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