Humans have been consuming spicy food since the beginning of recorded history. Today, many people enjoy the kick added spices can offer, even going so far as to seek out the spiciest of peppers to test their limits. However, with side effects like abdominal discomfort for those more sensitive to spice, does that mean too much spicy food can be bad for you?
When eaten in moderation, spicy food can be a healthy addition to your diet for most people. Some people, however, might have adverse reactions to spicy food if they are allergic or highly sensitive to it. If eaten in high amounts, spicy food can cause some discomfort to some people.
Every person is unique, so how you respond to spicy foods will differ. As hinted above, some people might be extremely sensitive to spicy foods, while others can eat pepper after pepper with abandon and not suffer any consequences. But how do you know when you’ve had an unhealthy amount? Can spicy foods be unhealthy? In this article, we’ll explore these questions, as well as when and how you need to cut back on the heat.
Is Eating Spicy Food Bad for You?
Whether spicy food is bad for you depends on each individual’s circumstances. There have been some studies that suggest that a diet composed of mostly spicy foods may increase the occurrence of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in women. However, other research suggests that IBS may not be caused by spice, but rather by bacteria accumulating in the small intestine.
If you already have an existing health condition related to the gastrointestinal (GI) system, spicy foods will only exacerbate your symptoms, making you feel worse or experience greater discomfort.
This is because of capsaicin, a chemical compound in peppers, which triggers the body’s nerve endings to fool them into thinking they’re on fire. But there’s no real fire or damage, and the discomfort usually subsides after a few minutes with home remedies or treatment. There’s generally no other long-lasting negative effect of spicy food on the body.
If you don’t have a pre-existing GI condition, chances are the worse effect you’ll encounter with spicy food is extreme discomfort, which will likely go away with time or home remedies.
It’s worth noting that spicy food is known to have numerous benefits—when eaten in moderation rather than excess, of course. Here are some of the health benefits spicy food may offer:
- It can help lower the body’s cholesterol.
- It may also be associated with weight-loss.
- Foods that are high in capsaicin, such as chili peppers, are also high in many vitamins and minerals. Humans may have acquired a taste for such foods via natural selection.
- In general, herbs and spices are good at killing bacteria that might otherwise spoil food. Some speculate that the reason cultures in hotter climates tend to have spicier foods is for just that reason—to keep the meat from spoiling.
- Spicy foods can help balance your mood by increasing levels of endorphins.
- Spicy foods can lower inflammation.
- They can also aid the digestion process.
If you’re unsure if the harmful effects of spices outweigh the good, your body will usually let you know as soon as you start eating a spicy meal. If you don’t respond well to spicy food, it’s usually best to cut back or try to limit it when you can. So what signs should you look out for to determine if your body can’t handle the heat?
Negative Side Effects of Eating too Much Spicy Food
Although there are plenty of advantages of eating spicy foods, that doesn’t mean that you will be immune to some of its adverse effects. Many people are sensitive to spicy foods or have conditions that can be exacerbated by spice.
The following are some known adverse side effects of eating too much spicy food or overly spicy meals:
- People with Crohn’s disease or IBS may find spices irritable as they pass through the digestive tract. However, spicy food’s ability to lower systemic inflammation can also reduce the overall occurrence of flare-ups.
- People with peptic ulcers may also have stomach pain with a spicy diet. However, a spicy diet won’t cause ulcers. In fact, it may help prevent ulcers mainly caused by H. Pylori bacteria by reducing the occurrence of the harmful bacteria or improving the gut biome in general.
- Spices slow down digestion, which helps weight loss but can also cause gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or heartburn when eaten in excess.
- Some experience mild discomfort and a burning sensation when the spices are exiting the body.
- Eating spicy foods can also make you break out in a sweat and make your nose run and eyes water.
Remember: In most cases, the effects mentioned above are unpleasant but do not always directly impact your overall health, except for those with pre-existing GI conditions.
