Is Spicy Food Good for You?

Jake Newby

| 4 min read

Some people are drawn to spice. If you’re the type to order spicy dishes at restaurants and keep a collection of hot sauces at home, you probably have a high tolerance for spicy food, which can be genetic. Environmental conditioning can also contribute to spice tolerance. Either way, if you’ve ever felt like something in your body was off after eating a spicy dish, you’ll want to get to the bottom of the issue before turning up the heat again. 

What makes spicy food spicy?

Capsaicin is the oil-based substance found in chili peppers that produces the “heat” we feel when eating spicy food. It causes a burning sensation when it touches any surface that contains nerve endings, most notably the tongue. Everyone reacts differently to capsaicin, according to the Cleveland Clinic, which states that some people are born with fewer receptors for the substance. This gives them a built-in tolerance for hot food.

What does spicy food do to your body and what are the risks?

The body’s instinct when exposed to capsaicin is to cool itself down, which is why some of us sweat when eating extremely spicy food. Capsaicin irritates the mucous membrane in our nasal cavities, which explains why our face and nose attempt to eliminatethe capsaicin by increasing its production of mucus, tears and saliva.
Internal irritation, inflammation and abdominal pain are the most common side effects of spicy food. This is especially true of extremely spicy food, like anything containing Carolina reapers or ghost peppers (or the peppers themselves). The more capsaicin you consume — either by eating a large quantity of spicy food or a small amount of something extremely spicy — the more intensely you may react. This is why people you see participating in hot food challenges on social media often have painful, visceral reactions to the food they ate.
You’re likelier to experience side effects to eating spicy foods if you:
  • Are genetically sensitive to capsaicin.
  • Are not used to eating spicy food.
  • Have gastrointestinal (GI) issues or suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
One study found that frequent consumption of spicy food can trigger upper GI symptoms in people with indigestion. Another study discovered that people who consume spicy food 10 times per week or more were 92% more likely to have IBS compared to those who never consumed spicy food. If you have GI issues, IBS or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), be cautious when eating spicy food. If you notice your body reacts negatively to certain foods or levels of spice, that’s probably a sign that you should reduce your intake of those foods.

Health myths about spicy food

Perhaps the biggest myth about spicy food is that it causes peptic ulcers. According to Henry Ford Health, most ulcers are caused by the bacteria H.pylori or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen. Some studies have even found spicy food may prevent ulcers by stopping H.pylori growth. Capsaicin also prevents acid from forming because it is alkaline, which is the opposite of acidic.
Another spicy food myth is that it causes heartburn or acid reflux. While it doesn’t cause heartburn, spicy food can exacerbate it and make it worse, which is why people who already struggle with acid reflux – or those who have GERD – should limit the amount of spicy food they consume.

Can spicy food benefit your health?

While spice may be a nonstarter for some, fiery food connoisseurs may experience health benefits from what they eat. Research shows that – in addition to aiding stomach health by preventing ulcers – spicy food can also:
Help you lose weight: According to the Cleveland Clinic, people who eat more spicy food are less likely to have a BMI greater than 30 (have obesity) or a BMI greater than 25 (have overweight).
Boost metabolism: Researchers have found capsaicin to boost fat-burning mechanisms in the body that promote weight loss.
Improve heart health: Research has shown that capsaicin supplementation may lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which we often refer to as “bad” cholesterol. Spicy food may reduce the risk of diseases like hypertension and Type 2 diabetes.
Improve skin health: Some research suggests capsaicin can help improve scaling, inflammation, redness and pain associated with psoriasis.
In short, everyone reacts differently to spicy food. Most people can safely tolerate some level of spice. For people with certain health conditions, like those mentioned above, that level is either very low or nonexistent. As is generally true in most aspects of life, moderation is key.
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