If you like to jazz up bland meals, you may reach for hot sauce for added flavor and spice. For some people though, shaking on the liquid heat has the unfortunate side effect of stomach pain. This is due to a chemical called capsaicin — the ingredient in peppers that makes them taste hot.
Why Hot Sauce Causes Stomach Pain
Capsaicin is found in cayenne pepper, jalapeño pepper, paprika and other peppers used to make hot sauce. Although it gives hot sauce its spicy flavor, it can also irritate the lining of the stomach, causing digestive discomfort.
The good news is that capsaicin does not actually damage the stomach — though it may feel like it does. Research from June 2016 in the journal Molecules found that capsaicin triggers the release of a chemical called "substance P." According to a September 2017 study in the Journal of Immunology, substance P is normally released when the body senses inflammation, but eating hot sauce tricks the nervous system into thinking there is damage. The result? A sensation of burning or pain in your stomach.
Capsaicin is a tricky one. A bit of a con artist, if you will. It "tickles" nerve endings that send pain signals to your brain.
Read more: Are Hot Peppers Good For You?
Why Spicy Foods Can Cause Diarrhea
As capsaicin irritates the small intestine, the body responds by pushing the spicy irritant to the large intestine more quickly than usual. There, according to a March 2017 study in Protein and Cell, capsaicin activates nerves called VR1 receptors, which make your brain believe the colon is inflamed. This can result in diarrhea. It's good to know your body is acting in its own defense by quickly getting rid of the offending spice — it just might not feel that way when you're running to the bathroom.
Can Eating a Carolina Reaper Kill You?
If you're a fan of hot sauce, you may have thought about taking your love of spicy food to the next level by trying an extremely spicy pepper like a Carolina reaper. But chowing down on the world's hottest pepper is not advisable for your health.
"Although someone would be very unlikely to die from eating a Carolina reaper, it is theoretically possible," says Christopher N. Andrews, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Foothills Medical Center in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. "Capsaicin causes inflammation in the nerve endings it comes into contact with, particularly at high doses. These nerve endings can give off chemicals and substances which could give a reaction very similar to an anaphylactic reaction in susceptible individuals." However, he notes, the amount of capsaicin needed to cause this is "probably a lot higher than even what is in a Carolina reaper."
What Helps a Stomachache After Eating Spicy Food?
The only surefire way to avoid stomach problems from eating hot sauce is to not eat it at all. But if you enjoy it as a flavor boost, you might try smaller amounts over time. An October 2012 study in the journal Pharmacological Reviews shows that this may help your body build up a resistance to capsaicin's unwanted effects.
You can also try reaching for a glass of milk or some yogurt as a hot sauce stomach pain remedy. According to the American Chemical Society, because capsaicin is fat-soluble, the fat in dairy can help carry it out of your system, reducing pain. Capsaicin does not dissolve very well in water. Think oils or fats.
If you frequently experience symptoms after eating hot sauce, avoid it until you can talk to your doctor.
Is This an Emergency?
- Molecules: “Capsaicin, Nociception, and Pain.”
- Journal of Immunology: “Role of Substance P Neuropeptide in Inflammation, Wound Healing and Tissue Homeostasis”
- Protein and Cell: “Understand Spiciness: Mechanism of TRPV1 Channel Activation by Capsaicin”
- Pharmacological Reviews: “Unravelling the Mystery of Capsaicin: A Tool to Understand and Treat Pain”
- Dr. Christopher N. Andrews, MD, MSc, FRCPC, Foothills Medical Center, Calgary Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
- American Chemical Society: “Hot Peppers: Muy Caliente”