What does eating spicy food mean to our body?

People love and hate spicy food. Those who love it, regard food without chilli as tasteless; when those who hate it, choose to stay hungry rather than eating and crying in the same time. Today, I am going to talk about the effect to our body of eating spicy food.

Long time ago people have noticed the question, Published in September 21st, 1983 on the New York Times, Jane Brody analyzed the effects of spicy seasonings on human body. Jane verified capsicum peppers’ effect of stimulating appetite, and pointed out capsicum peppers contain large amount of Vitamin C, Vitamin A, potassium and some iron and protein. She finally described spicy seasonings as “a tastebud- stimulating alternative to salt, the abuse of which can increase the risk of developing high blood pressure.”

However, the latest research performed by Jun lv and Lu qi, professors at Harvard School of Public Health, indicated that a daily habit of eating spicy food is actually good for our health. Their research was finally published in the British Medical Journal [Jun Lv et al, Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality: population based cohort study]”

Scientific American summarizes the study perfectly, “ The researchers enrolled nearly half a million Chinese volunteers, aged 30 to 79. They quizzed them on their affinity for fiery foods, and followed each study subject for an average of seven years. During that time, more than 20,000 of the subjects died. But after controlling for factors like smoking history and income, the scientists found that the risk of death was 10 percent lower in those who ate spicy food a couple times a week, compared with those who abstained. And daily chili eaters, like Lu, had a 14 percent lower risk of dying. That figure held true for both men and women. And yes, while it is a relatively modest effect, Lu says to keep in mind: we’re just talking about chilies here. “It’s not medicine.”

Now, let’s analyze the research. Obviously, we can rule out reverse causation easily. The number of participants is big enough, and they are random, so it is not possible that the difference happens by chance. The evidence is quite strong. But the researchers only give very weak “potential mechanisms”, which includes “the bioaccessibility and bioavailability of bioactive ingredients and nutrients of spicy foods”. Thus we cannot conclude there is a causation, and I strongly think that there is a third variable that influenced the result.

The research was done in my home country China, and I knew that Chinese doctors will always warn their patients not eating spicy food when they are sick. And in China, rather than antibiotic medicine, people are more likely to have Chinese medicine which a mixture of extractions from different kinds of plants. Because many ingredients of Chinese Medicine have a conflict with capsicum pepper.  (we say eating the medicine and pepper together breaks of the harmony of Qi in body). And for people who get sick really often, it may change his or her eating habit. More than that, it is not rare that when people stay up to work late, or experience a hangover, they will not eat spicy food. Therefore, I think it may be that people who do not eat spicy food originally have a low resistance to illness or have bad living styles, so people who do eat spicy food often are originally not as healthy as those who eat spicy food daily, which caused the difference of their longevity.

They study is interesting and shows strong correlation. However, researchers cannot explain the mechanism and there is potential third variable effect. In fact, different nations have different eating cultures, and the eating habits of people in different nations, races, ages change a lot. Deliberately change your eating habits may not benefit as expected. The funny fact is that many friends tell me that they will rather die than eating spicy food every day, because they cannot stand the stimulation. But for people who are able to stand spicy seasonings, add more spicy food to your recipe will do nothing negative. Just try it, and it may help.

3 thoughts on “What does eating spicy food mean to our body?

  1. Siyuan Yang Post author

    Really thanks for your advice. But I have something to explain.First, in fact, chance hardly affect the result of the study, because of the large number of participants involved. Half a million people are involved. And the difference, 10 percents, is somehow obvious. In this situation, it is impossible to say that it is just due to chance. I still think my evidence of a third variable is a potential explanation to the results. But just as you said, we cannot discredit the whole study. I hope there will be further research explain the mechanism and find out what is really going on.

  2. Hyun Soo Lee

    This is a very well-researched post. I’m Korean-American, so I grew up exposed to several spicy foods, and I suspect my pain threshold for spiciness is a bit higher than the average American because of that. I know for some people, extreme spiciness is physically painful. Regardless, I never knew about the correlation between spicy food consumption and life expectancy, so this was all very fresh and interesting for me. This makes me wonder if the the longer life expectancies in East Asian countries like Japan have anything to do with the prevalence of spicy foods in those countries.

  3. Liam Arun Datwani

    This is incredibly interesting. You did not only use scientific data but your own personal understanding of your home countries culture. However, there is a critique or two I have. When you are discussing mechanism and stuff like that you have to remember just because we do not know the mechanism does not discredit the whole study. I do like though that you used your own ideas to say the study was wrong. The one other issue is you never mentioned chance which is a huge part of this study even with your evidence of a third variable. Chance could explain the difference as much as your evidence does. Just wanted to mention some things that could make this better.

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