Eating a meal containing both chili peppers and ginger may help prevent cancer, according to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
Researchers have long been divided over the cancer-fighting potential of capsaicin, the chemical that gives chili peppers their “burn.” Some studies have suggested that diets high in capsaicin might be linked to a higher risk of stomach cancer, yet many other studies have also shown that chili peppers and capsaicin help prevent cancer, instead.
The new study boosts the anti-cancer evidence, finding in particular that the combination of chili pepper and ginger is a more potent preventive than either alone.
Cancer-fighting power dramatically boosted
Previous research had shown that capsaicin and 6-gingerol — the chemical responsible for the distinctive pungency of ginger — bind to the same receptor on tumor cells. In the new study, the researchers took mice that were predisposed to develop lung cancer and fed them either capsaicin, 6-gingerol, or a combination of the two chemicals.
The highest number of lung tumors was seen in the mice fed capsaicin alone. A lower number (50 percent) was seen in the mice fed only 6-gingerol. But only 20 percent of the mice fed both compounds went on to develop lung tumors.
The researchers hope to conduct further studies on how the two chemicals interact to affect cancer risk.
Prior studies have also suggested that in addition to helping prevent cancer, capsaicin may also directly kill cancer cells. Studies have shown that capsaicin can kill prostate cancer cells, for example, while leaving healthy prostate cells untouched. A more recent study discovered that capsaicin can bind to the membranes of certain tumor cells, eventually causing the membranes to lose their integrity and break. This may partially explain the effects seen in the recent study.
Ginger alone has also shown the potential as a cancer treatment. Studies have shown that ginger extracts can directly kill breast cancer cells, and may even kill the cancer stem cells responsible for metastasis and much of cancer mortality.
Both foods are also natural painkillers
Ginger and chili peppers don’t just taste great together and fight cancer together — they have also both been shown to act as potent natural painkillers.
One such study was conducted by researchers from the University of Georgia and from Georgia College and State University and published in The Journal of Pain in 2010. The researchers fed volunteers capsules containing two grams of either raw ginger, cooked (“heat-treated”) ginger or a placebo for 11 days, then had them engage in a level of exercise designed to induce moderate muscle injury in one arm. For three days before and after the exercise, the researchers measured arm function, inflammation, pain, and a biomarker of pain.
The researchers found that participants in both ginger groups experienced 25 percent less pain following exercise than those who had not been eating ginger. This also shows that ginger’s painkilling effects seem to be unaffected by cooking.
A 2009 review published in The Cochrane Library evaluated the evidence for the use of capsaicin creams as treatments for pain and discomfort caused by peripheral neuropathy.
Peripheral neuropathy is caused by dysfunction of nerves outside the central nervous system, and can be caused by health conditions including diabetes, arthritis, shingles and AIDS. Symptoms include tingling, numbness, weakness and burning pain.
The researchers found that about 40 percent of participants gained relief from capsaicin cream, although it did cause undesirable skin irritation in some of those people.
Researchers are also studying the way that the body reacts to the heat and pain caused by hot peppers to attempt to better understand the pain response, with the goal of developing more effective painkillers.