#116 10 Reasons Why Spicy Foods Are Good For Your Heart

August 8th, 2015 by

10 Reasons Why Spicy Foods Are Good For Your Heart

“Have some more,” Mr. Wang said as he eagerly put more food on my plate.

“No thank you,” I tried to respond in Chinese, but no words came out.  My mouth was on fire and my eyes watering.  I really wanted to be a grateful guest but the red hot chili peppers in this Sichuan Chinese dish was far spicier than I had ever experienced before in my life.

Surely, I thought, this much must put me at increased risk for ulcers and it couldn’t be healthy.  Now, 29 years later, there is compelling scientific data that we should eat spicier food.  In fact, these spices may be a key factor to great health and longevity.

In this article, I share 10 scientifically proven reasons why spicy foods are good for your heart.  If you are looking for a very quick summary of this article, here is a TV appearance I did to discuss this blog.

Do Spicy Foods Cause Ulcers?

Growing up, conventional wisdom held that spicy foods caused acid reflux and stomach ulcers.  In fact, many medical experts of the day even recommended that we eat blander foods.

No doubt, some foods like pizza, sausage, and deli meats can aggravate “ulcer-like” symptoms.  However, the active component of chili peppers, capsaicin, has been shown in many studies to prevent or reverse ulcers. Indeed, cultures or groups of people who eat the most chili peppers rarely get ulcers.

Why is the Media Now Discussing Spicy Foods?

Unless you have been on a “news fast” this past week, you have undoubtably heard many reports of the recent Harvard study on eating spicy foods.  In fact, this study was discussed in nearly every major U.S. newspaper and media outlet this past week.

There is a good reason why this study deserved all of the attention it received.  This was a mega-study.  A study so large that it included 487,375 healthy Chinese people, ages 30-79, who were followed for an average of 7.2 years.

These Harvard researchers did a good job of controlling for 20 different lifestyle factors which could have influenced the results of this study, like smoking status, vegetable intake, exercise frequency, etc. so that they really were only looking at the mortality effects of eating chili peppers.

Over the course of this 7.2 year study, 20,224 of the study participants died.  Researchers then analyzed the cause of all deaths and compared these findings to their self-reported intake of chili peppers.

10 Reasons Why Spicy Foods Are Good For Your Heart

Based on the results of this Harvard study, as well as other published studies, here are 10 compelling, and scientifically proven reasons, why spicy foods are good for your heart.

1. Lose Weight

As I have discussed in a previous blog (#60), many studies have shown that chili peppers decrease appetite and increase metabolism.  This double combination can definitely kick start any healthy weight loss effort.

2. Healthy Gut Flora

Capsaicin, the active component in chili peppers, possesses powerful antibacterial properties.  By keeping these bad bacteria away, some data suggests that capsaicin may promote a healthy gut flora. From other studies we are now learning that a healthy gut is a key factor in preventing heart disease.

3. Less Diabetes

While diabetes prevention likely goes hand-in-hand with weight loss and a healthy gut flora, studies show that chili pepper eaters have less diabetes.  While this Harvard study did not convincingly show this, the study did show a trend toward less diabetes in people eating chili peppers at least three times a week.

4. Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Effects

Countless studies have confirmed that capsaicin has very potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.  These effects assist the immune system in the balance between inflammation and infection control.

5. Better Immune System

As discussed above, capsaicin optimizes our immune system function.  Is it any wonder then that in this Harvard study, chili pepper eaters were 26% less likely to die from infections if they ate chili peppers at least three times a week.  This benefit was even greater in women where a 45% decreased risk of death from infections was seen.

6. Lower Blood Pressure

Capsaicin, through activation of the TRPV1 receptor, has significant blood pressure lowering effects.  Ideal blood pressure control, in turn, has been shown to prevent atrial fibrillation, heart attacks, kidney failure, strokes, and dementia.

7. Less Cancer

Many studies confirm the anticancer properties of capsaicin.  Indeed, in this Harvard study, researchers showed a modest 8% reduction in cancers in those people eating chili peppers on most days.  Other studies have shown that cultures who eat a lot of spices, like India, have a much lower incidence of cancer.

8. Better Lung Function

A surprising finding of this Harvard study was that even just eating chili peppers once a week decreased your risk of dying from respiratory diseases by 33%.  While researchers are still not sure of this connection, I suspect it likely has something to do with less respiratory infections.

