Can Capsaicin in Chili Peppers Help Beat Cancer?

red chili peppers

Story at-a-glance -

  • The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 1.68 million new cases of cancer in 2017, which means three new cases and one death every minute
  • Breast cancer accounts for the highest number of cancer diagnoses and has four different types, the most aggressive of which is called triple negative
  • Researchers found capsaicin in chili peppers, the molecule responsible for making your mouth burn, can reduce the speed of cancer cell growth and increase the rate of death in triple negative cancer cells

By Dr. Mercola

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2017 there will be 1.68 million new cancer cases and over 600,000 deaths.1 This means three new cases and one death every minute of every day. The top five cancers diagnosed are estimated to be breast, lung, prostate, colorectal and melanoma, in that order.

The link between obesity and cancer, and the high number of insulin receptors on cancer cells2 make sugar and a high-carbohydrate diet a significant risk for developing cancer.

A recent study from Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center demonstrated a significant link between sugar and some cancers, especially breast cancer.3

As it is estimated that breast cancer will be diagnosed more than any other cancer in 2017, and the amount of sugar in a standard Western diet only continues to grow, it is very important to evaluate your dietary choices to reduce your risk and improve successful treatment.

Interestingly, a recent study from Ruhr University in Germany has identified a positive effect of the spicy molecule in chili peppers against some of the more aggressive forms of breast cancer.4

Not All Breast Cancers Are the Same

Regardless of race or ethnicity, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer diagnosed. However, with recent breakthroughs in the ability to identify genetic markers in cancer cells, scientists have been able to categorize different types of breast cancer and also design more effective treatment protocols.

Although referred to as a single disease, breast cancer is categorized by where it is found and the type of cells in the tumor. Important to both diagnosis and treatment are the site of the tumor (if it is found in the ducts or lobules of breast tissue), whether it is in the walls or has become invasive, and the reproductive status of the woman.5

Biological markers are also used to evaluate treatment options and prognosis. These markers include Luminal A, Luminal B, triple negative and HER2 types. The most aggressive of these subtypes is the triple negative cell type. The name is derived from the tumor cells being progesterone, estrogen and HER2 receptor negative.6

Within the triple negative subtype, there are also several subsets. Between 15 percent and 20 percent of all breast cancers diagnosed are triple negative, tending to occur most often in younger women and African American women.7

The majority of cancers that develop in women with the gene mutation BRCA1 are both triple negative and basal-like. Recent research tested this most aggressive subtype of breast cancer, triple negative, basal-like tumors.

Cancer Cells Succumb to Capsaicin

The active ingredient in hot chili peppers is capsaicin, which is what makes your mouth burn and gives the peppers their pungent odor. According to recent research, capsaicin also inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells.8

Using the aggressive triple negative breast cancer cells, researchers carried out experiments to determine the effect of capsaicin on the tumor cells.

The team first confirmed the presence of olfactory receptors on the tumor cells called Transient Receptor Potential Channels (TRPV1), which are normally activated by capsaicin and the scent of a fresh ocean breeze. Next, they activated these receptor cells by adding capsaicin to the cell cultures for several hours to several days.9

As a result, the tumor cells began dividing much more slowly and began to die in large numbers.10 The surviving cells also lost the ability to move quickly and reduced the ability to metastasize or develop secondary growths away from the primary site.

Past studies had demonstrated the antiproliferative activity of capsaicin, but the molecular basis to induce cell death had not been identified.11

Existing research had also suggested that transient receptor potential (TRP) channels played a significant role in influencing cancer cell growth. One of those receptor channels were olfactory, TRPV1.

The goal of this latest study was to investigate how the expression of TRP channels in breast cancer tissue could influence cell growth, and how it may be used in treatment protocols. Dr. Lea Weber, co-author of the study, commented:12

"In this study, we aimed to identify the TRP channels in different breast cancer subtypes and to investigate the effect of TRPV1 ligand on breast cancer progression.

To our knowledge, no studies have yet conducted a large-scale comparative study of the TRP channels expression profiles in breast cancer cell lines.

In our experiments, a significant reduction in cell proliferation after capsaicin stimulation was observed. This finding was in accordance with the results of other scientists, who demonstrated a significant decrease in the cell growth rate of MCF-7 breast cancer cells upon capsaicin stimulation."

