Spicy food can make you feel like your mouth is on fire and cause you to sweat profusely. However, a new study suggests that regularly eating spicy food could also lower the risk of death from specific conditions.

A girl is eating a chili pepper.Share on Pinterest
Fresh chilis contain capsaicin, which has been reported to have anticancer, anti-inflammatory and antihypertensive effects.

The observational study, published in The BMJ, found people whose daily diets regularly featured spicy foods had a lower risk of death from cancer, ischemic heart disease and respiratory disease.

Many previous studies have demonstrated health benefits for spices such as red pepper, and others have demonstrated that certain bioactive agents in spices such as capsaicin can have beneficial effects in conditions such as obesity and cardiovascular disease.

While these studies suggest that spices could play a prominent role in human health, there is currently a lack of evidence for the effects of daily spicy food consumption on disease-specific and all-cause mortality from population studies.

To address this, a research team led by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences analyzed data obtained from the China Kadoorie Biobank – a prospective cohort study of more than half a million adults from geographically diverse regions in China.

They followed a total of 487,375 participants aged between 30 and 79 who were regularly assessed for illness. When each participant was enrolled to the study between 2004-2008, they completed a questionnaire about their health and consumption of spicy foods, red meat, vegetables and alcohol.

During the follow-up period, 5% of surviving participants were randomly surveyed again in 2008 to assess whether the baseline questionnaire results accurately reflected spicy food consumption over time. The study authors report these questionnaires indicated that spicy food consumption was reported consistently.

A total of 20,224 deaths were recorded during the follow-up period, with participants tracked for an average of 7.2 years.

The researchers observed that participants who reported eating spicy foods 3-7 days a week were 14% less likely to have died than participants who ate spicy foods less than once a week. Participants who ate spicy foods once or twice a week were at a 10% reduced risk of dying compared with participants who ate spicy foods less than once a week.

Fast facts about capsaicin
  • Native Americans have used cayenne pepper as a form of medication for at least 9,000 years
  • Capsaicin can be found in many over-the-counter medicines for pain relief
  • Capsaicin is also an ingredient in many forms of pepper spray.

Learn about the health benefits of cayenne pepper

Frequent consumption of spicy foods was also associated with a lower risk of death from cancer, ischemic heart disease and respiratory system diseases. This reduced risk was more prominent among female participants than male participants.

In terms of spicy food, the researchers found that the most commonly used spices for participants who ate spicy foods weekly were fresh and dried chili peppers. Participants who regularly ate fresh chili had a reduced risk of death from cancer, ischemic heart disease and diabetes.

“Possible mechanisms might involve the bioaccessibility and bioavailability of bioactive ingredients and nutrients of spicy foods,” the authors write, “but further studies are needed to verify our findings.”

The authors caution that because the study was an observational one, causal inferences should not be made and further prospective studies should be conducted to demonstrate the generalizability of their findings.

In an accompanying editorial, Nita G. Forouhi, of the Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge in the UK, writes that a systematic appraisal of the potential benefits and adverse effects of spicy foods is warranted.

“Should people eat spicy food? It is too early to say, but the debate and the research interest are certainly hotting up,” she concludes.

Last month, Medical News Today reported on analysis conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found only 13.1% of American adults eat enough fruits and only 8.9% eat enough vegetables.