Why Does Spicy Food Give You Hiccups?


Have you ever faced an unrelenting case of hiccups after eating your favorite hot curry, buffalo wings, or ghost pepper chips? This reaction can be equally irritating and confusing. Is there a reason why spicy food gives you hiccups?

Spicy food may give you hiccups because of digestive sensitivities and irritations to capsaicin in peppers. The capsaicin in peppers activate pain receptors in the diaphragm-controlling nerves which may trigger hiccups.

Although scientists have not been able to determine the exact cause of why we hiccup, and specifically why eating spicy foods causes many of us to hiccup, below are the leading theories.

Photo of thousands of red chili peppers strung in a ristra
Photo by Michael Flippo

The Presence of Capsaicin

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Peppers contain a naturally occurring chemical called capsaicin, which is responsible for their spiciness. When you eat hot chili peppers, the capsaicin attaches to pain receptors in your mouth called TRPV1. If you’ve ever eaten something way too spicy and it felt unbearably painful, that’s TRPV1 at work.

While that moment of pain may feel like it lasts a lifetime, you may find some relief in knowing that it won’t happen again. Well, not in the exact same way, at least. After a given pain receptor has been activated by capsaicin, it enters a resting phase known as functionalization. The receptor essentially shuts off for a bit, taking a break from transmitting more signals.

Believe it or not, we have capsaicin receptors all over our body, not just in our mouths. That’s why it hurts to rub your eyes after touching hot peppers because that action activates the pain receptors in your eyes.

These nerves are also present in your diaphragm. Scientists believe that hiccups are involuntary diaphragm spasms. So, one theory on why you might get hiccups after you eat spicy food, is that the capsaicin irritates the nerves in your digestive tract, which then stimulates your diaphragm to contract irregularly, which can lead to hiccups.

Digestive Reactions

Some individuals with gastrointestinal disorders may experience hiccups when consuming spicy foods. People suffering from heartburn, peptic ulcers, and pancreatitis are linked to suffer from higher tendencies of hiccupping.

Similar to what was mentioned above, the presence of spice can irritate your digestive tract, which causes your diaphragm to contract at an abnormal rate, which can cause hiccups.

Esophagus Irritation

Foods and liquids that are spicy, acidic, very hot, or very cold can irritate the esophagus. Scientists or not certain if esophageal irritation is the direct cause of hiccups, though, or if it’s related to nerves. Both nerves and the esophagus play major roles when it comes to diaphragm spasms (aka hiccups), so it’s hard to say exactly which one is responsible when it comes to food irritants.

Two main nerves control the diaphragm: the phrenic and vagus nerves. Since they’re both located close to the esophagus, swallowing irritating foods can trigger them, resulting in a case of hiccups.

Drinking Beverages Too Quickly

What’s the first thing you do when you eat food that’s too spicy? Do you reach for a beverage and chug it as fast as you can? If so, that may actually be the real reason you’re hiccupping, rather than the spicy food you just ate. Downing a glass of cold milk—or anything you have nearby—is pretty instinctual when combatting a burning mouth.

However, if you’re downing your drink a little too quickly, it can cause your stomach to increase in size. In turn, your stomach starts to press up against your diaphragm, which may lead to a case of hiccups.

Carbonated or alcoholic beverages can also cause your stomach to get bigger. If you pair your spicy buffalo chicken wings with beer, either the drink or the spicy food, or a combination of both, could explain your hiccups.

Photo of wooden scrabble pieces on a wood desk that spell Hiccups
Photo by Piotr Swat

How Do You Get Rid of Hiccups After Eating Spicy Food?

If you get hiccups every time you eat spicy food, then you may have to reduce your spice intake. However, if this only happens to you occasionally, there might be some ways you can get rid of the annoying hiccups.

Everyone has their own technique they swear by when it comes to getting rid of hiccups, but is sucking on ice or getting scared actually the best cure?

Increase Carbon Dioxide

Most hiccup remedies are just folklore, but not this one. Studies have shown that increasing carbon dioxide in the body can stop a case of the hiccups. Circulating carbon dioxide by breathing into a paper bag, holding your breath, or gargling a beverage might just be the cure to a nasty case of hiccups. If you use the bag method, demonstrate caution. Make sure you are using a paper bag, not a plastic one, and that the bag does not cover your head.

While drinking too quickly may cause hiccups, chugging a glass of water can also help bring an end to hiccups.

Counteract Diaphragm Contractions

Physically preventing the diaphragm from contracting—thus, causing a hiccup—can also be an effective method to end them. Try sitting down and lifting your knees to your chest. Hug them in and hold this pose for two minutes. Alternatively, you can simply lean forward to lightly constrict your diaphragm for a bit. Carefully apply pressure to your diaphragm, which connects to the bottom of the ribcage.

Another way to do this is to try drinking a glass of water from the far side of the glass. You’ll have to maneuver a bit to do this, but basically you lean forward and drink from the opposite side of the cup. On a personal note, this is the method I swear by!

Here’s quick video explaining why this trick works and how to do it correctly:

Eat a Spoonful of Sugar

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but did you know it may also cure your hiccups? Surprisingly, this sweet treat may disrupt the nerve impulses causing your diaphragm to spasm. Let some granulated sugar sit on top of your tongue, then swallow it once it has melted. This was the method I used as a kid, and still use today, if the drinking from the opposite side of the cup method doesn’t work!

Wait It Out

Hiccups don’t necessarily need a cure. Though they can be irritating and bothersome, hiccups will go away on their own more often than not. In fact, they may linger longer if you’re hyper-focused on getting rid of them. Don’t be afraid to let the spasms run their course.

Other Techniques to Get Rid of Hiccups

While none of these techniques are guaranteed to work, there are some that swear by them, so we have listed them here for your consideration! We recommend trying any of the ones above, before you resort to this list:

  • Sucking on a lemon
  • Slowly sipping very cold or warm water
  • Get someone to scare or startle you
  • Breathe slowly, holding every inhale for 10 seconds
  • Putting a few drops of vinegar in your mouth
  • Holding the end of your tongue and gently pulling at it

When to Be Concerned

In some cases, hiccups can be symptoms of hidden health conditions. If you have a persistent case of hiccups that lasts more than 48 hours, consider getting it checked out by a health care practitioner.

Persistent or chronic hiccups (those that last between 48 hours to two months or more than two months, respectively) could be an indicator of something as serious as heart disease.

Closing Thoughts

There are many possible reasons you may experience hiccups after eating spicy food. Most of them are caused by irritation, nerve impulses, or other behaviors associated with spicy food, like drinking excessively and quickly. These activities lead to your diaphragm contracting irregularly, which leads to hiccups.

Everyone has a go-to remedy to cure hiccups, though they might not always work. Try increasing your carbon dioxide levels, counteracting diaphragm contractions, or just waiting it out. If you experience hiccups for longer than 48 hours, consider seeing a doctor.

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