Are You Harming Yourself with Spicy Foods?

A man eating chili pepper

The love of spicy food is pretty common among humans, even though this enjoyment seems a little odd at face value.

After all, we are essentially putting ourselves through a degree of pain, yet we seem to find this enjoyable.

There seems to be something about spicy food that just appeals to so many of us.

But, the nature of spicy foods raises the question, is spicy food bad for you?

Some people may feel this, while others argue that spicy food is a good thing, partly because of the way it can help clear your head.

One recent study looked at spicy food and health using an observational design. The authors were specifically interested in the association between the spicy foods and overall mortality, as well as mortality from specific causes.

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The Study Itself

The study made us of a data set that considered participants across 10 different areas of China.

In total, data was obtained from 487,375 participants, and these participants were between 30 and 79 years of age at the start of the data collection.

Participants were initially enrolled between 2004 and 2008 and were then followed through to 2013. Accounting for differences in time of enrollment and survivability, the median length of follow-up was 7.2 years.

The information was obtained from participants through a questionnaire, which asked them how often they ate spicy food during the previous month. The questionnaire also asked about the specific spices that participants ate.

A smaller group was also tested at the end of the study, and the information on spicy food consumption was similar, suggesting that this measure did not change over time.

This overall approach provided the authors with a large amount of data to work with.

To look at the effects of spicy food consumption, the authors looked at four specific levels of consumption. These were focused on how many days of a week that participants ate spicy food for.

The specific categories were:

  • Less than 1 day per week
  • 1 to 2 days per week
  • 3 to 5 days per week
  • 6 to 7 days per week
  • The main outcome of the study was the relationship between spicy food consumption and overall death.

    The authors used an odds ratio to look at this and the information can be seen in the graph below:

    In this case, the odds of death for the three levels of consumption is being compared to people who had spicy food less than once per week.

    The outcomes mean that people who had spicy food three or more times a week had a 14% lower relative risk of mortality compared to those who had spicy food less than once per week.

    The authors observed similar trends for specific causes of death also, such as risk of death from cancer or from respiratory disease.

    The observed changes were also statistically significant.

    The authors also used statistical analysis to try to see whether the observed effects could be caused by other factors, such as physical location or follow-up duration. However, they did not find any significant associations.

    The lack of other associations suggests that the observed change in odds of death was probably caused by the spicy food, not by other factors.

    One interesting thing about this study was that a different pattern was seen when the authors looked at mortality rates rather than risk of death:

    In this case, the mortality rates were lower for people consuming spicy food between 1 and 5 times per week, while the mortality rate increased again for consuming the food 6 or 7 times a week.

    The authors did not focus on this outcome strongly in their discussion, perhaps because there was less statistical significance.

    Strengths and Limitations

    The key strength of this study was its sample size.

    The study considered outcomes for a large number of individuals. In doing so, it had the statistical power to see whether differences were present.

    Additionally, the authors did test for possible confounding factors and tested to make sure spice consumption didn’t significantly change over time. Those approaches help to reduce the potential for error.

    However, there were a number of limitations of the study too.

    One limitation is that spicy food consumption is likely to be associated with other dietary behaviors. After all, some types of food are more likely to be spicy than others.

    As the authors noted, cooking spicy food often involves the use of more oil and often people will also consume more carbohydrates to help mitigate some of the spiciness.

    Some of those patterns could potentially contribute to the observed effects.

    Likewise, spice is a flavoring for food, much like salt is.

    As such, people who consume spicy food regularly may also consume less salt (as spice plays a similar role in many dishes).

    This is a major potential confounding effect; as high sodium intake is connected to health problems.

    The observational nature of the study was another limitation.

    This research approach means the authors could not determine whether spicy food actually caused the decrease in the risk of death.

    In their discussion, the authors said that reverse causality could be possible.

    In this case, reverse causality would mean that the risk of death was influencing the level of spicy food consumption, rather than the other way around.

    This effect is very feasible, because people who know they are sick are likely to eat less spicy food. After all, spicy food can be hard to eat, especially for people experiencing stomach issues.

    The authors did test this to a degree, by excluding participants from the analysis with certain health conditions.

    When they did this, the authors did not see any evidence of reverse causality – although it could still possibly be occurring.

    The study was also conducted in people who did not consume alcohol, and this also could have an effect on the observed results.

    A final limitation is connected to the sample, as the study was only conducted within China.

    Young Thinking Woman

    The physical location of the study means that the observed outcomes may only be true in that particular population.

    After all, there are a large number of differences from one culture to the next, including differences in the food that is consumed, differences in cultural practices and in cultural norms.

    Those differences could potentially influence the outcome of the study.

    More research is needed to see whether the observed outcomes of this study are also present in other cultures and physical locations.

    The limitations of the study do make it difficult to fully answer the question, is spicy food bad for you. Nevertheless, the authors have made important progress in the field and their outcomes are likely to guide future research.

    Even with its limitations, this study does suggest that spicy food could help lengthen life.

    In their discussion, the authors even identified a possible mechanism for this action, which focused on the role of capsaicin.

    Connection to Other Research

    In general, the connection between spicy food and health has not been heavily researched.

    Nevertheless, there have been some studies that look at the connection.

    One study did suggest that capsaicin may contribute to improved metabolic and vascular health (1).

    Animal studies, research

    This study looked at possible mechanisms for the action and highlighted results from animal studies.

    However, the authors were unable to provide similar results for humans.

    A similar outcome was found in a second study (2) which also looked at outcomes in animal models.

    Capsaicin has also been suggested as a possible therapeutic approach for hypertension (3).

    Another study showed that treatment with capsaicin was able to play a role in disrupting one of the functions of STAT-3. By doing this, capsaicin may be significant in combating cancer, but much more research is needed (4).

    Capsaicin may also be able to fight proliferation in prostate cancer cells (5,6).

    Indeed, other researchers have highlighted the potential for capsaicin to play a role in cancer treatment (7,8). The exact processes involved in this action are not clearly understood, but NF-kB transcription factors are thought to be part of the process along with the AMP-dependent kinase pathway.

    Some research has also suggested that the compounds in chili peppers may play a role in weight management (9,10,11).

    However, these results should be viewed with caution, as one study had a large amount of heterogeneity.

    There have also been other potential benefits linked to capsaicin, including its potential to reduce the accelerated proliferation of vascular smooth muscle cell, which can occur with heart disease (12).

    Finally, the compound capsaicin also has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions, which would also contribute to potential health benefits (13).

    Many of these studies highlight the potential of capsaicin in health, especially in relation to cancer.

    Researchers

    But, it’s hard to know whether spicy foods convey enough capsaicin to cause this effect.

    There are many different factors that can influence how bioavailable capsaicin is, including how it is taken and the dose (14).

    Overall, these studies do support the outcome of the initial study I discussed.

    However, much more research is needed to find out the answer to, is spicy food bad for you. As it stands, we don’t know whether the amount of capsaicin in spicy food would be sufficient to cause health benefits, and the current research doesn’t come close to answering this question.

    But, in the meantime, there is no shortage of amazing spicy recipes out there, such as this casserole from the site Food Hero or these sweet and spicy wraps from Add a Pinch. 

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    What do you think? Is ​spicy food bad for you? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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