Eat hot chili peppers: They could extend your life

January 18, 2017 Providence Health Team

Good news, heat lovers: Those hot chili peppers you crave could help give you more years to enjoy them.

A new study out of the University of Vermont has found that people who consume hot red chili peppers – and we’re not talking about those mild red pepper flakes that you may scatter on your pizza, but genuinely hot chili peppers – have longer lifespans than people who don’t.

Tiger Paw Habanero, Devil’s Tongue Red, Trinidad Scorpion, Ghost Pepper, Komodo Dragon, Scotch Bonnet, Carolina Reaper, Bahamian Bird Pepper, Prairie Fire Pepper – the very names evoke tongue-scorching gustatory pleasure. And it seems a chemical compound they share has positive effects on your health, though the authors of the study acknowledge they’re not sure just how the peppers help prolong lives.

“Although the mechanism by which peppers could delay mortality is far from certain, Transient Receptor Potential (TRP) channels, which are primary receptors for pungent agents such as capsaicin (the principal component in chili peppers), may in part be responsible for the observed relationship,” they wrote.

They said the activation of certain TRPs by peppers “appears to stimulate cellular mechanisms against obesity,” and lowering obesity rates decreases risks of cardiovascular, metabolic and lung diseases.

What is it about peppers?

The University of Vermont researchers trace the connection between chili peppers and longevity to the theories of Hippocrates and Galen, who inspired treatments meant to “restore the humoral imbalances responsible for disease and illness.”

More recent studies have found that peppers may help prevent colorectal and breast cancer. Authors of the University of Vermont study note that pungent peppers promote processes in organs and tissues that could protect against diabetes and hypertension, among other ailments. Many spices also have anti-inflammatory effects, they said.

Much about chili peppers remains mysterious. Researchers at the University of Florida undertook to learn how peppers evolved to be spicy, but not so spicy that animals wouldn’t eat and disperse their seeds, which is how the peppers propagate themselves.

It turns out that capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers hot, slows microbial growth and and protects the fruit from a lethal fungus. Capsaicin deters such mammals as raccoons, but not birds, which don’t detect the chemical and continue to eat the peppers and seeds.

The University of Florida study focused on the propagation of chili seeds from fruits and peppers. It studied a range of pepper types, from spicy to not-so-spicy. Asked how a person can tell the difference, one of the authors replied: "Just pop one in your mouth. You'll find out pretty quick."

Steps you can take

If you want to incorporate more chili peppers into your diet, it’s a quick web search to find chili-rich recipes such as jalapeno strawberry jam, chipotle lasagna and hot tamale pie. But you should consider all aspects of a dish, including the amount of added sugars, trans fats and salt. Jalapeno poppers, for example, may have capsaicin, but they also have cream cheese, shredded cheddar and mayonnaise – ingredients that would give most nutritionists pause.

Talk to your nutritionist about how to enrich your diet with chili peppers. You can find Providence providers, including nutritionists, in our directory.

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