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People’s Pharmacy: The health benefits of hot peppers

Is there something magical about hot peppers? Recent research suggests that people who frequently like to eat spicy food may live longer, healthier lives.

The scientists studied nearly half a million Chinese adults for more than seven years (BMJ online, Aug. 4, 2015). The folks who ate dishes with fresh or dried chili peppers in them several times a week were 14 percent less likely to die during the study than those who hardly ever ate them.

The investigators point out that capsaicin, the hot compound in chili peppers, has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of cancer and fight inflammation. Capsaicin also is an antioxidant and has antibacterial activity.

The scientists suspect that eating chili-pepper-laced food might alter the balance of bacteria in the digestive tract. The ecology of these bacteria can affect diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

They observe that fresh chili peppers also are a great source of vitamins C, A, B-6 and K, as well as potassium and capsaicin. Which of these nutrients might be contributing to the apparent health benefits is unknown, and the epidemiologists are careful to note that their study was not able to determine causation. In other words, while we know that people eating peppers live longer, it’s not clear that it is their hot-pepper habit that is responsible.

Nonetheless, many readers of this column have long been enthusiastic about the benefits of capsaicin. This hot essence has a long history of use in liniments for sore joints, and the Food and Drug Administration even approved a capsaicin cream, Zostrix, to treat the painful rash due to shingles.

One mother reported putting capsaicin to work against resistant plantar warts: “Our son suffered from plantar warts for more than eight years. After a long succession of procedures and medications, we were told to sprinkle cayenne pepper in his socks and have him sleep in them. We washed them each morning. After a week, the giant warts on his soles disappeared for good and have not returned.”

One unexpected use for hot peppers is to stop bad headaches. We have heard from many readers who find that sipping spicy soup at the first onset of a migraine may be capable of averting it.

One woman wrote: “My husband has been plagued with headaches from an early age, so we’re always on the lookout for something new. Although it is early in our trial of using hot salsa with chips at the onset of a headache, it has definitely stopped two headaches that would have been doozies!”

Another very surprising medicinal use of hot peppers is to help ease heartburn. One individual wrote of a difficult struggle getting off omeprazole for heartburn: “Feeling discouraged, I ate some jalapeño-topped snacks even though my doctor had warned me to avoid anything hot. My reflux is now kept in check by jalapenos every few days without needing anything else! The reflux pain only returns if I go a week without eating any jalapenos. It eases within an hour of eating them, and the relief lasts for several days.”

Hot peppers have long been popular in Latin America and Southeast Asia. They now are catching on in the U.S. as well. The new research from China suggests that this may be a healthy trend.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. Their syndicated radio show can be heard on public radio. In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them in care of this newspaper or email them via their website: PeoplesPharmacy.com.