Cardiovascular health is one of the greatest concerns of the developed world—and with good reason, since cardiovascular unhealth is still among the leading causes of death. There’s some positive news, however, from the 243rd National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society. Some hot spices—namely capsaicinoids—may support heart and vascular health.
Capsaicinoids are a family of substances responsible for the “heat” found in jalapeños, cayennes, habañeros and other chili peppers. Research from past studies has already suggested that these spicy peppers can help support healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well as healthy clotting mechanisms in the body.
This study has taken those findings a step further. Zhen-Yu Chen, Ph.D., a professor of food and nutritional science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, led a study intended to examine the effect of dietary capsaicinoids on blood vessel function, cholesterol metabolism and gene expression of transporters, enzymes and receptors included in cholesterol homeostasis.
“Our research has reinforced and expanded knowledge about how these substances in chilies work in improving heart health,” said Dr. Chen. “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.”
Here’s how the study went: the research team fed high cholesterol diets to hamsters, and then the hamsters were divided into two groups. One group was fed capsaicinoids, while the other did not receive capsaicinoids. Once the study ended, Chen and his team learned that capsaicinoids from the hot peppers promoted a healthy heart and reduced heart disease risk in two ways: by lowering cholesterol levels via reducing accumulation of cholesterol in the body and increasing the breakdown and excretion of the cholesterol. Interestingly, capsaicinoids reduced levels of “bad” cholesterol, which deposits into the blood, but did not affect “good” cholesterol levels.
Additionally, capsaicinoids also blocked the action of a gene tasked with making arteries contract and expand—which impacts the flow of blood to the heart and other organs. In short, this “blocking” action allows more blood to flow through blood vessels. Another plus was that the research team noted results indicating that capsaicinoids may also reduce the size of cholesterol deposits that already exist in blood vessels. That’s important because those deposits narrow arteries in ways that can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Dr. Chen adds, “We concluded that capsaicinoids were beneficial in improving a range of factors related to heart and blood vessel health. But we certainly do not recommend that people start consuming chilies to an excess or replace existing treatment. A good diet is a matter of balance. They may be a nice supplement, however, for people who find the hot flavor pleasant.”
Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from the hamsters in the study. It can be a heart health plus to heat things up by enjoying capsaicinoids in your diet.