Long before current-day science helped us identify specific food groups that could make us healthier, for centuries American Indians used spicy foods as medicinal cures. Now, it appears recent studies are confirming those uses, and the word is getting around.
"I read an article about the special immune-boosting characteristics of hot peppers," Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said last month. Clinton suggested that eating a fresh hot pepper a day could be "one of the reasons [she's] so healthy, and [has] so much stamina and endurance." John Hayes, a food science teacher at Penn State University said that, "It's certainly possible that some of the compounds found in chili peppers could be protective of health."
As it turns out, those two just may be onto something.
In a study published last August in the medical journal BMJ, titled "Regular Consumption of Spicy Foods Linked to Lower Risk of Death," an international team led by Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences researchers examined the association between the regular consumption of spicy foods and the total risk and causes of death.
In an observation of almost half a million Chinese participants, the team made two discoveries: First, those who ate spicy foods once or twice a week had a 10 percent lower risk of death than those who ate spicy foods less than once a week. Second, those who ate spicy foods between three-to-seven days a week had a 14 percent lower risk of death than non-weekly group.
The team not only found that spicy food eaters (especially women) lived longer, but that they were also at a lower risk of cancer death and certain heart and respiratory diseases.
Spicy foods like chili peppers contain many healthful nutrients, such as vitamin C. But one chemical in peppers -- capsaicin -- holds particular interest for these scientists.
"Many potential benefits have been suggested for chili or its bioactive compound, capsaicin," according to University of Cambridge nutritional epidemiolologist Nita Forouhi.
Capsaicin is the spicy-food compound responsible for burning mouths and watery eyes, found in cayenne, chili and tabasco peppers, among other spicy foods. People have eaten capsaicin since the birth of civilization. But scientists are just recently appreciating its health benefits.
For one thing, athletes and other injury-prone people may just benefit from capsaicin. According to a 2013 study, capsaicin contains anti-inflammatory properties that could ease swelling from injuries and arthritis. Many pain relief creams like Capzasen and Theragin contain capsaicin.
Studies have also connected capsaicin to combating cancer. A 2006 study found that capsaicin "drives prostate cancer cells to kill themselves." A recent 2015 study shows that the capsaicin molecule does this by binding to the cancer cell's surface and weakening its protective membrane.
Another 2006 study found that regular capsaicin-rich chili pepper eaters had lower levels of insulin after their meals. So, capsaicin may also lower the risk of Type-2 diabetes.
However, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, capsaicin passes into breast milk. So new mothers take caution, unless you think your baby can handle the heat.