If you love spicy foods, including peppers, you are probably familiar with the burning sensation they can cause. You may also worry about whether they're doing damage to your esophagus, the tube leading from your mouth to your stomach. Rest assured, peppers may cause a burning sensation, but they do not cause actual burning.
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Causes of the Burn
Peppers appear to burn your insides when you eat them, but that's an illusion. Peppers contain capsaicin, a substance that simulates the burning sensation without actually causing burning, according to NYU Langone Medical Center. Capsaicin causes the release of Substance P, a chemical your body releases when tissues are damaged. When you apply capsaicin to tissues, it depletes the supply of Substance P and decreases pain. So while you may perceive a burning sensation, the pepper doesn't actually burn your skin.
Causes of Esophageal Damage
Damage can occur to the esophagus after eating peppers, but it generally occurs when acid in the stomach travels back up into the esophagus because the muscle between the stomach and esophagus doesn't close tightly. Stomach acid is very caustic. The lining of the stomach can handle the high acid content, but the tissues in the lining of the esophagus and throat can't.
Evidence of Damage from Peppers
A review of studies conducted by researchers from Stanford University and published in the May 2006 issue of "Archives of Internal Medicine" found no evidence that spicy foods such as peppers increase acid reflux. However, some experts, such as the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases still state that peppers can increase acid reflux, thereby increasing the possibility of esophageal damage.
Some people can handle spicy or hot peppers better than others. Hot peppers seem to be an acquired taste; when you first eat them the burning may feel nearly intolerable, but over time you experience less of the burning sensation. You can build up your tolerance over time, Fred Senese, Ph.D., a chemistry professor at Frostburg State University, explains. Knowing that you're not really damaging your insides may make the burn more bearable. Drinking milk, not water, with the pepper may also help, according to Senese.