Hillary Clinton's Elixir: Can A Hot Pepper A Day Boost Immunity?

Jan 21, 2016
Originally published on January 22, 2016 8:46 am

If you're a chili head, you may have more in common with Hillary Clinton than you knew.

The presidential hopeful has a serious jalapeño habit. She told All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro it started back in 1992, when it was her husband, Bill Clinton, who was running for the White House.

"I read an article about the special immune-boosting characteristics of hot peppers, and I thought, well, that's interesting because, you know, campaigning is pretty demanding," Clinton told NPR.

Now Clinton says she eats a fresh hot pepper every day, and it's "maybe ... one of the reasons I'm so healthy, and I have so much stamina and endurance."

So, hot peppers as a health elixir? "It's not an entirely crazy idea," says John Hayes, who teaches food science at Penn State University.

"It's certainly possible that some of the compounds found in chili peppers could be protective of health," Hayes tells us.

Chili peppers are loaded with vitamins, such as vitamin C, and a host of other potentially beneficial plant compounds.

"The most famous compound in chilies is a chemical called capsaicin," Hayes says. Capsaicin is what causes that burning, warming sensation in the mouth when you eat a pepper.

"Many potential benefits have been suggested for chili or its bioactive compound, capsaicin," wrote Nita Forouhi, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge, in an editorial published in The BMJ. Lab studies suggest that capsaicin has both anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.

To evaluate the impact of capsaicin and other spicy foods, a team of researchers recently studied the eating habits of about a half-million people in China. The study lasted seven years.

The study found "regular consumption of chilies and chili-containing foods [was associated] with a decreased risk of premature death," says Hayes.

The study was published in The BMJ last summer. "Participants who ate spicy foods almost every day had a relative 14% lower risk of [premature] death compared to those who consumed spicy foods less than once a week," concludes a BMJ release that summarized the findings.

So, maybe Hillary Clinton is on to something? I ask Hayes. "She may be," he replies.

Now, it's hard to say whether the potential benefit of a daily jalapeño can trump all the potentially unhealthy habits that come along with life on the campaign trail.

And certainly, there's no study that can answer this question.

But if the campaign trail is as stressful and as exhausting for candidates as it appears to be — well, this can't be good for candidates' health. Studies clearly show that a lack of sleep, coupled with stress, is a bad combination.

For instance, a recent study documented that missing out on a few hours of sleep each night can quadruple the risk of catching the common cold. And, as we've reported, chronic stress increases the risk of getting sick.

"There's a set of pillars for health. ... Diet is one of them. Exercise is another. And sleep is a third critical pillar," says Aric Prather, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco who studies how lifestyle factors affect health.

So if candidates want to maximize the likelihood of staying healthy on the campaign trail, they may want to consider all of these factors.

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We often fact check substantive policy statements from presidential candidates. Now we're going to fact check something a little bit less serious. To stay healthy on the campaign trail, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton eats fresh jalapeno peppers. I asked her about that in an interview yesterday, and she gave us the back story.

HILLARY CLINTON: Back when my husband was running in '92, I read an article about the special immune boosting (laughter) characteristics of hot peppers and I thought, well, that's interesting because, you know, campaigning is pretty demanding and so I started adding hot peppers.

SHAPIRO: So a daily jalapeno as a way to boost the immune system? We asked NPR's Allison Aubrey to look into it.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: When it comes to hot peppers, I'm kind of a wimp. I owned up to this on this show a few years back when Audie Cornish and I went head to head in a hot sauce taste off. Here's me tasting one sauce that seemed hot to me but not to her.


AUBREY: OK, there's a little kick but my mouth is not on fire so I'm - so far so good.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: There's not really any kick here, Allison, but...

AUBREY: OK. (Laughter). You'll let me know when we get to that part?

So I'm not one to chow down on raw jalapeno peppers every day as Hillary Clinton does, but maybe I'm missing out on something that could keep me healthy.

JOHN HAYES: It's not an entirely crazy idea.

AUBREY: That's John Hayes. He teaches food science at Penn State and he has a special interest in chili peppers.

HAYES: It's certainly possible that some of the compounds found in chili peppers could be protective of health.

AUBREY: Hayes says peppers are loaded with vitamins and a bunch of other beneficial compounds, as are many plant-based foods. But he says peppers also contain something that's pretty unique.

HAYES: The most famous compound in chiles specifically is a chemical called capsaicin, which causes that burning, warming sensation in the mouth.

AUBREY: Now, lab studies show that capsaicin has both anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. And to begin to understand whether the capsaicin pepper-lovers get from foods has a measurable impact on health, an international team of researchers recently did a huge study. They asked about a half-million people in China about their eating habits over seven years. Then they compared the health of people who ate lots of chili peppers with those who ate peppers very infrequently. The results were published in the British Medical Journal last summer, and John Hayes says he was intrigued.

HAYES: It found that repeated consumption, regular consumption of chili and chili-containing foods decrease the risk of premature death.

AUBREY: Decreased it by about 14 percent if people ate spicy foods almost every day. Now, this study is not proof that chiles boost health. It could be that people who like chili peppers have other habits that protect them. But the study does suggest that Hillary Clinton's practice of eating of a raw pepper each day could be beneficial. So maybe she's on to something?

ARIC PRATHER: She may be.

AUBREY: But still, whatever good may come from a daily pepper, who knows if it could trump all the potentially unhealthy habits that come along with life on the campaign trail. Aric Prather is a psychologist at UC San Francisco. He says just watching candidates, such as Hillary Clinton, it doesn't seem like they get much chance to relax.

PRATHER: I think she has some serious stressors that might get into her sleep time.

AUBREY: Prather studies how daily habits influence the likelihood of sickness, and he says what's clear is that too little sleep and prolonged stress can increase the odds of getting sick immensely. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.