Chillies have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BC. Following their discovery by Columbus in 1492 many cultivars of chillies spread across the world, used in both food and medicine.
Modern medicine and science is now starting to validate many of the anecdotal health properties assigned to chillies and discover a number of potential new uses as well.
Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong focused their study on capsaicin and capsaicinoids, compounds that give cabai burong, cili padi, cayennes, jalapeños and other chilli peppers their fire.
Capsaicin already has an established role in medicine in rub-on-the-skin creams to treat arthritis and certain forms of pain. Past research suggested that spicing food with chilies can lower blood pressure in people with that condition, reduce blood cholesterol and ease the tendency for dangerous blood clots to form.
"Our research has reinforced and expanded knowledge about how these substances in chilies work in improving heart health," said Zhen-Yu Chen, a professor of food and nutritional science. "We now have a clearer and more detailed portrait of their innermost effects on genes and other mechanisms that influence cholesterol and the health of blood vessels. It is among the first research to provide that information."
Chen and his colleagues gave two groups of hamsters high-cholesterol diets, before giving one group food with varying amounts of capsaicinoids while the other control group had foods with no capsaicinoids.
They found that in addition to reducing total cholesterol levels in the blood, capsaicinoids reduced levels of the so-called "bad" cholesterol (which deposits into blood vessels), but did not affect levels of so-called "good" cholesterol. The team found indications that capsaicinoids may reduce the size of deposits that already have formed in blood vessels, narrowing arteries in ways that can lead to heart attacks or strokes.
Capsaicinoids also blocked the activity of a gene that produces cyclooxygenase-2, a substance that makes the muscles around blood vessels contract, restricting the flow of blood to the heart and other organs. This had the effect of relaxing muscles and allowing the blood to flow more easily.
"We concluded that capsaicinoids were beneficial in improving a range of factors related to heart and blood vessel health," said Chen.
"But we certainly do not recommend that people start consuming chilies to an excess. A good diet is a matter of balance. And remember, chilies are no substitute for the prescription medications proven to be beneficial. They may be a nice supplement, however, for people who find the hot flavor pleasant."
The report was part of the 243rd National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), being held in San Diego the week of March 26, 2012
The above story is based on the March 27, 2012 news release by the American Chemical Society (ACS).