Can Spicy Food Burn Your Stomach & Intestines?

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Spicy food may cause warmth, but don't seem to cause harm. (Image: Hill Street Studios/Blend Images/Getty Images)

Hot peppers and garlic provide heat and spice to diets throughout the world. While these foods can certainly cause a hot, burning sensation in the mouth, they also have a reputation for aggravating stomach or intestinal discomfort -- particularly in people who already have disorders involving the gastrointestinal tract. However, spicy foods do not appear to cause damage in the gut, and spices including peppers and garlic have health benefits. However, if you have conditions that already cause discomfort or pain in the stomach or intestines, let your symptoms and your doctor guide you on how much and how often spicy foods can fit in your diet.

Spice Science

Chile peppers, one of the most common ingredients found in spicy foods, contain capsaicin -- the component that provides the heat. When chile peppers are consumed, capsaicin latches on to TRPV1 receptors -- pain receptors which are found throughout the gastrointestinal tract. When activated by capsaicin, TRPV1 receptors cause a burning sensation and pain, and trick the body into thinking it’s too hot. This sets off the body’s cooling response, which leads to sweating and flushing. It’s very common for people to experience this burning sensation in the mouth, but the feeling of warmth can continue as the spicy food makes its way down the esophagus and into the stomach and intestines. Some people can even experience pain and cramping, as activated TRPV1 receptors stimulate the intestines to move in order to get rid of the offending substance.

Burning Pain in Gut Disorders

According to a study published in the April 2010 issue of “Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility,” more than the normal amount of TRPV1 receptors are found in the intestines of people with irritable bowel syndrome or hypersensitivity of the rectum. If you have non-erosive reflux disease -- a form of gastroesophageal reflux disease, you may also have additional receptors. This explains why spicy foods are more likely to cause stomach or intestinal pain and discomfort in people with gastrointestinal disorders. Inflammation, which may be involved in the development of these disorders, may also cause an increased number of TRPV1 receptors.

Gut Level Changes

Even though spicy foods can cause warmth, a burning sensation or even discomfort in the gastrointestinal tract, these foods are not thought to cause damage to the lining of the stomach or intestines. In fact, when the TRPV1 receptors are exposed to capsaicin over time, they can become desensitized. This can explain why people who eat spicy foods regularly seem to handle the heat better. In addition, these nutrient-rich spices may even help gut disorders. For example, a study of 16 people with irritable bowel syndrome, published in the July 2014 issue of “Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility” showed that a 6-week trial of chili powder improved symptoms of abdominal and rectal burning.

Warnings and Precautions

If you have a gastrointestinal disorder such as acid reflux, an ulcer or irritable bowel syndrome, spicy foods are not necessarily off limits. Whether or not you can consume these foods is based on your individual tolerance. If you like to eat spicy foods but they cause uncomfortable burning or pain, limit the amount you eat or consume foods with just a hint of spice. If your symptoms persist, see your doctor for an evaluation and recommendations. Ongoing pain and discomfort could indicate a gastrointestinal disorder, and if untreated these may lead to serious medical conditions.

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