Hot Chili Peppers Make Cancer Cells Commit Suicide

Hot chili peppers not only fire up your taste buds, they also put turn up the heat on cancer cells, forcing them to self-destruct. A study in the Sept. 4, 2002 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reports that natural substances found in chili peppers kill cancer cells by starving them of oxygen. Researchers tested two compounds in hot chili peppers—capsaicin and a related compound called resiniferatoxin— on human skin cancer cells. Both compounds belong to a group of naturally occurring phytochemicals (phyto=plant) called vanilloids. The majority of the skin cancer cells exposed to either of the two substances died.

Practical Tips

When handling and cooking fresh chili peppers, it's a good idea to wear thin rubber gloves as capsaicin may cause a burning sensation if it touches your skin or lips, or comes in contact with your eyes. If you prefer not to wear gloves, be sure to thoroughly wash your hands, knife and cutting board after preparing hot chili peppers.

Capsaicin primarily resides in the seeds and fleshy white inner membranes. To get the most pungency and cancer-protective benefits, don't remove these parts.

The range of "hotness" varies not only among pepper varieties, but sometimes also within the same varieties. Therefore, each time you cook with them, you may need to adjust the amount you use. Before adding chili peppers to a recipe, taste a little piece to determine the spice level, so you will know how much to add.

Here are a few of the World's Healthiest Foods' quick serving ideas to help you enjoy the healing benefits of hot chili peppers more often:

To learn more about the many other benefits of these skin cancer-preventive members of the World's Healthiest Foods, click chili pepper. For some exceptional recipes featuring these crucifers, click on the Recipe Assistant, select red chili peppers from the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all the World's Healthiest Foods' recipes containing hot chili peppers will appear immediately below.

Research Summary

The majority of skin cancer cells (squamous cell carcinoma cell lines) underwent apoptosis (the cellular self-destruct sequence) after a 12-hour exposure to 100 micro M capsaicin or 10 micro M resiniferatoxin. Exposure of the cancer cells to either capsaicin or resiniferatoxin was associated with a rapid increase in the generation of a destructive free radical called hydroperoxide and a decrease in oxygen consumption. The researchers think capsaicin and resiniferatoxin kill cancerous cells by damaging their cell membranes, thus significantly reducing the amount of oxygen that reaches the mitochondria (the energy-production factories) within the cancer cells. Since cancer cells are rapidly dividing, their metabolic needs for oxygen are much higher than those of normal cells. Study authors Numsen Hail Jr. and Reuben Lotan, PhD, of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston say if more studies confirm these findings, the compounds may eventually be used in skin patches or creams to treat or prevent skin cancer.

Reference: Hail N Jr, Lotan R. Examining the role of mitochondrial respiration in vanilloid-induced apoptosis. J Natl Cancer Inst 2002 Sep 4;94(17):1281-92.

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