The findings – presented at the 243rd National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) – reveal yet more evidence that the spicy compound capsaicin, and related capsaicinoids found in chilli peppers could help protect against heart disease.
"Our research has reinforced and expanded knowledge about how these substances in chillies work in improving heart health," said Dr Zhen-Yu Chen a professor of food and nutritional science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who presented the study findings.
The team found that the compounds work to help heart health in a number of ways. First they revealed that they help to lower cholesterol levels by reducing the accumulation of cholesterol in the body and increasing its breakdown and excretion.
They revealed that the spicy compounds block the action of a gene that makes arteries contract, and restricts the flow of blood to the heart and other organs. The blocking of the gene therefore allows more blood to flow through blood vessels, they argue.
"We now have a clearer and more detailed portrait of their innermost effects on genes and other mechanisms that influence cholesterol and the health of blood vessels. It is among the first research to provide that information," he explained.
The researchers fed the hamsters high-cholesterol diets before dividing them into groups. The groups were then supplemented with different amounts of the capsaicinoids in foods
They found that in addition to reducing total cholesterol levels in the blood, the capsaicinoids reduced levels of ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol (which deposits into blood vessels), but did not affect levels ‘good’ cholesterol. Chen and his team said that capsaicinoids may also reduce the size of deposits that already have formed in blood vessels, which are known to narrow arteries in ways that can lead to heart attacks or strokes.
"We concluded that capsaicinoids were beneficial in improving a range of factors related to heart and blood vessel health," said Chen. However, the professor said that the findings do not mean that the team recommends “that people start consuming chillies to an excess.”
“A good diet is a matter of balance. And remember, chillies are no substitute for the prescription medications proven to be beneficial. They may be a nice supplement, however, for people who find the hot flavour pleasant."