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Factcheck: Can turmeric and hot peppers protect against viral diseases?

Trying to maximize immunity during a pandemic, people began to stock up on healthy foods. The turn came to turmeric and hot pepper when a rumor appeared that they were killing the 2019-nCoV virus. Is this really so, the publication figured out with the BBC.

Photo: Shutterstock

There is an opinion that spicy (for example, pepper) preempts viral diseases. They say that Hillary Clinton also believes in this: in order not to get sick, during her election campaign, she ate a hot chili pepper every day.

Turmeric has been used as an effective spice in Asia for thousands of years. Recently, she settled in trendy coffee shops around the world as part of the "golden latte" - she entered the trend as a nutritional supplement that strengthens the immune system and protects against disease.

Meanwhile, cayenne pepper rose to prominence in 2013 as an ingredient in the Beyoncé diet for weight loss, which was later heavily criticized by the British Association of Nutritionists, who called it dangerous.

In humans, a long time ago, hundreds of years ago, it became a habit to add black pepper or a hot chili pod to food, or to make tea with ginger. And only relatively recently, some spices have received the unofficial status of healing superfoods.

But are spices really good for health or able to protect against diseases? Can they harm us?

Some like it sharper

Chili (red hot chilli) is one of the most famous and popular spices in the world. Its effects on our health have been studied in many studies, and the results are mixed.

The main active ingredient in chili peppers is capsaicin. When we eat hot peppers, the capsaicin molecules act on our body's temperature receptors, which send a signal to the brain to create a feeling of warmth.

Some research seems to support the idea that capsaicin can help us live longer.

And in 2019, in an Italian study, it was found that people who ate four times a week flavored with hot pepper had a lower risk of dying compared to those who had never eaten chili. (The researchers took into account the factors of smoking, exercise and the overall quality of the diet).

In 2015, scientists who observed the consumption of chili peppers and the health status of almost half a million adult Chinese found the same thing: those who ate almost every day foods spiced with spices reduced the risk of death during the observation period by 14% compared with those who ate such food less than once a week.

"The main findings were that more spice in food is associated with a lower risk of death, especially from cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases," said Lu Zi, professor and nutritionist at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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Although this does not mean that as soon as we start consuming hot peppers in large quantities, our health will improve and this will protect us from diseases. At least in the short term this will not happen.

It is important to understand that in a Chinese study, people were observed on average for seven years each.

So even if chili peppers had a protective effect on the health of the participants (not only those who ate this pepper, but were also initially healthier), all the same - this effect increased over time and certainly not over weeks or months.

Professor Zi tried to separate the effects of hot pepper consumption from everything else, taking into account age, gender, educational level, marital status, diet, and other factors such as alcohol consumption, smoking, and physical activity.

According to the professor, a lower risk of death for those who eat chili may partly be due to the action of capsaicin.

“Certain ingredients in spicy foods (such as capsaicin) have been shown to improve metabolism, such as lipid profiles, blood cholesterol levels, and inflammation. This explains in part what we observed in our study. ”

Some studies have shown that capsaicin can increase the amount of energy burned and reduce appetite.

Zumin Shi, an assistant professor at the Department of Nutrition, Qatar University, found that consuming hot peppers is associated with a lower risk of obesity and is helpful in lowering high blood pressure.

And when she began to study the consequences of this for the cognitive, cognitive function of a person, she expected that chili would work here.

And it worked - just not the way Zumin Shi had hoped. Those Chinese adults who ate more chili experienced a decrease in this function.

This was especially noticeable in the example of memory work: taking hot peppers in large quantities (over 550 grams per day) was combined with an almost doubled risk of memory impairment - at least according to the participants themselves. (It is worth noting here, however, that such voluntarily reported data is generally not considered reliable.)

The sensation of warmth that occurs when you eat chili peppers has long attracted the attention of scientists. It may explain, in part, why regular consumption of hot peppers may be linked to cognitive decline: the sensation is a result of how plants have evolved to protect themselves from disease and parasites.

“Some plants have evolved to taste bitter or pungent, but even better if the plant itself can release toxins like a predator,” says Kirsten Brandt, senior lecturer at the Institute for Human Nutrition Research at Newcastle University, UK.

But such compounds, as a rule, affect humans to a much lesser extent than insects. “A drop of toxin can even be beneficial (for example, caffeine, which speeds up our metabolism, after which we feel more invigorated),” she is convinced. "However, toxins in large quantities will harm you."