Can Eating Spicy Food Send You to the Hospital?
Although rare, there are some cases in which an excessive amount of spice can end up sending someone to the hospital.
If the stomach distress from the spicy foods is sufficient to make you vomit, for example, you could perforate your esophagus. This is a critical condition caused by excessive vomiting and requires immediate medical attention from a hospital or emergency care facility. Excessive vomiting or diarrhea can also cause severe dehydration that will need medical attention.
Stomach distress this intense usually results from purposefully eating a lot of spices or peppers high in capsaicin like ghost peppers, so it’s never recommended to do so, even if you know you can handle extremely spicy food.
Alternatively, people have gone to the hospital simply because the spice level in a meal was unbearable, although there’s not much physicians can do for discomfort.
Can Spicy Food Kill You?
If excessive vomiting as a reaction to spicy food causes perforations that are not immediately treated, it could be fatal; however, this is a rare instance. Your body’s responses to the spice will most likely prevent you from eating too many hot peppers to kill you, even if it was possible.
Additionally, although extremely rare, you could be allergic to spices, leading to a fatality if your reaction is severe enough.
Signs You Need to Cut Back on Spicy Food
Since most of the ill-effects of spicy food are discomfort, it should be apparent when it’s time to reduce consumption. However, here is a list of clear signs it’s time to cut back on spicy food:
- You are allergic to spicy foods
- You have frequent heartburn or GERD
- You have Crohn’s disease or other issues with your digestive tract
- You find the effects of consuming spicy food unpleasant
In many of the above cases, individuals decide to dial down the spice or eliminate it from their diet completely. However, if you enjoy eating spicy food, you may find it hard to cut back.
Why Is It Hard to Stop Eating Spicy Food? Is it Addictive?
People build up a tolerance to spicy food and sometimes require more and more to achieve the same level of heat. So, when it comes time to cut back, it may feel as if you’re completely removing spice from your diet when you might actually just be shifting from hot to mild.
Spice lovers might find this transition difficult for a few reasons:
- There are social pressures to eat overly spicy food
- Endorphin production when eating spicy food produces addictive-like effects
- Thrill seeking behavior
If spices bother you, cut back. The fact that they’re immediately uncomfortable should make it relatively easy to eat less spicy foods.
There are, however, social pressures to eat spicy food even though you may not want to. Your friends may see you as “weak” if you can’t tolerate the same amount of heat as them. Then you have a choice: ignore your friends, or ignore your body. And those who choose to ignore their bodies might end up paying the price later.
It also doesn’t help that society has begun to make a game out of eating spicy food, such as hot pepper eating contests.
Pepper eating contests can be incremental or quantity based. The incremental ones start you off with milder peppers and see who can make it gradually through to the hottest peppers. The quantity-based contests start with the king of hot peppers, the Carolina Reaper, and see who can down the most.
The number of peppers consumed in these contests is far and above the capsaicin amounts most people would eat in a year. So, if you know you can’t handle the spice, it’s best not to enter in to any of these kind of competitions!
Some claim that spicy food has an addictive trait, although it’s not necessarily addictive in the same way as nicotine or alcohol are.
This is because of the capsaicin found in peppers which triggers the nerves in the tongue and body that detect high heat and signals to your brain that your mouth is “burning.” In response, your brain produces endorphins—a “feel-good” hormone responsible for boosting feelings of pleasure—to reduce the “pain.”
The result of this can be equated to a “runner’s high,” which can lead an individual to often crave spicy foods because of the good feeling they get from it.
So, while you can’t necessarily become addicted to spicy foods by definition, you can find yourself struggling to cut back if you genuinely enjoy the extra kick.
Thrill Seeking Behavior
Finally, it can be challenging to give up spicy food because of a phenomenon called Benign Masochism, or the pleasure people get in doing things that are generally considered unpleasant, which stems from endorphins being released in the brain.
