Spice can transform an ordinary meal into something far more memorable. However, the signature heat that it produces can have an impact on more than just your taste buds.
Spicy foods were once blamed for causing peptic ulcers, which are sores in the stomach or duodenum (the first part of the small intestine) that cause dull or burning pain. Long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or aspirin, bacterial infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), or, in rare cases, tumours are now known to be the root causes of these ulcers.
Similarly, spicy foods do not cause gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, which is a chronic condition in which the contents of the stomach wash back into the oesophagus due to a weak or malfunctioning muscle valve between the two. The stomach acids can then irritate the esophagus and cause heartburn, which feels like a burning sensation in the chest, behind the breastbone, and/or in the throat.
The stomach secretes acid during meals, and food can buffer the acid while it’s in the stomach. Once the food is digested and empties from the stomach, however, acid secretion continues without any food to neutralize it.
“This is the time when reflux occurs, and regardless of whether you’ve eaten spicy or bland food, the same process takes place.”
The one exception is coffee (both caffeinated and decaffeinated), because it stimulates acid secretion and has no capacity to buffer the acid.
On the other hand, intolerances or sensitivities to certain foods, including spicy foods, may be behind irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a gastrointestinal condition that comes with symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation or bloating. One study found that people who consumed certain spices more than 10 times a week — chili pepper, curry, ginger, cinnamon and turmeric — were more likely to have IBS than people who never consumed them. If spicy foods trigger IBS symptoms for you, your doctor will probably suggest you take them off your menu.
Less conclusive at the moment is whether spicy food increases the risk for cancer. A recent meta-analysis looked at almost 40 studies and found that eating large amounts of spicy food was associated with an increased risk for gastric cancer. But more research needs to be conducted before there’s conclusive evidence that spicy food is a definitive risk factor for gastric cancer.
When it comes to spicy food and gastrointestinal issues like heartburn, bloating and diarrhea, however, the bottom line is this: “There’s no need to avoid spicy foods unless they regularly lead to symptoms.