On the other hand, even if a particular compound in spices may be useful to us, we almost never consume such an amount that would have this effect.

For example, polyphenols are compounds found in many plants that have anti-inflammatory effects. Partly due to the high content of polyphenols in spices, the latter is credited with medicinal properties.

But an analysis of studies conducted in 2014 showed that it is still unclear whether the fairly limited amount of polyphenols that we consume with spices affects our health.

"Turmeric Treatment"

Another popular spice that is said to be beneficial is turmeric. Its usefulness is usually attributed to the content of curcumin, a small molecule found in turmeric. It is used in alternative medicine to relieve inflammation, stress, and many other conditions.

However, there is no reliable information that turmeric is useful.

Numerous studies have shown that curcumin can have an anti-cancer effect in the laboratory.

However, laboratory conditions are very different from the conditions of the human body. And the fact that curcumin is poorly soluble in water means: our body will not be able to use it correctly if we get it from food with turmeric.

The growing interest in spices as a means of alternative medicine, which we now see in the West, can be compared with the interest that was last seen in the Middle Ages, when spices were believed to have healing properties, says Paul Friedman, professor of history at Yale University.

“The spices were used to balance the food somehow,” explains Friedman. - People viewed this or that food as hot, cold, wet or dry. They wanted balance. " For example, fish was considered cold and wet, and spices were considered hot and dry.

Ayurvedic medicine, practiced in India for millennia, is based on the idea of ​​using food as a medicine.

In many Western countries, where such views are new, the idea of ​​balance is shared by modern new age medicine, says Friedman.

“The modern fascination with spices does not even send us back 50 years, but straight to the Middle Ages. Half a century ago, a blank wall separated modern medicine with antibiotics from medicine of superstition, ”he said.

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Catherine Nelson, a research professor at the University of Minnesota, is among other things involved in determining whether certain molecules and compounds can be used for new drugs. She decided to study the issue of curcumin.

Nelson found that curcumin is completely unsuitable for use in drugs, because its molecules are not bioavailable, not bioavailable. This means that the body cannot use them after they are digested.

They are poorly absorbed by the small intestine - the structure can change when it binds to proteins in the small and large intestines. As a result, the effects of curcumin are almost negligible.

Photo: Shutterstock

According to Nelson, if there is anything useful in turmeric, it is not curcumin. In addition, he cooks turmeric as part of a dish, subjecting it to other products along with heating, so its chemical components change.

There is a lot of turmeric - not harmful, says Nelson, but at the same time, he does not advise using it as a medicine.

Correlation versus causality

Hot peppers and turmeric have seemingly been researched far and wide, but most studies compare only consumption data and different health outcomes, where it is impossible to understand what is the cause and what is the result.

Finally, a study conducted in a laboratory does not necessarily produce the same results in the human body.

As with many other nutritional studies, it is difficult to separate the correlation from causality.

Take for example the Italian study in 2019, in which the consumption of hot pepper is associated with a reduced risk of death.

It was observational, that is, it is impossible to say for sure whether chili consumption makes people live longer, or just healthier people like hot peppers. Or something else works at all.

However, one of the keys to the solution is this: exactly how hot peppers are consumed by Italians and other Mediterranean nations, emphasizes the author of the study, Maria Laura Bonacchio, an epidemiologist from the Mediterranean Institute of Neurology (Italy).

“Hot peppers are common in Mediterranean cuisine,” she says. “It is mostly eaten with pasta, legumes or vegetables.”

This is just one example of how spices can benefit indirectly - they are eaten with legumes and vegetables.

Studies have also shown that adding spices to burgers can potentially lead to the formation of less free radicals in the body, that is, makes meat less carcinogenic.

However, these health benefits can be explained simply by the preservative qualities of spices, other scientists have noted: adding spices to meat is a long-known way to preserve it for longer. In any case, this makes food less harmful to us.

Many researchers believe that the benefits of consuming spices comes down to what we eat them with. For example, they often replace salt. Spices make food tasty and flavorful and can be a healthier alternative to salt.

In addition, we often add spices to vegetable dishes, and eating vegetables is certainly beneficial.

In general, while the “golden latte” will not harm you, there are more health benefits from vegetables that are spiced.

And of course, we should not rely on spices as a way to protect ourselves from a disease or recover from it.

As ForumDaily wrote earlier:

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Miscellanea Pepper health nutrition diet immunity Educational program spice coronavirus turmeric
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