Can Hot Chili Peppers Help Prevent Cancer?

Cap­saicin, which is the chem­i­cal that puts the heat in hot chili pep­pers, may encour­age some kinds of can­cer cells to com­mit sui­cide; but cap­saicin doesn’t seem to have the same effect on healthy cells. This is just one of many ways in which chem­i­cals that are found nat­u­ral­ly in plants (phy­to­chem­i­cals) could have an anti­cancer effect.

Can­cer isn’t just one dis­ease. It’s a group of unre­lat­ed dis­eases that all result from the same sort of prob­lem: cells behav­ing bad­ly. Can­cer cells don’t become the kind of cell that they’re sup­posed to become, and they keep divid­ing to make new cells long after they were sup­posed to stop. Some­times, they trav­el through the body and set­tle down in places where they’re not sup­posed to be. All of these prob­lems result from some­thing going wrong in the cell’s genet­ic mate­r­i­al. Either some genes have been dam­aged or the switch­es that are sup­posed to turn the genes on and off have been stuck in the wrong posi­tion. This prob­lem can get start­ed if a cell’s genes are dam­aged by expo­sure to radi­a­tion or to can­cer-caus­ing (car­cino­genic) chem­i­cals, such as those in tobac­co smoke. The first line of defense against can­cer is to reduce the body’s expo­sure to radi­a­tion and oth­er car­cino­gens.

Even after a cell has gone rogue, the body has sev­er­al lev­els of defens­es that could stamp out the can­cer before it is ever noticed. The first is a self-destruct mech­a­nism that is built into the cell’s genet­ic instruc­tions. This self-destruc­tion, which is called apop­to­sis or pro­grammed cell death, caus­es the cell to break apart into tidy frag­ments that are quick­ly and eas­i­ly devoured by white blood cells. In con­trast, when cells die as a result of trau­ma, they make a mess by spilling their con­tents into the sur­round­ing flu­id.

Pro­grammed cell death plays an impor­tant role in sculpt­ing the embryo dur­ing ear­ly devel­op­ment. If cells are in the wrong place at the wrong time, they get a sig­nal to com­mit sui­cide. That’s why most peo­ple aren’t born with webbed fin­gers and toes. Even in a healthy adult, tens of bil­lions of cells under­go pro­grammed cell death every day. Pro­grammed cell death is a nat­ur­al body process that is sup­posed to stay in a healthy bal­ance. If too many cells die, the result is tis­sue shrink­age (atro­phy). If too many cells fail to com­mit sui­cide, then abnor­mal cells such as can­cer cells can get out of con­trol.

Pro­grammed cell death is a com­pli­cat­ed process that can involve sev­er­al dif­fer­ent path­ways and that can be stim­u­lat­ed or sup­pressed by many dif­fer­ent sig­nals. How­ev­er, the end result is always the same: enzymes called cas­pas­es are acti­vat­ed, and they break down the pro­tein struc­tures inside the cell. Some kinds of can­cer cells fail to under­go pro­grammed cell death because they have a defi­cien­cy of or defect in one of their cas­pas­es. These cells may need a lit­tle extra encour­age­ment to under­go pro­grammed cell death.

Researchers have report­ed that cap­saicin inhibits the growth of colon tumors. The­o­ret­i­cal­ly, cap­saicin could have anti­tu­mor effects in oth­er parts of the body because it is eas­i­ly absorbed from the intes­tine and car­ried through­out the body by the blood­stream. One study showed that cap­saicin pro­motes pro­grammed cell death in a par­tic­u­lar type of liv­er can­cer cells. Anoth­er study showed a sim­i­lar effect in breast can­cer cells.

The first line of defense against can­cer is to avoid radi­a­tion, car­cino­genic chem­i­cals, and the viral infec­tions that are known to cause cells to become malig­nant. The sec­ond line of defense is to eat a low-fat, high-fiber, plant-based diet, which acts in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent ways to pre­vent cells from becom­ing malig­nant and to sup­press the growth of tumors. The pro­mo­tion of pro­grammed cell death by hot pep­pers is just one of the ways in which a plant-based diet could help to sup­press can­cer.

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