Spicy Foods and Longevity
To some people, blander is better. They don't cook with any remotely hot spices and will avoid anything on a menu that is singled out as a spicier dish. At the other end of the spectrum are those people who can't get enough of fiery habanero flavors, tangy sriracha sauces, and three-alarm chilies. You would think that "to each his own" rules the day, but now there is good news for the individuals who delight in tastes that burn other people's mouths. According to new research, consuming spicy foods may result in a longer lifespan.
The study, which was a joint venture between the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, found that frequently eating spicy meals may be linked to a lower risk of death.1 The subjects were 487,375 men and women between the ages of 30 and 79. All were participants in the China Kadoorie Biobank, a large ongoing research project, from 2004 through 2008.
Every volunteer answered surveys with questions about their physical measurements, general health, and lifestyle habits that included information on their consumption of spicy foods, vegetables, red meat, and alcohol, among other things. A follow up was conducted approximately seven years after the initial intakes. During the course of those seven years, 20,224 of the subjects died.
After the follow up, the scientists pored over the data and discovered that the individuals who reported eating spicy foods at least one or two times each week had a 10 percent decreased risk of mortality versus their peers who said they ate spicy foods less than once per week. The odds were even better for the participants who consumed spicy foods on an almost daily basis--their risk of death was 14 percent lower than the people who eat fewer spicy foods.
The protective effect of the fiery spices was roughly equal among men and women. Interestingly, though, the rates were slightly better in those individuals who enjoyed frequent spicy meals but did not drink alcohol. And they held up even after the researchers controlled for influences including the age of the participants, marital status, education attained, and activity level. They also eliminated any volunteers who had a history of cardiovascular disease, cancer, or stroke.
If you're wondering whether there were any spices in particular that were associated with living a longer life, fresh and dried chili peppers were the spices most commonly used by the subjects. And fresh chili stood out even more because the data showed that the people consuming this spice had a reduced chance of dying from specific diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and ischemic heart disease.
While the study was not set up to determine why eating spicy foods frequently might help us live a little longer, some of the benefit likely arises from the nutrients contained in the spices. Fresh chili, for example, is a very good source of capsaicin, vitamin E, and vitamin A. Capsicum is a powerhouse nutrient that provides antioxidant and anti-inflammatory influences, as well as cancer prevention2 and the maintenance of a healthy weight.3 But as Jon Barron has pointed out, the primary benefits may actually reside in the biochemicals that provide the heat. Cayenne is extremely beneficial for the circulatory system, helping to improve the elasticity of the walls of both the arterial and venous systems, maintain normal blood platelet function, and helping maintain normal blood pressure if already within a normal range throughout the body. And there are some studies that indicate that capsaicin, the "hot," active component in cayenne, may have the ability to induce apoptosis in some cancer cells.
Does that mean we should all run to the store and pick up the hottest spices we can find to enhance not only our food but our health and longevity? That depends on you. If you like fiery flavors, why not? The findings suggest that you don't need to eat them every day to reap the benefits, but cooking with them a few times a week may very well be enough to make a difference. If you don't like the taste of hot foods or they give you heartburn, you may want to stick with a less spicy diet. You can still increase your chances of living a longer life if you simply eat nutritiously and get daily exercise.
- 1. Welch, Ashley. "Could eating spicy food help you live longer?" CBS News. 5 August 2015. Accessed 13 August 2015. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/could-eating-spicy-food-help-you-live-longer
- 2. Surh, Young-Joon. "More Than Spice: Capsaicin in Hot Chili Peppers Makes Tumor Cells Commit Suicide." Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 4 September 2002. Accessed 14 August 2015. http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/94/17/1263.full
- 3. Leung, FW. "Capsaicin as an anti-obesity drug." Progress in Drug Research. June 2014. Accessed 14 August 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24941669