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Have you ever wondered if there’s a natural way to lower your high blood pressure, guard against Alzheimer's, lose weight, and feel better? Well as it turns out there is. Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, founder of NutritionFacts.org, and author of the instant New York Times bestseller “How Not to Die” celebrates evidence-based nutrition to add years to our life and life to our years.
Did you know that those who eat spicy foods regularly – tend to live longer? Here’s our first story.
Most people could name four of the basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. The rare foodie may be able to nail umami, but what about “the forgotten ﬂavour sense,” spicy? This seeming neglect is somewhat surprising, given that hot peppers are one of the world’s most widely-used spices. In fact, as many as one in four people on the planet currently eat chilies on a daily basis, raising the question, “Why is spicy food so popular?”
Why do some like it hot, enjoying what is, at ﬁrst glance, an irritating and potentially painful mouth sensation? According to one popular suggestion, it is the endorphin hit, the release of your natural morphine-like painkiller chemicals from your brain. You hear this a lot in the popular press, but we still don’t have any convincing evidence to support it. Another suggestion is that we learned to use it for its antimicrobial properties before the age of refrigeration, given that spicy food tends to be preferred by cultures living in warmer climates, and, for that matter, maybe it makes us sweat, and thereby ultimately helps cool us down. Then again, maybe it’s just because people just like the taste.
Preference for spicy foods does seem to run in families. Based on twin studies comparing the preferences of identical to fraternal twins, genetic factors may account for up to half of the variation, similar to the heritability of sweet and sour preferences.
It may also be hormonal. Researchers in France noted that particularly males liked spicy food and wondered if it was a testosterone thing. So, they took a group of more than 100 men, and gave them a plate of mashed potatoes and asked them to Tabasco the potatoes to taste, after taking saliva samples to measure their testosterone levels. And, what do you know, men who had higher testosterone added more hot sauce. That may help explain this study that found a correlation between hot chili pepper consumption and muscle strength in adult males.
As an aside, when I was looking at the testosterone literature, I ran across this study that showed young men experience an acute decrease in blood testosterone levels after chugging sugar water or whey protein powder: 12- to 18-year-olds were randomized to a few scoops of protein power, or about two cans of soda worth of sugar, and within 20 minutes saw a significant drop in testosterone levels compared to a sugar-free, protein-free control. This is consistent with lower testosterone levels found in people on high-protein, low-carb diets.
Anyway, what does the consumption of hot spicy foods do to our lifespan? Well, a massive study of a half million men and women in China found that those regularly eating spicy foods had an associated 14 percent reduction in total mortality, meaning the risk of premature death. That could translate into about an extra year into your lifespan, if it is cause-and-effect.
Those of you who follow my work know there are two main potential issues with observational studies: reverse causality and confounding factors. In other words, instead of spicy foods leading to less disease, maybe disease is leading to less spicy food, with sick people eating blander diets. However, the apparent benefit remained even after excluding sick folks, or those who were just about to croak. And so, reverse causality doesn’t seem to explain it, though hey, people who eat spicy food probably drink more. And what do they drink in China? Green tea. So, maybe that’s what going on? It would be nice to replicate this in a non-green tea drinking country, or even a country that drinks terrible stuff, like the United States. And yet same thing: a 13 percent reduction in premature death. And, the protective association remained even after controlling for Mexican-American ethnicity. As I detailed before, they have a longevity advantage, presumably because they eat so many beans.
Same thing was found in Italy, this time a 23 percent lower all-cause mortality. That’d be like two extra years of life. The authors conclude that minor dietary changes, such as just adding chilies to one’s usual diet, could be valuable measures for improving health.
There have been four studies done overall, including this one in Iran, that all found the same thing: significantly lower risk of premature death. In fact, black or chili pepper consumption was associated with about the same lifespan extension as turmeric, even at just like a pinch a day. And, those who did both seemed to do even better, which is consistent with the ability of a black pepper compound to boost the bioavailability of the turmeric compound curcumin. I’ve got about 50 videos on why turmeric is so good for you, but why might chili peppers extend your life? We’ll find out, next.
