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Can Chili Peppers Prevent Heart Attacks and Strokes?

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death for Americans, with more than $219 billion spent annually to treat the millions who have some form of the disease.1 This is true for people of almost all races and ethnicities, and 1 in 4 U.S. deaths is caused by the condition.

For decades, researchers have sought answers in the form of diet and exercise recommendations, new drug therapies and additional lifestyle interventions. A group of Italian scientists offers new insights into prevention of the disease with what is considered a kitchen staple in many parts of the globe: the colorful chili pepper.

Citing the need for more careful examination of the role of this vegetable in a Mediterranean diet, Marialaura Bonaccio, Ph.D., and a team of 12 others from Pozzilli, Italy, conducted a longitudinal analysis involving 22,811 men and women.

They used a food frequency questionnaire to determine how often each person consumed chili peppers; this was then compared to disease and mortality rates in the group.

As reported in the December 2019 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, it was found that "regular consumption of chili pepper is associated with a lower risk of total and CVD death independent of CVD risk factors or adherence to a Mediterranean diet."2

Those who ate the spicy vegetable had a 40% lower risk of having a fatal heart attack; their risk of stroke went down more than 50%.3 The effect was noted to be stronger in those who did not have high blood pressure.

Bonaccio noted that the effects were not tied to whether someone followed a Mediterranean diet, known to offer a wealth of heart-protective health benefits. The researchers also noted that regular consumption of chili peppers was inversely associated with cerebrovascular and ischemic heart disease death risks.

While this does not mean that chili peppers are the cure for CVD, it does offer insights into the importance of eating healthily and embracing natural options to pursue optimal health.

CVD: Multiple Causes, Multiple Approaches to Address It

CVD is influenced by a number of factors, including lifestyle choices.4 The CDC reports that 47% of Americans have at least one of three risk factors for developing heart disease, such as smoking and high blood pressure.

While those numbers are daunting, the good news is you have a great deal of control over your heart health. The CDC also notes that drinking too much alcohol, failing to get enough exercise and regularly choosing unhealthy foods can also raise your heart disease risk.

By taking control of your daily habits you can tip the scales in your favor, so to speak, to help prevent the development of obesity and diabetes, which also contribute to your risk for CVD. Chili peppers, as part of an overall healthy diet, can spice up your meals while potentially offering additional health benefits including reduced risks for rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, cancer and even acne.5,6,7

The Capsaicin Connection

Chili peppers belong to the nightshade family with varieties that include cayenne, jalapeno, habanero and serrano peppers. They were first cultivated by ancient farmers in Central and South America, regions where cuisines are famous for their piquant flavor.

Today, they are grown all over the world, but Mexico, China, Spain, Nigeria and Turkey are among the largest commercial producers. Chili pepper contains a bioactive plant compound called capsaicin, which is responsible for its hot and spicy kick. Capsaicin is concentrated in the seeds and white inner membrane; the more capsaicin it contains, the spicier the pepper.

Capsaicin is a compound produced to protect the peppers from fungal attack.8 It is colorless and odorless, but when you eat it, it tricks your brain into perceiving heat where it touches your body. The burning sensation the compound imparts is not actually a taste.9

Rather, it's caused by the stimulation of nerves sending two messages to the brain of intense stimulus and warmth. The burning sensation is due to the combination of these two messages.