Ever have a few bites of super-hot salsa or spicy peppers and, within moments, feel like a hole is burning in your stomach? Are you putting your digestive system at risk by eating spicy foods? While it may seem so when your stomach is on fire, here's the truth.
Heat, Not Burn
Hot peppers provide heat and spice to diets the world over. While these foods can certainly cause a hot, burning sensation in your mouth, they also have a reputation for causing stomach or intestinal pain — particularly if you already have issues involving the gastrointestinal tract, says McKenzie Caldwell, MPH, RDN, a dietitian in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Video of the Day
"For people who have conditions like gastritis or gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD or heartburn, spicy foods may cause additional irritation to the esophagus or stomach lining," she says.
But spicy foods do not appear to cause actual damage in your gut — and certainly not a "hole" — even though it might feel like that when you're experiencing it, she says. That said, pain in your stomach or bowel means inflammation is flaring up, and you may want to reduce how much you eat in that meal, Caldwell says.
Chile peppers, one of the most common ingredients found in spicy foods, contain capsaicin — the component that provides the heat, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
When you eat chile peppers, capsaicin latches onto pain receptors found along your gastrointestinal tract. When activated by the capsaicin, these receptors kick off a painful burning sensation in the colon, according to an older but frequently cited October 2012 review in Pharmacological Reviews. To adjust, your body tries a cooldown technique designed to stop the burn.
Your body's response is why you may suddenly start sweating, Caldwell says. As the food travels through your digestive system, pain receptors continue to fire, which is also why you may start to experience cramping, as the body speeds up the process of getting rid of what's causing the pain.
If you're sweating, Caldwell says, that's a good indication your body may be working to counteract the effects — and you may want to cut back to give your body time to adjust.
Spicy Foods and Indigestion
In addition to pain in your gut, the burn might center itself in your esophagus, giving you indigestion or heartburn, Caldwell says. That's because the sudden inflammation causes your stomach acid to splash upward, a common problem for people with GERD.
Sometimes, especially if you have GERD, the sphincter at the bottom of the esophagus doesn't stay closed all the way, which can lead to stomach acid causing irritation to your lower esophagus, Caldwell explains.
"Spicy food can further irritate your esophagus because it is acidic, and if it's high in fat, or you're eating a really big meal, that can make it worse," she says. "This could be why eating spicy food can cause a burning sensation for those who do not have GERD."
Reducing the Burn
If you have acid reflux, ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome, spicy foods are not necessarily off-limits, Caldwell says. Just dial back the spice by choosing peppers that are lower on the Scoville scale, a measurement of the pungency of peppers based on capsaicin content, according to the NLM. A poblano pepper is mild, jalapeños are hot and peppers like habanero are very hot, as described in an October 2017 study in Appetite.
If you have an immediate negative reaction to spice, drinking milk can help neutralize some of the acid in your mouth, Caldwell says, but is less likely to work for burning in your stomach.
"If you're experiencing heartburn from spicy food, the best remedy is to put on comfy clothing and sit upright for 30 minutes to an hour," she says. "That will allow the lower esophageal sphincter to close, and help your digestive system move the food out of your stomach."
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.