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.

The Cause of the Breast Cancer Epidemic

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and we’re inundated with pink ribbons, urging us to be “aware” of breast cancer and encouraging women to get mammograms. Personally, I didn’t need to be made aware of breast cancer. It devastated my family about 40 years ago, when my father’s eldest sister, who was more like a mother to him, died of it after a long and horrible illness. About 10 years later, another of his sisters began her long and painful struggle against the disease that eventually claimed her life. Recently, some of my friends have undergone mastectomies. It would hard for me to be more aware that breast cancer exists.

What infuriates me is that the attempts to raise “awareness” of breast cancer systematically fail to tell women the single most important thing they can do to reduce their risk of dying of breast cancer: correct their diet. Instead, it urges them to do something that might have little or no effect on their survival: get an annual mammogram. It would be as if the efforts to educate the public about lung cancer all failed to mention cigarettes but instead just urged everyone in the population to get an annual chest x-ray.

By the mid 20th century, European and U.S.-trained doctors who were practicing in Africa and Asia realized that breast cancer is rare to practically nonexistent in populations that eat a low-fat, plant-based diet. By the end of the 20th century, epidemiologists knew that breast cancer mortality is strongly linked to the amount of animal protein that a population consumes. The more animal protein a population eats, the more likely its women are to die of breast cancer. Vegetables had the opposite effect. The more vegetables a population eats, the less likely their women are to die of breast cancer.

The data on breast cancer mortality boil down to a simple lesson: if women ate low-fat plant foods instead of a fatty, animal-based diet (including meat, milk, fish and eggs), they could dramatically reduce their risk of dying of breast cancer–and colon cancer, and heart disease, and diabetes, and autoimmune disease, etc. etc. etc. They’d even reduce their risk of getting varicose veins! Even if a woman already has cancer, a switch to a low-fat, plant-based diet might improve her chances of survival.

Instead of being given advice that will actually prevent breast cancer, women in the United States are urged to get a routine annual mammogram. Unfortunately, mammograms do absolutely nothing to prevent breast cancer, and they may do little or nothing to keep most women from dying of breast cancer. Worse yet, routine mammography may lead to unnecessary surgical procedures in women who don’t have cancer.

The decision of who should undergo mammography and when they should undergo it is complicated. The next time you hear someone urging all women of a certain age to have annual screening mammograms, consider the following:

  • Mammography involves exposing the breast to x-rays and thus might actually cause some cancers. The x-rays could pose a particular problem for young women and women with a genetic predisposition to breast cancer.
  • The breast is typically squashed flat while the mammogram is being taken. Not only does this compression hurt, it could break up a precancerous lesion, turning it into a deadly invasive cancer.
  • Mammography is less useful for finding cancers in the breasts of premenopausal women because their breast tissue is denser.
  • By the time a cancer is large enough to be seen by mammography, it may already have spread.
  • Mammograms often cause false alarms by bringing attention to harmless benign lesions, as well as to cancerous tumors that would have gone away by themselves if left untreated. Unfortunately, the woman has to undergo the pain and expense and risk of a surgical biopsy to find out whether the lesion is benign or not, and she’ll never know whether her body’s immune system would have destroyed a tumor before it caused any problems.

Many studies have failed to show that routine screening mammography provides any benefit in terms of saving lives. As a result, some experts argue that it is a pointless and cruel waste of medical resources to urge all women to have annual screening mammography. Even the value of routine breast self-examination has been questioned. Nevertheless, mammography could still be valuable for many individual patients, depending on the situation. The real question is when and how often and for whom it should be used.

Photo by maf04