9. Less Heart Disease

As you might expect, this Harvard study also showed much less heart disease deaths.  Indeed, eating chili peppers at least once weekly decreased your chances of dying from a heart attack by 18%.

10. Live Longer

While most people don’t eat chili peppers to live longer, this spice is clearly linked to a longer lifespan.  In this Harvard study, your risk of premature death was reduced by 14% if you ate chili peppers three times a week.  Even those who ate chili peppers once weekly saw a 10% decreased risk of premature death.

Does It Matter How Often You Eat Chili Peppers?

Do you have to eat chili peppers every day to get all of the benefits we have discussed in this article?  The simple answer is “no.”  Most of the benefit appears to be from going from no chili pepper in your diet to eating some at least once weekly.

Fresh, Dried, or Processed?

While eating dried or processed chili pepper is easiest, from this Harvard study it appears that the greatest health benefits are seen with fresh chili peppers.  For example, fresh chili peppers contain more potassium and vitamins C, A, K and B6.

A Contrarian View of This Study

Is capsaicin the “secret sauce” for good health or is there something else at play in this Harvard study?  For the contrarians out there, let me offer several other explanations for the health benefits observed with chili peppers.

First, perhaps the benefit may simply be due to a selection bias.  For example, people suffering from chronic medical conditions tend to prefer blander foods.

Second, healthier people are more likely to have the energy to cook at home with spices.  Thus, once again, it may not be the chili peppers but rather the fact that healthier people are drawn to this spice.

Third, Chinese people cooking with chili peppers are also much more likely to include other spices, like garlic, ginger, and curry, which also have similar health benefits.

Closing Thoughts

With all of the compelling scientific data I have presented in this article, you would think that I was a regular chili pepper eater.  Truth be told, I rarely eat it unless I am eating Chinese food at a friends’ house or at a restaurant.

My challenge for all of us is to try and include more spices in our cooking at home.  Not only will our food taste much better but our health may also significantly improve!

Do you regularly cook with spices?  What spices do you like to use the most?  Please leave a comment below so that our community can benefit from your experience.

#113 Which Pain Medications Are Safe For the Heart?

July 18th, 2015 by

Which Pain Medications Are Safe For the Heart?

“What is there left for me to take for my back pain?” My patient Mary asked after the recent FDA warning that common pain medications, like ibuprofen and Aleve, increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Fully, 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain.  Are you one of them?

In this article I discuss the life-threatening cardiac risks of traditional pain medications.  I also share 9 heart healthy pain treatment strategies based on the latest scientific studies.

NSAIDs Like Ibuprofen and Aleve

The non-steroidal anti-inflammator medications (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen and Aleve, are the classic “go to” medications for people suffering from pain.  The problem is that ever since the Vioxx experience, in which an estimated 140,000 people suffered a heart attack from this medication, we have known that you put your heart and brain at risk each time you take one of these medications.

Even the safer NSAIDs, like ibuprofen and Aleve (naproxen), may increase the risk of a heart attack and stroke.  Indeed, taking ibuprofen increases the risk of a heart attack by 14% and strokes by 11%.  NSAIDs also increase the risk of a dangerous heart rhythm, called atrial fibrillation, by 33%.

In addition to these cardiovascular risks, NSAIDs also raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of bleeding, heart failure, kidney failure, and ulcers.


While aspirin is considered a NSAID, it stands out as possibly the only pain medication that appears to be safe for the heart.  Aspirin was once felt to prevent heart attacks and strokes, however, more recent research is challenging this long held belief.  This new research has led the FDA to announce in 2014 that aspirin was no longer recommended for the general public to take in order to prevent heart attacks and strokes.

While aspirin has long been felt to be “safe,” it can also cause serious side effects like bleeding and ulcers. For example, in one large study, there was a 1 in a 100 risk of major bleeding each year in people taking an aspirin daily.  This risk of bleeding, from any of the NSAIDs, is of particular concern for people who may be on other blood thinners.


Like aspirin, acetaminophen was once felt to be a safe medication.  However, even this medication is linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

This risk appears to be similar to that of NSAIDs.  In addition to the increased heart attack and stroke risk, this medicine can also raise your blood pressure and cause liver damage.

Opiate Medications

According to the CDC, there are 259 million prescriptions written each year for narcotics in the U.S.  If you break this down, that is nearly one bottle of narcotic pain pills for every person in the United States.

These narcotics cause countless cardiac arrests through prolongation of what is called the “QT” interval on the ECG.  It is for this reason that many opiates, such as Demerol and Darvocet, have been taken off the market.