It’s like watching a scary movie: we often feel stressed and afraid, but we know the events in the movie are not real, so we get the satisfaction of living through the experience even though we were never in any danger in the first place.
The same thing happens when we consume spicy food. We feel the burn on our tongue and our eyes water, but we recognize that these are effects of the brain responding to the capsaicin, so we’re not in any immediate danger.
As a result, once we recover from the heat, we’re thrilled to have gotten through the meal in one piece. And in some cases dare to try another, spicier meal after the fact. You can thank our endorphins for that.
How to Cut Back on Eating Spicy Food
If you build up a tolerance to spicy food, the easiest way to start cutting back is to reduce how much spice you choose to add to your meals.
However, there are plenty of other ways you can start reducing spicy foods in your diet:
- If you want to eliminate spicy foods from your diet because you experience too much discomfort, just imagine what you felt like last time you had a spicy meal. That might help curb your desire to reach for the Sriracha hot sauce.
- There are many types of spices, so you might want to search for one that you can tolerate better. Some peppers have that great chili flavor without so much of the capsaicin that gives it the heat. For example, Anaheim and Poblano peppers have less than half the heat of Jalapeños but still have a great flavor.
- Try substituting peppers for spices. For example, if your problem is with chili peppers, you might try seasonings such as turmeric or cumin, which still add flavor but not so much heat.
- How you cook your peppers will also reduce the heat. Cooking them in something acidic like tomato sauce or vinegar will neutralize the capsaicin.
- If your primary problem is heartburn, you might look for other culprits that could be causing it besides peppers. For example, onions are a prime suspect, especially when eaten raw. Other acidic foods such as tomato sauce can be upsetting, especially if they are loaded with potent herbs.
- Most restaurants will let you know, either verbally or by adding a disclaimer on their menus, whether certain dishes will be spicy and the level of spice. If you’re cutting back on spice, make sure you request your meal to be mild or ask not to have any peppers to help reduce the overall spice level.
- Some store-bought bottles of spice will have warnings on them. Try to avoid sauces described as “diablo” hot or overly spicy.
- Another way around heartburn and GERD caused by spicy food is by using one of the over-the-counter acid reducers such as Omeprazole, also known as Prilosec OTC. (Note: Be sure to ask your doctor about using these medications for more than two weeks as they can have side effects associated with long-term use.)
- OTC and prescribed medications may take a few days before you notice a difference in heartburn symptoms, so for immediate relief, use an antacid.
How to Reduce the Side Effects of Spicy Foods
If discomfort is more of an issue when you eat spicy foods, there are plenty of ways you can help reduce it:
- If your mouth feels like it’s on fire after eating spicy foods, a cold glass of milk or a bit of ice cream will reduce the burning sensation. If you’re lactose intolerant, fatty foods such as avocado have also been found to be effective.
- Don’t try to reduce the burn of too much spice with a glass of water. Capsaicin has an oily quality to it, so water will only spread the heat around and make it worse.
- Alcoholic beverages will reduce the burn but can exacerbate the discomfort when drunk separately after a spicy meal.
- Have spicy foods with starchy bases such as rice or noodles. This will help dilute the heat while retaining the flavor. You can also eat your meal with bread or crackers to tame the heat.
- Not eating spicy foods close to bedtime is advisable if heartburn is a problem since laying down can increase its severity.
- If you know your body experiences the most discomfort as spice works its way through and out the GI tract, avoid consumption the evening before a long drive or trip.
People have been eating spices for as long as we’ve been creating recipes. While eating an excess amount of spicy food can lead to discomfort in some individuals, overall, it will not harm your body’s health, unless you have a pre-existing condition that becomes exacerbated with its consumption.
If you’re hesitant about eating spicy foods or know you have a history of having severe side effects from eating it, it’s generally safer to avoid or limit it when you can. For those experiencing significant side effects, consult your doctor to see if you may have an allergy or pre-existing condition that is triggered by spicy food.