Can spicy food boost our gut health? here’s what the science says

when he comes For questions about health and longevity, many researchers are turning to the gut microbiome – the community of microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in the human gut – for answers. Scientists are only beginning to understand how the microbiome affects our health, but early evidence suggests it may play a role in disease outcomes such as some types of cancer, chronic COVID-19 and Parkinson’s disease.

Determining which foods are beneficial to the microbiome and, ultimately, various aspects of one’s health is an area of ​​particular interest; This may provide a plethora of preventive and treatment options that do not currently exist.

A particular area of ​​interest is determining how spices affect the health of our gut. Herbs and spices have been used medicinally for centuries, and the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits of some common spices such as garlic, ginger, and chili peppers are well documented. But these benefits are not necessarily mediated through the microbiome. So what Doing What do we know about spicy food and the microbiome?

Are Spices Beneficial for the Gut Microbiome?

A study published late last year in Journal of Nutrition sought to understand the effect of daily consumption of spices on the microbiome of people at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease. These spices included cinnamon, ginger, cumin and turmeric. All 48 study participants had obesity and at least one other cardiovascular risk factor, such as elevated glucose.

All participants were fed the same diet for four weeks but given three different doses of herbs and spices: one group received 0.5 grams per day, one received 3.3 grams per day and the final group received 6.6 grams per day .

Christina Peterson, assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Texas Tech University and one of the study researchers, explains. In Verse that he and his colleagues wanted to build on previous research looking at spices and the microbiome. A 2019 study published in the journal Nutrients found that a 5-gram capsule containing spices including ginger, black pepper and cayenne changed the composition of gut bacteria after two weeks.

“We have to be careful not to put the cart before the horse here. It’s very easy to say, ‘We have to nurture our microbiome and make sure that the good bacteria multiply at the expense of the bad bacteria.’ Not sure what those good bacteria are.”Getty/Grace Carey

Unlike previous studies, like the 2019 study Nutrients“Our study is the first to look at condiments consumed as part of meals and snacks [as opposed to a supplement]Peterson says.

Specifically, the researchers wanted to see how the composition of the Ruminococcaceae family of bacteria might change after spices were added to meals and snacks. The researchers focused on this family of bacteria because previous research suggested that people with more Ruminococci had less long-term weight gain.

A separate study found that changes in gut bacterial composition in mice, including enrichment of Clostridia from the Mogibacteriaceae and Ruminococcaceae families, contributed to the suppression of diet-induced obesity by cold temperature exposure. “This suggests that gut bacteria contribute to metabolic pathways that increase energy expenditure to protect against diet-induced obesity,” she says.

Ultimately, the researchers found that all groups saw an enrichment of Ruminococci bacteria; The results were dose-dependent: The group with the biggest increase in spice intake saw the biggest changes from baseline after four weeks.

While we often hear about “good” bacteria compared to “bad” bacteria—Peterson is careful to assume that we know how a certain type of bacteria will affect the microbiome, much less a clinical study. health outcomes.

“I would hesitate [to] To describe bacteria as “good” or “bad,” we don’t know enough yet. Also, we need to think about the overall composition of the microbiome. whether or not the bacteria are suppressing or enhancing the growth of other bacteria and what are their functions,” she says.

Joe Schwarz, director of the McGill University Office for Science and Society, agrees. His work focuses on helping the public accurately interpret science and health information. Schwarz explains In Verse, “We have to be careful not to put the cart before the horse here. It’s too easy to say, ‘We have to nurture our microbiome and make sure that the good bacteria multiply at the expense of the bad bacteria,'” he says. “But nobody is really sure what those good bacteria are; More than 500 bacterial species have been isolated from the gut. So the real question is which of these is beneficial in a way that has clinical significance?

Peterson is very aware of the distinction and wants to be clear about the study he and his colleagues published.

“In this study, we only looked at the composition of the gut microbiome; Basically, we took a roll as to who was present. We need more research into what these organisms are doing, their functionality and how it contributes to health or disease.

“In this study, we only looked at the composition of the gut microbiome; Basically, we took a roll as to who was present. We need more research into what these organisms are doing, their functionality and how it contributes to health or disease.Getty/Brian Hagiwara

In fact, other studies that evaluate how spices may affect the microbiome have been decidedly mixed. For example, a study published in 2016 The Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism found that capsaicin — the compound that makes chili peppers hot — may be more beneficial for people with certain microbiome profiles. On the other hand, a 2022 study has been published in the journal Foods found that when researchers gave 40 mg of capsaicin to rats, the rats had no ill effects, but at higher doses, rats experienced inflammation of the GI tract and GI injury.

Further investigation led the researchers to conclude that “the underlying mechanisms may be related to regulation of the gut microbiota.” While people are not mice, these studies illustrate some of the challenges of definitively determining which spices are beneficial to the microbiome, if those benefits translate into clinical health outcomes, and if those same spices are beneficial for all. Necessarily beneficial for.

Peterson says, “Now that we have established that consumption of herbs and spices as part of the diet shows that what Americans eat affects the composition of the gut microbiota, we need to do further work to understand this more.” can do.” “At this point, it is premature to suggest that herbs and spices should be consumed for gut health.”

However, Peterson says that other benefits of consuming herbs and spices have nothing to do with the gut microbiome.

“Most importantly, adding herbs and spices is a great way to flavor healthy foods like vegetables to enhance the taste and enjoyment of food. We know vegetables are good for health. So this is another way that herbs and spices may indirectly help improve diet, and in turn, health.

Schwarz puts it this way: “There’s no reason not to add spice to your food. It can add some spice to your life. Just don’t expect it to make you live longer.

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