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Combining Ginger and Chili Peppers May Boost Anti-Cancer Activity

While capsaicin alone is a powerful molecule, in combination with 6-gingerol found in raw ginger root, it becomes even more important to your health. In a recent study, researchers discovered mice who were prone to lung cancer experienced a reduction in diagnosis when fed a combination of capsaicin and 6-gingerol.13

Together the chemicals had an increased ability to bind to a receptor that is responsible for tumor cell growth. This ability reduced the potential for developing lung cancer in the experimental animals. During the study, researchers fed one group just capsaicin, another just 6-gingerol and the third a combination of the two.

While under observation, all of the mice who received capsaicin developed lung tumors, half of the mice who received 6-gingerol developed lung tumors but only 20 percent of the mice who were given the combination developed cancer.14

However, even on their own, both ginger and capsaicin have powerful health effects. Ginger has a long history of calming nausea15 related to surgery,16 morning sickness17 and chemotherapy.

The anti-inflammatory properties have given many people relief with the pain of osteoarthritis.18 As ginger also increases the motility of your gastrointestinal tract, it has been used for the treatment of chronic indigestion.19

Significantly reducing pain associated with menstrual disorders,20 lowering cholesterol levels21 and improving brain function22 are other health benefits associated with ginger.

Capsaicin has a long list of benefits as well, including inhibiting pain transmission that can help prevent headaches and prevent inflammation in your body.23 Chili peppers also have more vitamin C than oranges, to help support your immune system.24

Diet and Nutrition Influences Cancer

Having battled cancer himself, Dr. Gary Fettke came to realize the influence of nutrition on cancer, and the importance of eating a diet high in healthy fats and low in net carbohydrates (total carbs minus fiber, i.e. non-fiber carbs).

In this video, Fettke explains the metabolic model of cancer and how you can use this knowledge to prevent abnormal growths and help treat those which may have already occurred.

Simply put, scientists have thought that genetic defects typically were responsible for cancer. However, these changes actually occur after mitochondrial damage has been done. This dysfunction is at the core of all diseases, putting your mitochondria at the center of any wellness or disease prevention strategies.

Your mitochondria produce energy aerobically in the cell. In the presence of oxygen, cancer cells over produce lactic acid, normally produced in anaerobic activity. Called the Warburg Effect after Dr. Otto Warburg, this activity indicates that cancer cells are fed by sugar and unable to use fat for fuel. Normal cells have the flexibility to use either sugar or fats, but cancer cells are limited to primarily sugar.

Since cancer can be accurately classified as a mitochondrial metabolic disease, the good news is you can optimize your mitochondrial function through lifestyle choices, thus reducing your potential for developing cancer, or to help improve treatment success.

The inflammatory process is a major driver of disease, and several of the key culprits of increasing this response are polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), trans fats, artificial ingredients and sugar in all forms, including refined grains and high-fructose corn syrup. As you reduce the amount of net carbs you eat, you drive down inflammation, and when inflammation disappears, your body can heal.

Cancer requires glucose for fuel, and building materials from surrounding cells to continue to thrive. The process cancer uses to invading surround tissue is known as the Reverse Warburg Effect, relying on hydrogen peroxide generation triggered by oxygen free radicals and water. Fettke explains these processes in the featured video. Understanding these concepts presents a new set of cancer prevention and treatment strategies.

Strategies That May Prevent Cancer

Cancer screening is often portrayed as the best form of "prevention" you can get against various forms of cancer. But early diagnosis is not the same as prevention. And some forms of cancer screenings do more harm to your health than good. I believe the vast majority of all cancers could be prevented by strictly applying basic, common-sense healthy lifestyle strategies, which includes the following:

Eat Real Foods

Avoid processed foods and sugar to avoid feeding cancer cells. Limit or eliminate PUFA oils and trans fats. Limit protein to 0.5 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. Increase your fresh organic vegetables (antioxidant intake) to counteract free radical damage and increase your fat from high quality organic sources such as avocado, raw butter, seeds, nuts and cacao nibs.

