Do you like spicy food? I do! So I was happy to learn about the mounting evidence that eating spicy food is linked to a longer life.
The New York Times, CNN, and Time magazine recently reported on a Chinese study of nearly half a million people (487,375, to be exact). The mass of data collected in that study showed an association between eating spicy food and a reduced risk of death.
The study, reported in the medical journal BMJ, included Chinese men and women enrolled between 2004 and 2008 and followed for an average of more than seven years. Using self-reported questionnaires, the researchers analyzed the spicy food consumption of people aged 30 to 70 across 10 regions in China, excluding those with cancer, heart disease, and stroke. The researchers controlled for family medical history, age, education, diabetes, smoking, and a host of other variables.
They found that those eating spicy food, mainly food containing chili peppers, once or twice a week had a 10 percent reduced overall risk for death, compared with those eating spicy food less than once a week. Further, they found that consuming spicy food six to seven times a week reduced the risk even more–14 percent.
Spicy food eaters had lower rates of ischemic heart disease, respiratory diseases, and cancers. (Ischemic heart disease, a common cause of death, arises from a reduced blood supply to the heart, usually caused by atherosclerosis.)
Although the researchers drew no conclusions about cause and effect, they pointed out that capsaicin, the main ingredient in chili peppers, had been found in other studies to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
“There is accumulating evidence from mostly experimental research to show the benefit of spices or their active components on human health,” said Lu Qi, an associate professor of nutrition at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health and a co-author of the study. But, he added, “we need more evidence, especially from clinical trials, to further verify these findings, and we are looking forward to seeing data from other populations.”
What’s different about spicy foods? The study highlights the benefits of capsaicin, a bioactive ingredient in chili peppers, which has previously been linked to health perks like increased fat-burning.
But most experts emphasize the need for more research. One such expert is Daphne Miller, associate clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World, Why They Work and How to Make Them Work for You.”
Miller told CNN that many variables associated with eating spicy food haven’t been addressed in the study. The study itself notes that it lacks information about other dietary and lifestyle habits and how the spicy food was cooked or prepared. “It’s an observational study within a single culture,” she said.
In addition, the researchers note that although chili pepper was the most commonly used spice, the use of other spices tends to increase as the use of chili pepper increases. Consuming these other spices may also result in health benefits.
But Miller said the findings are still plausible, given the fact that spicy foods also have high levels of phenolic content, which are chemicals with nutritional and anti-inflammatory values.
Bio-psychologist John E. Hayes agrees. Hayes, an associate professor of food science and director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at Penn State University, has previously studied spicy food and personality association. According to CNN, he notes that chili intake has an overall protective effect. But why? “Is it a biological mechanism or a behavioral mechanism?”
Eating spicy food might work biologically to increase the basil metabolic rate, says Hayes. But it might also slow food intake, causing a person to eat fewer calories.
Although Lu Qi believes the protective effect associated with spicy foods would translate across cultures, Hayes isn’t sure. When we talk about spicy food, “we can mean vastly different things, with different health implications,” Hayes says. “That spicy food could be…vegetables, like kimchee. Or it could be…barbecued spare ribs.”
“This isn’t an excuse to go out and eat 24 wings and then rationalize it by claiming they are going to make you live longer,” Hayes adds.
Let’s not forget that eating spicy foods also has some risks. Spicy food can create problems for people with incontinence or overactive bladders, according to Kristen Burns, an adult urology nurse-practitioner at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. And some believe that spicy foods can aggravate colds or sinus infections.
Another risk is “heartburn.” Does spicy food trigger heartburn in some people? Yes, but not always. According to Lauren Gerson, a gastroenterologist at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, a lot of her patients with heartburn (more precisely acid reflux disease, or GERD), were told by other doctors to stop eating everything on a list of 10 trigger foods. The list included favorite foods like chocolate and spicy food.
Gerson told Nutrition Action that these patients were “miserable because their heartburn wasn’t much better” even when they gave up all of those foods. Gerson and her then-colleagues at Stanford University screened more than 2,000 studies, looking for evidence that avoiding trigger foods helps curb acid reflux systems. They found that there wasn’t “any data out there that if you stop these foods…, GERD would get any better.”
So when the American College of Gastroenterology updated its treatment guidelines for GERD in 2013, it concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence for doctors to advise cutting out a whole list of foods. Instead, patients are advised to avoid certain foods only if that lessens their symptoms. The key seems to be “individualized trigger avoidance,” allowing many heartburn sufferers to enjoy spicy food, so long as it doesn’t make their symptoms worse.
The bottom line? If you like the taste of spicy food, and it doesn’t trigger any adverse effects (like heartburn or weight-gain from too many calories), you should enthusiastically munch on the spicy foods you love. According to the latest research, you just might prolong your life.