Your taste buds might love a spicy meal, but your stomach always seems to disagree. While eating fiery fare doesn't always guarantee a belly ache, for many, tongue-tingling meals come with a digestive downside.
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"Spicy foods frequently exacerbate stomach discomfort and heartburn, especially for those diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)," explains Jacob Skeans, MD, a gastroenterologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. While heartburn and reflux are some of the most common symptoms, spicy meals can also cause an uncomfortable burning sensation in the stomach, a feeling of fullness and burping, per a November 2020 study in Nutrients.
The culprit is capsaicin, the compound that gives hot peppers their kick. "It's the major source of pain from spicy foods, and it binds to nerves in the mouth, tongue and esophagus," Dr. Skeans explains.
Capsaicin can also slow the rate at which food exits the stomach, causing food to sit in the stomach for longer, according to the Nutrients study. "This increases the chances that stomach contents will reflux into the esophagus and cause heartburn symptoms."
What Helps Relieve the Pain?
Steering clear of spicy foods, especially two to three hours before going to bed, is the best way to avoid that discomfort, Dr. Skearns says.
But if you don't want to give them up completely, there are options that can help you better stand the heat. Here are six home remedies for an upset stomach from spicy food, plus the remedies to avoid.
Over-the-counter drugs are generally the most effective soothers for occasional spice-induced heartburn or stomach pain. Which type you take depends on whether you want short-lasting relief quickly, or something that's slower to work but keeps you comfortable for a bit longer.
"Over-the-counter options like TUMS and Maalox work relatively quickly to neutralize gastric acid, which contributes to stomach discomfort or GERD," says Rita Knotts, MD, an esophageal gastroenterologist with NYU Langone Health. Their effects can wear off quickly, though: within 30 to 60 minutes, meaning you may need to take another dose to stay comfortable until the spicy food leaves your stomach.
Over-the-counter histamine receptor antagonists like Pepcid AC and Tagamet HB offer relief for up to 12 hours by decreasing levels of acid in the stomach, according to the Mayo Clinic. They take a little longer to kick in, though, Dr. Knotts says.
Proton pump inhibitors are a better choice for managing heartburn symptoms that recur regularly, per the Mayo Clinic. In addition to blocking the production of acid, PPIs help the tissue in the esophagus heal. They're available over-the-counter or by prescription, but you should discuss the pros and cons of PPIs with your doctor before taking them, Dr. Knotts says.
2. Nonfat Milk
Dairy is known for its ability to cool your mouth after a fiery meal, because its proteins have the ability to break down capsaicin, according to a September 2019 study in Physiology & Behavior. And a glass of milk might help settle your stomach after eating spicy food too, Dr. Knotts says.
Just be sure to sip nonfat. "The higher fat content [of whole or low-fat milk] can worsen reflux," she says.
Water might not ease the burn in your mouth, but it could make your stomach more comfortable.
"Water can help dilute stomach acid contents and wash refluxed acids out of the esophagus," says Dr. Skearns. In fact, one small but unique study in the December 2008 issue of Digestive Diseases and Sciences showed that drinking 200 milliliters (about 6 ounces) of water decreased stomach acid after just one minute.
Resist the urge to guzzle, though, because drinking a lot of water at once can leave your stomach feeling uncomfortably full, Dr. Knotts notes.
4. Chewing Gum
A stick of the sugar-free stuff might help neutralize spicy food in the stomach. Though research is limited, findings in the November 2005 issue of the Journal of Dental Research showed that chewing sugar-free gum for 30 minutes after eating reduced heartburn in people who regularly experience acid reflux. (This is an older study, but a similar trial hasn't been conducted since.)
The reason? Chewing gum boosts your mouth's production of saliva. "Saliva contains bicarbonate, which helps neutralize stomach acid. And the increased frequency of swallowing allows the bottom of the esophagus to clear refluxed contents more quickly," Dr. Skearns says.
Ginger chews, capsules and ginger teas are popular herbal stomach-soothers, particularly when it comes to nausea. But it might help with general feelings of indigestion. "It's demonstrated some effect in the treatment of what we call dyspepsia, which is fullness after eating, abdominal pain or discomfort," Dr. Knotts says.
Steer clear if your main symptom is heartburn, though. In large doses, ginger has the potential to cause reflux or make it worse, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
An herbal extract made from plants including angelica roots, chamomile and licorice, Iberogast is a stomach-soother more commonly used in Europe than in the U.S. But research suggests it could be effective: A February 2018 review in Digestive Diseases concluded that Iberogast may help fight inflammation in the stomach, suppress acid production and promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria.
"For those mostly with stomach upset, it's been shown to help," Dr. Skeans says.
What About Peppermint Oil?
Despite its reputation as a natural stomach soother, peppermint essential oil isn't a good option for easing heartburn, say Dr. Knotts and Dr. Skearns. Because peppermint causes the muscles of the esophagus to relax, it can actually make it easier for acid in your stomach to make its way up into your throat, per a March 2018 review in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics.
What About Eating Something Sweet?
A sweet flavor might counteract the taste of spicy food in your mouth. But there's no evidence that a sugary treat or drink will help to neutralize acid in the stomach, says Dr. Skearns. And if it's acidic (like lemonade), it could make your stomach feel worse, he adds.
What About Drinking Something Carbonated?
Some people swear by the powers of a fizzy drink when they're nauseated. But carbonated beverages aren't helpful for acid-related indigestion or heartburn, Dr. Knotts says. In fact, it has the potential to make you more uncomfortable.
"Carbonated drinks can theoretically lead to an increase in bloating and then relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter, which can make reflux more likely to occur," she explains.
Bottom line? Skip the soda and seltzer.
- Nutrients: "Acute Effects of Red Chili, a Natural Capsaicin Receptor Agonist, on Gastric Accommodation and Upper Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Healthy Volunteers and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Patients"
- Mayo Clinic: "Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease"
- Physiology & Behavior: "Putting out the fire - Efficacy of common beverages in reducing oral burn from capsaicin"
- Digestive Diseases and Sciences: "A glass of water immediately increases gastric pH in healthy subjects"
- Journal of Dental Research: "The Effect of Chewing Sugar-free Gum on Gastro-esophageal Reflux"
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: "Ginger"
- Digestive Diseases: "Herbal Preparation STW 5 for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders: Clinical Experience in Everyday Practice"
- Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics: "Review article: The physiologic effects and safety of Peppermint Oil and its efficacy in irritable bowel syndrome and other functional disorders"
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