Four out of four studies on spicy food and mortality found a significant decrease in the risk of premature death, as I detailed in my last video. The intake of sweet peppers also seemed to help, but at a lesser extent. So, there may be some benefit to the spicy capsaicin compound itself.
Cayenne pepper can counteract the metabolic slowing that accompanies weight loss and accelerate fat-burning as a bonus. So, maybe the weight loss benefits account for the mortality benefits? Apparently not, since there was a mortality risk reduction with chili pepper consumption even after controlling for body mass index.
Maybe the spice was used as a replacement for salt? Anything that reduces sodium intake could improve longevity, as excess salt consumption is the deadliest dietary risk factor––the worst thing about the human diet, wiping out millions of people every year. Not only could you use the spice to replace salt, the spicy compound actually makes things taste saltier than they actually are. Sprinkling on some red pepper powder can increase your salt taste sensitivity; so, you can achieve the same salty taste with less salt. You can put people in a PET scanner and pick up differences in their secondary taste cortex, the part of your brain associated with pleasure signaling to salty foods. So, you can use hot peppers to hack your brain for your health.
And indeed, those with a high spice preference had lower salt intake and better blood pressures, and this again appears to be independent of the anti-obesity benefit of hot pepper consumption––though the lower risk of developing high blood pressure among those with higher hot pepper intake was also independent of sodium intake. So, there may be some other benefit pathways, like maybe it also helps your kidneys excrete more salt too––though the evidence to support this was derived from studies on mice. So, who knows?
However it works, eating spicy foods or adding supplemental spicy flavor to food by like sprinkling on cayenne pepper or hot sauce represents a novel lifestyle intervention that can reduce both salt intake and blood pressure. Even regular tabasco is pretty low in sodium, though only the original flavor. Some of their other spin-off flavors, like buffalo/habanero/chipotle, have five times more.
Now, just because all studies on spicy food and mortality to date suggest hot peppers may help you live longer doesn’t mean you can go out and eat a ghost pepper, designated the Guinness Book’s hottest pepper in the world in 2007. Some varieties of habanero can be 50 times as hot as jalapenos. To get to ghost peppers, though, you have to switch over to millions of units. The ghost pepper beat out the habanero in 2007, which itself got out shadowed by the Trinidad scorpion in 2011, and then 2013, burning as the reigning champ, the Carolina reaper. The only thing hotter than the reaper is pure pepper spray, which can lead to such violent coughing you can rupture a lung.
Pepper spray in the eye only seems to be a problem if you can’t wash it out. The best thing you can do if you’re trying to help someone sprayed in the face is try to calm them down, make sure they’re breathing okay, remove their contact lenses as soon as possible, and then, abundantly irrigate their eyes to wash out the chemical.
Really abundantly, as in washing your eyes out with water or saline for a full 10-20 minutes, which is a long time to be washing your eyes out––again, after contact lenses have been removed, or, even better, not worn to a protest in the first place. Even just ambient exposure to pepper gas can cause dry eye symptoms that last for weeks, even if you’re not sprayed directly. It’s ironic that the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of these riot control agents during warfare; yet, they are routinely used to quell civilian protest.
The most serious eye injuries, though, are from trauma from fired projectiles like pepper balls, leading to the suggestion that protestors wear ballistic eye protection, recommending that medical centers proactively reach out to protest leaders and participants regarding appropriate safety precautions.
In terms of what you can do for pepper spray irritation on your skin, there are anecdotal reports that baby shampoo is helpful. However, as yet, there have been no published scientific studies that demonstrate their effectiveness…until now. “Baby Shampoo to Relieve the Discomfort of Tear Gas and Pepper Spray Exposure: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Police recruits received a burst of pepper spray to the face, then were randomized to washing off with water, or water along with some Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo and…it didn’t work at all. How about using Maalox, or a numbing lidocaine gel, or milk? Nothing beat out plain old water. Copious water decontamination is the preferred method of pain control after topical pepper spray exposure.
Anyways, that was quite the tangent. Bottom line, should we all begin taking tablets of capsaicin and dousing our food with hot sauce? If you like hot sauce, go for it, but I don’t think we should start taking supplements until we have randomized, controlled trials proving benefit.