Why Does Spicy Food Make Your Stomach Hurt?

Capsaicin from hot peppers can lead to stomach pain and discomfort.
Image Credit: rudisill/E+/GettyImages

Given the popularity of spicy chips, condiments and even beverages, it's no surprise there are plenty of hot food fans out there.

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Unfortunately for some, spice can bite back and cause stomach pain and discomfort, particularly if you already have a gastrointestinal disorder. Learn why spicy snacks and meals may be giving you grief and what you can do to manage your symptoms.

1. Capsaicin

The burn that comes from most spicy foods can be traced back to capsaicin, a chemical naturally found in chili peppers, according to University of Michigan Health. When capsaicin comes in contact with your stomach lining, it latches onto pain receptors, which alert the brain to the sensation of burning or pain.

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In some cases, spicy food and capsaicin can be a big cause of stomach upset, according to Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, registered dietitian, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of ​​​Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table.

Too much spice can even cause other conditions, like ulcers, acid reflux and IBS, all of which may be the source of your stomach pain.

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2. Gastritis and Ulcers

In some cases, spicy foods can exacerbate conditions like gastritis and stomach ulcers, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Generally, your stomach lining is pretty strong, but eating too many spicy foods can cause damage and inflammation, also known as gastritis, which may worsen stomach pain.

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Although spicy foods don't necessarily cause stomach ulcers, they can make symptoms, like stomach irritation, feel worse, especially if you're also experiencing gastrointestinal distress (more on that below), Taub-Dix says.

However, in some cases, the capsaicin in spicy foods may even help improve stomach ulcers, according to University of Chicago Medicine. Capsaicin has been shown to have some anti-inflammatory properties, which can relieve pain.

Bottom line: It's kind of a case-by-case basis when it comes to conditions like gastritis and stomach ulcers. Some people may feel more discomfort after eating spicy foods, while others may not have the same experience.

3. Acid Reflux

In some people, spicy foods may trigger or worsen symptoms of acid reflux, according to a July 2017 study in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility. Reflux 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, according to the Mayo Clinic. There's no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to foods that trigger acid reflux, but if you tend to notice more reflux and stomach discomfort after a spicy meal, it's best to avoid those foods.

4. Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The capsaicin from chili peppers can also worsen uncomfortable symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Taub-Dix says. Often, IBS is accompanied by gastrointestinal distress and stomach pain, which may be another reason spicy foods are giving you grief.

3 Ways to Manage Stomach Pain From Spicy Food

There are a few simple remedies for an upset stomach from spicy food:

1. Avoid the Foods Causing You Pain

It may seem obvious, but simply avoiding the foods that cause you stomach pain is a good place to start, Taub-Dix says. Consider keeping a food journal of the foods you eat each day and jot down how you feel an hour or two after your meal. If you notice discomfort after eating hot chips or spicy peppers, you may want to take these out of your usual diet.

2. Pair Spicy Foods Strategically

Sometimes, sipping some water isn't enough to help minimize spice-induced stomach pain. That's why Taub-Dix recommends pairing spicier meals with something fatty and creamy (think: cream cheese or ice cream). Creamy foods can help counteract the effect of spicy food, giving you some pain relief.

3. See a Professional

If your stomach pain persists even after you've taken precautionary measures, it's best to consult a medical professional as soon as possible. They can help you find the best treatment plan and diet for your body.

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