Can Chilli Peppers Prevent Heart Disease?
By Natalie Duarte
Disclaimer: No content of this article, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
The thought of death by heart disease is a sobering one—it is the unfortunate fate of 647 000 Americans each year.¹ But it turns out that spicy foods—specifically, hot chilli peppers—could help prevent it. Alongside a balanced diet and an active lifestyle, chillies may help with blood pressure, increase good cholesterol, and reduce inflamed fat. This is because they contain a compound known as capsaicin.²
But first, a bit of myth busting
You’ve probably been told not to eat spicy food because it’ll give you stomach ulcers, however, the true culprit behind most stomach ulcers is a bacterial infection of the stomach lining.³ In fact, research suggests that capsaicin actually helps heal such ulcers! In a 2014 study, capsaicin was shown to blunt microbleeding and damage to the stomach tissue caused by alcohol or indomethacin (a prescription drug).⁴ This is because capsaicin inhibits stomach acid secretion while stimulating mucous and alkali production, thereby protecting the stomach lining.
A cell’s eye view
The surface of your cells is dotted with receptors that are activated by specific molecules, the same way that you need a certain type of plug to use an electrical outlet from a foreign country. When the right connection is made, the receptors trigger a chemical response inside the cell. Capsaicin is a molecule, a special plug, that triggers a flood of calcium into the cell when attached to receptors called “TRPV1 receptors,” which could be regarded as the corresponding wall outlet.
So how does the capsaicin in hot chillies reduce your blood pressure? In the walls of your blood vessels, the flood of calcium stimulates the production of nitric oxide gas. Nitric oxide relaxes the smooth muscle cells surrounding your veins and arteries, causing them to widen and lower your overall blood pressure. Elsewhere in the body, turning on TRPV1 receptors cause a different chain of events to occur. When capsaicin activates the TRPV1 receptors in your kidney cells, more sodium is excreted in the urine, rather than staying in the bloodstream. This further decreases blood volume, and consequently your blood pressure.²
Chilli peppers also prevent atherosclerosis, the disease where plaque made of cholesterol, fat-oozing immune cells, and other substances builds up inside the arteries. This buildup of plaque can be quite difficult to halt, especially if it’s inherited. However, in mice prone to atherosclerosis, capsaicin has been shown to significantly slow down the buildup of plaque.⁵ In immune cells, the activation of TRPV1 increases the activity of a protein involved in exporting cholesterol, reducing the chances of becoming fat-laden and forming plaques.⁶ ⁷ Additionally, capsaicin increases levels of the HDL (good) cholesterol, which circulates the bloodstream, removing LDL (bad) cholesterol and stopping it from forming plaque deposits.⁸ Chilli peppers could therefore be an interesting way to avoid clogged arteries.
What’s more is that capsaicin can mitigate the devastating effects of inflamed fat tissue, particularly in obese individuals. In obese mice, for example, capsaicin halts the production of inflammatory signal molecules, and stops immune cells from infiltrating fat tissue and wreaking havoc.⁹ Capsaicin also boosts the expression of proteins which break down that fat deep inside your abdomen, called lipase and connexin-43.¹⁰ These processes combine to decrease the amount of inflamed fat tissue in the body.
Chilli peppers. Besides making food more exciting, they can help lower your blood pressure, reduce bad LDL cholesterol, and decrease inflammation of fat tissue, all thanks to the action of capsaicin. However, there are no clear dosage recommendations for treatment of these conditions, and the adverse effects are still largely untested in humans. So when it comes to spicy foods, follow the old adage and enjoy in moderation.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, June 22). Heart Disease Facts. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm
McCarty, M. F., DiNicolantonio, J. J., & O'Keefe, J. H. (2015). Capsaicin may have important potential for promoting vascular and metabolic health. Open heart, 2(1), e000262. doi:10.1136/openhrt-2015-000262
Castro, J. (2012, August 23). Does Spicy Food Really Cause Ulcers?. LiveScience. https://www.livescience.com/22450-does-spicy-food-really-cause-ulcers.html
Mozsik G. (2014). Capsaicin as new orally applicable gastroprotective and therapeutic drug alone or in combination with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in healthy human subjects and in patients. Prog Drug Res, 68:209–58.
Ma L, Zhong J, Zhao Z et al. (2011). Activation of TRPV1 reduces vascular lipid accumulation and attenuates atherosclerosis. Cardiovasc Res, 92:504–13. doi:10.1093/cvr/cvr245
Yu, X. H., Fu, Y. C., Zhang, D. W., Yin, K., & Tang, C. K. (2013). Foam cells in atherosclerosis. Clinica chimica acta; international journal of clinical chemistry, 424, 245–252. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cca.2013.06.006
Zhao, J. F., Ching, L. C., Kou, Y. R., Lin, S. J., Wei, J., Shyue, S. K., & Lee, T. S. (2013). Activation of TRPV1 prevents OxLDL-induced lipid accumulation and TNF-α-induced inflammation in macrophages: role of liver X receptor α. Mediators of inflammation, 2013, 925171. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/925171
Qin, Y., Ran, L., Wang, J., Yu, L., Lang, H. D., Wang, X. L., Mi, M. T., & Zhu, J. D. (2017). Capsaicin Supplementation Improved Risk Factors of Coronary Heart Disease in Individuals with Low HDL-C Levels. Nutrients, 9(9), 1037. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9091037
Kang JH, Kim CS, Han IS et al. (2007). Capsaicin, a spicy component of hot peppers, modulates adipokine gene expression and protein release from obese-mouse adipose tissues and isolated adipocytes, and suppresses the inflammatory responses of adipose tissue macrophages. FEBS Lett, 581:4389–96. doi:10.1016/j.febslet.2007.07.082
Chen J, Li L, Li Y et al. (2015). Activation of TRPV1 channel by dietary capsaicin improves visceral fat remodeling through connexin43-mediated Ca2+Influx. Cardiovasc Diabetol, 14:22. doi:10.1186/s12933-015-0183-6