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

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton walks through the hot peppers section of the El Rey grocery store in Milwaukee, Wis., during a campaign stop in 2008. Clinton tells NPR that she eats a hot, fresh pepper a day to stay healthy on the campaign trail. She may be onto something. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Listen to the Story on All Things Considered:
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If you're a chili head, you may have more in common with Hillary Clinton than you knew.

Turns out, the presidential hopeful has a serious jalapeno 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."

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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 anticancer 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 onto something? I ask Hayes. "She may be," he replies.

Now, it's hard to say whether the potential benefit of a daily jalapeno 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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