stroke were excluded from the study, and factors such as age, marital status, level of education, and physical activity were accounted for.

During a median follow-up of 7.2 years, there were 20,224 deaths.Compared with participants who ate spicy foods less than once a week, those who consumed spicy foods one or two days a week were at a 10 per cent reduced risk of death (hazard ratios for death was 0.90). And those who ate spicy foods three to five and six or seven days a week were at a 14 per cent reduced risk of death (hazard ratios for death 0.86, and 0.86 respectively).

In other words, participants who ate spicy foods almost every day had a relative 14 per cent lower risk of death compared to those who consumed spicy foods less than once a week.

The association was similar in both men and women, and was stronger in those who did not consume alcohol.Frequent consumption of spicy foods was also linked to a lower risk of death from cancer, and ischaemic heart and respiratory system diseases, and this was more evident in women than men.


Fresh and dried chilli peppers were the most commonly used spices in those who reported eating spicy foods weekly, and further analysis showed those who consumed fresh chilli tended to have a lower risk of death from cancer, ischaemic heart disease, and diabetes.

Some of the bioactive ingredients are likely to drive this association, the authors explain, adding that fresh chilli is richer in capsaicin, vitamin C, and other nutrients. But they caution against linking any of these with lowering the risk of death.

Should people eat spicy food to improve health? In an accompanying editorial, Nita Forouhi from the University of Cambridge says it is too early to tell, and calls for more research to test whether these associations are the direct result of spicy food intake or whether this is a marker for other dietary or lifestyle factors.


In this article:
Chukwuma Muanya


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