There’s a debate raging about the healing properties of capsaicin that’s hotter than the spice itself.
Capsaicin, the component in chile peppers that gives them their spice, has been named as a possible trigger for skin cancer.
Yet, this is the same capsaicin that’s widely known to bring about cell death for a variety of cancers. What’s more, capsaicin is widely consumed in foods with chile peppers all over the world — not to mention being a common ingredient in topical creams for pain relief.
And now people are saying it might cause a certain type of cancer. Let’s take a look. . .
First off, this spicy pepper component
is a known cancer killer
I’ve reported on the value of capsaicin before. In Issue 23 of our newsletter, I talked about the power of this nutrient in helping heal prostate cancer. It’s been shown to make prostate cancer cells disintegrate, in a study by researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centers, along with UCLA Medical School. They showed capsaicin forced 80 percent of human prostate cancer cells into apoptosis (cell death).
One of the scientists involved in the study at the time, Sören Lehmann, M.D., Ph.D., said capsaicin “…also dramatically slowed the development of prostate tumors formed by those human cell lines grown in mouse models.”
In another study, done by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, capsaicin was shown to force pancreatic cancer cells in mice to self-destruct.
Capsaicin has been shown to slow the growth of prostate tumors while lowering the cancer cell production of PSA, or prostate specific antigen. This is pretty important to men over age 50 whose doctors often make them undergo the PSA test to diagnose prostate cancer. (Side note: it’s not a very reliable test, but most doctors still insist on it. Capsaicin can help you impress your doctor by reducing high PSA levels.)
Now comes this dubious claim that capsaicin helps bring about skin cancer.
The claim surfaced from a study conducted by the Hormel Institute at the University of Minnesota, where lead researcher and professor Ann Bode went on record saying it’s possible that capsaicin increases skin cancer risk. She points out concerns that the natural compound, when used in over-the-counter topical pain creams, could cause problems.
Please note she’s NOT referring to capsaicin taken internally, as in food or supplements. She’s referring only to topical use, and only to skin cancer.
Bode and her research team published their study in the journal Cancer Research. They stated that capsaicin, when applied topically to the skin of mice, actually induced tumors and elevated levels of an inflammatory enzyme (cyclooxygenase-2).
The molecular mechanisms of capsaicin as a cancer-promoter are unclear, and controversial to boot. The charge that capsaicin acts as a carcinogen at the tumor promotion stage comes from its ability to stimulate inflammation. Bode speculates that inflammation caused by capsaicin might be the link to the increase in tumors (as opposed to the spice itself).
But her whole claim is overblown and highly doubtful. Get this: The mice that got cancer were given capsaicin mixed with other substances known to be carcinogens. A control group of mice given ONLY capsaicin did NOT get skin cancer.
Here’s what we know for sure
Capsaicin kills cancer cells thanks to a family connection. It belongs to a family of molecules called the vanilloids which bind to proteins in the cancer cell mitochondria. This triggers apoptosis (natural cell death) and does so without hurting healthy cells.
When applied to the skin, it’s believed that capsaicin lessens pain by temporarily disabling a neurotransmitter called substance P that sends pain signals to the brain. It effectively reduces the nervous system’s sensitivity to pain.
In fact, capsaicin has been shown to be quite useful in reducing pain from cancer treatment. A 1997 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology cited a study on cancer patients who had long-term neuropathic pain after surgery. After eight weeks of applying capsaicin topical cream to pain sites, they experienced 53 percent pain reduction (compared to only 17 percent pain reduction from a placebo cream).
The Hormel Institute study itself stops way short of saying topical capsaicin pain cream may be related to skin cancer. It says “capsaicin alone does not act as a carcinogen.” Amen to that. In the Hormel study, capsaicin had lots of help.
Consider this: Mice in the Hormel Institute study received doses of capsaicin mixed with DMBA (7,12-dimetylbenz(a) anthracene) and TPA (12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate) on their skin. Both DMBA and TPA are known to be cancer-generating, tumor-promoting drugs. Those mice were guaranteed to get tumors. They were administered these substances with the intent of causing skin tumors.
There was a control group of mice treated with capsaicin only. Those mice did not develop skin tumors.
And this is what’s most important as far as I’m concerned: The spice has been shown to be safe in animal studies where it’s administered intravenously. So at least we know it’s not a carcinogen when introduced inside the body. It’s only application to the skin, for pain relief, that poses a possible problem. If you’re really worried about it, don’t use it on your skin.
Just to make my position clear: I believe capsaicin is a safe, natural food to prevent AND cure cancer when taken as food or supplements.
Other uses for capsaicin
Capsaicin is a seriously powerful compound with a variety of uses besides cancer treatment and prevention. It can improve circulation, treat psoriasis, and lessen the pain from cluster headaches. One small study even showed improved hair growth for alopecia patients when capsaicin was taken in conjunction with isoflavone.
New research is even hinting capsaicin has value as a weight loss tool. According to a meta-analysis from Purdue University, the spice has potential in terms of reducing appetite and burning up calories.
And let me add, it’s certainly not a harmless compound. Capsaicin is used in pepper sprays meant for personal defense. It’s a chemical agent in riot control. It’s also used to deter mammalian pests like squirrels from ravaging crops, and in household and garden insect repellents.
In spray form, capsaicin is meant to be painful. If it comes in contact with your eyes or any mucous membranes, you’re going to feel pain. In large quantities — far more than you could ever eat in spicy food — it can even cause death.
You can’t rely on the media to interpret science
What’s clear is that the media bungled the message. Who knows how it started — perhaps a press release that misinterpreted the study data from the get-go. Dr. Paul Bosland, director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, said it best: “…it serves to illustrate the ignorance of many wire service stories that deal with science.”
Meanwhile, there’s another food ingredient that prevents cancer. In fact, it can cut your lifetime danger of getting cancer by about half! If you missed this important story in the last issue, click here and see it now.
Capsaicin. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capsaicin
“Capsaicin and Cancer.” by Ryan Haas. http://www.livestrong.com/article/450424-capsaicin-and-cancer/
“Capsaicin Can Act as Co-Carcinogen, Study Finds; Chili Pepper Component Linked to Skin Cancer.” Science News: Science Daily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100902121057.htm
Capsaicin: About Herbs, Botcanicals, & Other Products. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. http://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/herb/capsaicin
“Capsaicin: a novel chemopreventive molecule and its underlying molecular mechanisms of action.” Oyagbemi, A.A. et al. Indian Journal of Cancer. 2010 Jan-Mar;47(1):53-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20071791?itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum&ordinalpos=3
“Household Spice Makes Prostate Cancer Cells Fizzle and Die!” Cancer Defeated Newsletter, Issue #23. http://cancerdefeatedpublications.com/newsletters/Household-Spice-Makes-Prostate-Cancer-Cells-Fizzle-and-DIE.html
“Media Mangles Report: Capsaicin Does Not Cause Skin Cancer.” by Lois Manno. http://fiery-foods.com/article-archives/84-chiles-and-health/2991-media-mangles-report-study-shows-capsaicin-does-not-cause-skin-cancer
“Phase III placebo-controlled trial of capsaicin cream in the management of surgical neuropathic pain in cancer patients.” Ellison N, et al. J Clin Oncol 1997;15:2974-80. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9256142
“Purdue meta-analysis supports ‘modest’ weight management benefits of capsaicin.” By Stephen Daniells http://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/Research/Purdue-meta-analysis-supports-modest-weight-management-benefits-of-capsaicin
“The Hormel Institute study reveals capsaicin can act as cocarcinogen.” http://www.hi.umn.edu/news/?p=166