What Can I Take For Pain?

At this point you are probably wondering, what can I take for pain?  Unfortunately, there is no “free ride” when it comes to managing pain with traditional medications.  As with everything, you and your physician have to carefully weigh the risks versus benefits of everything that you take.

For example, I love to exercise hard.  However, at age 48, occasionally I will have pain from a pulled muscle or from a fall while skiing.   When this happens, I take 220 mg of naproxen (Aleve).

As a cardiologist, I am very aware of my increased risk of a heart attack, stroke, atrial fibrillation, or heart failure on the days when I take this medication.  However, I also have to balance these risks with the potential benefit of exercise.  To keep these risks at a minimum, I only take a very low dose (220 mg of Aleve) on the days that I experience significant pain.

Heart Healthy Pain Treatment Strategies

For those who suffer from chronic pain, you may want to explore alternative pain therapy to decrease your cardiovascular risks associated with the traditional pain medications.  Below are some possible alternative pain treatments to discuss with your physician.

1. Maintain a Healthy Body Weight

As with everything, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  For most people, getting down to a healthy body weight would resolve a large portion of the pain they experience.  I know that this was critical for me to resolve my chronic back and knee pain.

2. Turmeric (Curcumin)

If you enjoy Indian or Asian foods then you have undoubtably eaten this spice before.  It is also found in curry.  Turmeric or curcumin has very potent anti-inflammatory properties.

Indeed, in one large study turmeric (curcumin) was shown to be just as effective in reducing pain, with a lot less side effects, when compared to ibuprofen for people suffering from arthritis.  In my own experience, I have not found turmeric (curcumin) to be as effective as low-dose Aleve but it does seem to help with relatively minor aches.

An additional benefit of turmeric (curcumin) is that it may also help to prevent cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s Disease.  Perhaps this explains why the risk of dementia is 4.4 times lower in India when compared to the U.S.

3. Capsaicin

Capsaicin is the active component of chili peppers.  While eating peppers may help with pain, the most potent effects seem to be from using capsaicin topically.  Indeed, many studies have confirmed the potent pain relieving effects of topical capsaicin for the use of arthritis or nerve pain.

Even though capsaicin is a completely natural product, side effects can occur.  For example, some people may experience severe skin reactions.

If you like to eat red peppers or chill peppers, capsaicin has also been shown to increase metabolism and help to burn fat.  Thus, not only may your pain decrease but you may also lose weight.

4. Omega 3 Fatty Acids

While oily fish is not generally considered a “pain medication,” studies do support pain relieving effects with omega 3 fatty acids.  I suspect that this is due to the anti-inflammatory effects of omega 3s.  Even if wild Alaskan salmon does not help your pain, studies show that you have markedly reduced your overall cardiovascular risks.

5. Glucosamine and Chondroitin

Glucosamine and chondroitin have now gone “mainstream,” especially for the treatment of knee arthritis.  Both of these substances help to build or repair cartilage, especially in the knee.  Indeed, studies have shown that these can be just as effective as NSAIDs for pain and swelling with minimal side effects for most people.

6. Ginger

While also not commonly thought of as a “pain medication,” studies indicate that ginger may be another pain treatment option with minimal side effects.  Ginger is known to have anti-inflammatory effects which may help to prevent heart disease in some studies.

7. Yoga or Meditation

Studies have shown that yoga and meditation can be very effective “pain medications.”  As anxiety and depression amplify pain, I suspect that the primary effect of yoga and meditation is on our pain perception.  Regardless, both yoga and meditation have also been shown to help reverse or prevent heart disease.

8. Acupuncture

Acupuncture has been used for millennia in China to treat chronic pain and other health problems.  Modern studies have supported the pain relieving effects of acupuncture.  Fortunately, when done correctly, the cardiovascular risks appear to be very low.

9. Massage Therapy

Massage therapy can be very effective for musculoskeletal pain.  Another benefit is that it is also appears to be heart healthy.

Take Home Message

Unfortunately, all of the traditional pain medications can have life-threatening side effects.  When taking pain medications it is critically important to discuss the risks, benefits, and alternatives to these medications with your physician.

While some pain is unavoidable, many people can prevent or treat chronic pain through a healthy lifestyle which also includes anti-inflammatory foods, herbs, and spices as well as stress management.

Have you tried any of the 9 alternative pain treatment options discussed in this article?  If so, what was your experience?  Please leave your comments below to share with our community.