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Peppers and Your Health

A look at the potential health benefits that peppers may hold.

Capsaicin vs. Cancer

Several studies have looked at capsaicin's impact on cancer cells. H. Phillip Koeffler, MD, director of Hematology and Oncology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and professor of medicine at UCLA, has studied its effects on prostate and breast cancers.

How it works is not entirely understood, says Koeffler. But it appears that capsaicin may fire a lethal blow at cancer cells by affecting the activity of a protein complex called NF-kappa Beta. This makes it more difficult for cancer to dodge programmed cell death (apoptosis). In the prostate study, capsaicin caused the death of about 80% of prostate cancer cells in mice, making tumors shrink by about one-fifth the size of untreated tumors.

Similar results in mice have been found with other types of cancer, such as pancreatic cancer. And in another study, British researchers found that capsaicin disrupts the mitochondria, a cancer cell's major energy source, killing lung and pancreatic cancer cells, but leaving healthy cells untouched.

Koeffler doesn't recommend eating peppers to try to slow cancer growth, especially since you would need to eat about eight of the hottest peppers in the world every week to achieve a similar effect.

Keep in mind, these cancer studies are preliminary and weren't done in people. There is no direct evidence that eating peppers prevents or slows cancer in people.

Heartburn Help -- or Hindrance?

"If you are not used to hot peppers, you are going to get a tremendous amount of burning throughout your whole GI tract when you eat too much pepper," Heber says.

Dairy protein -- like the yogurt condiment that accompanies spicy Indian meals -- is a good way to neutralize it, he says. And you can acclimate over time.

What if you have stomach ulcers or heartburn? "Then, I wouldn't recommend peppers," says Perdermo, but they may not be the cause of these problems. In fact, she says, peppers might help ward off problems like these by reducing levels of certain bacteria or by simulating protective stomach juices.

Pain-Relieving Properties

It's more than a little ironic: The compound that gives peppers their burn -- capsaicin -- can actually relieve the burning from nerve pain.

Available in a cream, capsaicin can relieve neuropathy sometimes experienced by people with type 2 diabetes, says Heber. "It's used therapeutically to reduce pain from the nerves by sending an impulse back up the nervous system that gets rid of the painful stimulus."

Studies show that capsaicin is also effective in reducing the pain of osteoarthritis and psoriasis. Some apply capsaicin topical creams on the forehead for headaches, as well, Heber says.

Tips for Peppering Your Diet with Peppers

It's easy to include peppers in your diet. You can grill, stuff, steam, bake, and stir-fry them. Many peppers are also delicious raw, simply chopped as a crunchy complement for dips or cottage cheese.

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