Stop Eating at Least Three Hours Before Bed

There is compelling evidence demonstrating that fueling your mitochondria at a time when they don't need it increases leakage of a large number of electrons that liberates reactive oxygen species (free radicals), damaging mitochondria and eventually nuclear DNA.25

There is also evidence to indicate that cancer cells uniformly have damaged mitochondria, so the last thing you want to do is eat before you go to bed.26

Optimize Your Vitamin D Level

Vitamin D influences virtually every cell in your body and is one of nature's most potent cancer fighters. Vitamin D is actually able to enter cancer cells and trigger apoptosis (cell death).27 Vitamin D works synergistically with every cancer treatment I'm aware of, with no adverse effects.

Limit Protein Intake

Recent research has emphasized the importance of the mTOR pathway that, when activated, accelerates cancer growth.28,29

To quiet this pathway, used in protein metabolism,30 I believe it may be wise to limit your protein to 1 gram of protein per kilogram of lean body mass, or roughly a bit less than half a gram of protein per pound of lean body weight. That is roughly 40 to 70 grams per day for most people.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

This will come naturally when you begin eating a diet low in carbohydrates and high in healthy fats, as well as including a consistent exercise routine. It's important to lose excess body fat because fat produces estrogen and obesity is linked to higher rates of cancer.31

Exercise Regularly

One of the primary reasons exercise works to lower your cancer risk is because it drives your insulin levels down and regulates your leptin receptors — two powerful ways of preventing inflammation and cancer cell growth.

Apoptosis (programmed cell death) is triggered by exercise, causing cancer cells to die.32 Exercise may also help lower estrogen levels, which explains why it is particularly potent against estrogen receptor positive breast cancer.33 Exercise also increases the creation of more mitochondria, essential to fighting cancer.34,35

Improve Insulin and Leptin Receptor Sensitivity

The best and most efficient way to accomplish insulin and leptin receptor sensitivity is to avoid sugar and grains and restrict non-fiber carbs to under 100 grams per day, and include regular exercise, especially high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Eliminate Unfermented Soy Products

Unfermented soy is high in plant estrogens, or phytoestrogens, also known as isoflavones. In some studies, soy appears to work in concert with human estrogen to increase breast cell proliferation, which increases the chances for mutations and cancerous cells.36

Balance Your Omega-3 and Omega-6 Ratio to 1-to-1

Include plenty of high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fats in your daily diet through eating high quality, non-toxic fish or through a high-quality krill oil supplement. The standard American diet tends to be high in omega-6 fats, which need to be balanced with omega-3 fats to reduce your potential risk of cancer.37

Include Curcumin

This is the active ingredient in turmeric and in high concentrations can be a very useful adjunct in the treatment of cancer. For example, it has demonstrated major therapeutic potential in preventing breast cancer metastasis.38 It's important to know that curcumin is generally not absorbed that well, so I've provided several absorption tips here.

Avoid Alcohol

Limit or eliminate alcohol as it is a known carcinogen.39

Avoid Electromagnetic Fields

Limit your exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) in your bedroom by removing your cell phone and electric blankets, and moving your alarm clock to the far side of the room.

Avoid Synthetic Hormone Replacement Therapy

Especially if you have other risk factors for breast cancer, synthetic hormone replacement may increase your risk. Several different types of breast cancer are estrogen receptor positive. According to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI), breast cancer rates for women dropped in tandem with decreased use of hormone replacement therapy.

If you experience excessive menopausal symptoms, you may consider bioidentical hormone replacement therapy instead, which uses hormones that are molecularly identical to the ones your body produces and do not wreak havoc on your system. This is a much safer alternative.

Avoid BPA, Phthalates and Other Xenoestrogens

These compounds have estrogen-like chemicals and have been linked to a higher breast cancer risk.40

Ensure You Are Not Iodine Deficient

There is compelling evidence linking iodine deficiency with certain forms of cancer. Dr. David Brownstein,41 author of the book "Iodine: Why You Need it, Why You Can't Live Without it," is a proponent of iodine for breast cancer.

It actually has potent anticancer properties and has been shown to cause cell death in breast and thyroid cancer cells. For more information, I recommend reading Brownstein's book.

I have been researching iodine for some time ever since I interviewed Brownstein as I do believe that the bulk of what he states is spot on. However, I am not convinced that his dosage recommendations are ideal. I believe they are five to six times higher than optimal.

Reduce Grilling Your Meat and Avoid Charring

Charcoal or flame broiled meat is linked with increased breast cancer risk. Acrylamide — a carcinogen created when starchy foods are baked, roasted or fried — has been found to increase cancer risk as well.

+ Sources and References