We all want to live longer, healthier lives, and the issue of longevity has gained prominence in recent years as a wide variety of antiaging interventions is being researched - from down-to-earth lifestyle changes to unusual therapies involving blood products and gene editing. One of the more down-to-earth studies to recently be published is a new population-based study examining the effect that chilli consumption may have on mortality rates.
Until now, there has been no large study in the West around to support the benefits of spices on overall health, with China publishing the first. Now, the USA has caught up, finding that consumption of hot red chilli peppers can reduce all-cause mortality rates in adults by 13%. For this study, data from the NHANES III cohort was analysed, with a total of 16,179 participants involved. People who were most likely to eat red chilli were younger, male, white or Mexican-American, married, more likely to smoke or consume alcohol and ate more vegetables and meats on average. They also had lower income, less education and lower HDL levels. Being younger and eating more vegetables has positive effects on mortality; smoking, alcohol (in large amounts), lower income and lower HDL ("good" cholesterol) has negative effects. After adjusting for factors that could skew the findings on chilli consumption, it was found that eating the spice reduced the risk of all-cause mortality by 13% over the average follow-up time of almost 19 years. This was mainly caused by a reduction in deaths caused by heart disease and stroke.
The mechanism of action is not totally clear, but it is thought that activation of the TRP channels by capsaicin (the substance that gives chilli its heat) is largely responsible. TRP channel activation results in anti-obesity cellular processes and modulation of blood flow to the heart. Capsaicin also has an antimicrobial effect, possibly reducing levels of excessive gut bacteria. Chilli also contains vitamin C, B vitamins and carotenoids, which have their own health benefits. Research on mice has found that TRP channels, such as the capsaicin-sensitive TRPV, can have positive effects on recovery after ischaemia and preconditioning protection against heart ischaemia.
These results help to verify the larger Chinese study. Researchers in China looked at the data on health and diet of over 487,000 participants, with an average follow-up time of seven years. Over these seven years, the death rate for those who ate dishes containing chilli once or twice a week was 10% lower than for those who ate chilli less than weekly. People who ate chilli three or more times a week had a 14% lower risk of dying. The protective effect was also more pronounced for participants who drank alcohol. Specific causes of death that chilli was most protective against were ischaemic heart disease, respiratory diseases and cancers, with fresh chilli being superior to dried chilli. Overall, if you aren't currently a fan of chilli or the cultural cuisines that feature spicy dishes, it could be worthwhile to start exploring them. SBS Food has recipes from many, if not most, cultures around the world, from Moroccan to Singaporean and South American cuisine. Or, you could simply add chilli to foods you already cook; for me, an omelette isn't an omelette without chilli.