If you love spicy foods, you're not alone. Chile peppers, curry or garlic are used to season some of the most popular restaurant dishes, spicy snacks and family favorites.
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Unfortunately, this spice can bite back and cause stomach pain and discomfort, particularly if you already have a gastrointestinal disorder. With effective management of any underlying condition, and by curtailing the spice according to your tolerance, you should be able to get back to enjoying many of the foods you love.
The burn that comes from most spicy foods can be traced back to capsaicin, a chemical naturally found in chile peppers. When capsaicin comes in contact with the gastric mucosa, or stomach lining, it latches on to pain receptors, which alert the brain to the sensation of burning or pain.
But spicy food isn't problematic for everyone, and there appears to be a desensitization that occurs with frequent consumption. In fact, long-term ingestion of chile peppers has been shown to improve stomach discomfort and heartburn symptoms, and preliminary research indicates capsaicin may actually protect against ulcers by inhibiting acid secretion, enhancing blood flow to the mucosa, and by stimulating secretion of mucus, which protects the stomach lining.
Gastritis and Ulcers
Historically, spicy foods were thought to be a cause of gastritis, an inflammation of the gastric mucosa, and stomach ulcers. In these conditions, the barrier that protects the stomach lining from irritants and harsh digestive juices is compromised, and eventually a sore, or stomach ulcer, can form. It is now known that spicy foods do not cause these conditions, but may worsen the associated pain, bloating, nausea or burning sensation.
Common causes of gastritis include infections, alcohol and medications, and most ulcers are linked to the Helicobacter pylori infection or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin or ibuprofen. Spicy foods may be better tolerated after successful treatment, which involves removing or treating the cause and protecting the stomach from irritants as it heals.
In some people, spicy foods may trigger or worsen symptoms of acid reflux, which occurs when the acidic stomach contents flow back into the esophagus, causing upper gastrointestinal pain and heartburn symptoms.
However, high fat, large or late-night meals are more common triggers. In fact, there are no universal food restrictions in the management of acid reflux and the more severe condition, gastroesophageal reflux disease, but it helps to avoid any foods or beverages that clearly contribute to your pain and discomfort.
With proper treatment, which may include medications that neutralize acid, block acid production or prevent reflux, your favorite spicy foods might be tolerated once again, at least in moderate amounts.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Research has shown the capsaicin from chile peppers can worsen abdominal pain in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a collection of symptoms that includes abdominal pain and changes in bowel movements — which can be constipation, diarrhea or both. In fact, consumption of spicy foods in general is associated with a higher rate of IBS.
Conversely, spice may have a protective role in IBS. One study showed supplementation with red pepper pills improved IBS-related abdominal pain and bloating. Another study found supplementation with turmeric tablets, a seasoning used in some spicy foods, improved abdominal pain and IBS symptoms.
An explanation for these conflicting message may boil down to the difference between spices and spicy foods. Spices may offer benefits because they contain antioxidants and other protective plant chemicals, yet many popular spicy foods are high in fat, eaten in large quantities and paired with alcohol — other factors that can contribute to stomach pain.
If you experience pain or discomfort from eating spicy foods, cut these out of your diet temporarily, and see your doctor to evaluate the cause and to address a management plan.
If your pain is not related to an underlying disorder and simply due to eating excessive amounts of spicy foods, you'll need to curtail the amount you eat if you want relief. If you have persistent stomach pain or discomfort, see your doctor.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD