March 12, 2023/Nutrition

The Health Risks of Eating Extremely Spicy Foods

While they don’t cause ulcers, super spicy foods can land you in the emergency room

Person eating spicy food and getting indigestion.

How much heat can you handle? That might be a question your buddy asks you at a party, urging you to give the hot salsa a try. Or you might see that social media challenge, where people record themselves eating super spicy foods. The reward? Video clicks and bragging rights and, sometimes, a burned esophagus.

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Experts like urgent care provider Allan Capin, MD, caution that eating extremely spicy foods has health risks, especially when you’re not used to it. He explains the dangers and how you can ease the burning sensation in your mouth if you overdo it.

What makes spicy food spicy?

Peppers get their heat from capsaicin, an oil-based substance. The more capsaicin, the hotter the pepper. The amount of capsaicin a food contains is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU).

Everyone reacts differently to capsaicin, says Dr. Capin. “Some people are naturally more tolerant of spice because of genetics. They are just born with fewer receptors for capsaicin, which gives them a built-in tolerance for heat.” For others, the way their body’s pain receptors react to capsaicin changes over time. Essentially, this allows them to develop a higher spice tolerance.

Is there any risk of eating super spicy foods?

The biggest health risk of eating extremely spicy food is becoming sick, which is more likely if you:

  • Aren’t used to eating spicy foods.
  • Have gastrointestinal (GI) issues.
  • Are genetically more sensitive to capsaicin.
  • Eat a large quantity of capsaicin-containing foods.

The more capsaicin you ingest — whether by eating a large quantity of spicy foods or a smaller amount of an extremely hot one — the more intense your possible reaction may be.

Capsaicin has the unique ability to trigger heat receptors in your skin — tricking your nervous system into thinking your body is overheating. This signals your brain to activate cooling mechanisms. So, you really don’t just taste spicy foods, you also feel them!

Dr. Capin likens the heat from capsaicin to putting your hand over a flame. When your hand is farther away, you feel mild heat, similar to eating mildly spicy food. But as your hand moves closer to the flame (the more capsaicin you eat), the more discomfort you’ll experience. You might even get burned.

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Spicy foods can cause internal irritation, inflammation and pain. Your body may see capsaicin as a toxin and try to get rid of it. The result? You may experience:

Eating extremely spicy foods can even cause physical damage and pain so severe that you need emergency care. Gastric acid from vomiting can burn your esophagus and throat.

“Most people aren’t used to that level of heat and are going from zero to 100 when they do something like the ‘One Chip Challenge,’ where you eat an extremely spicy tortilla chip,” Dr. Capin notes. “It’s like putting a bomb in your stomach if you’re not prepared for it.”

Does spicy food cause ulcers?

Any rumors you may have heard about spicy foods causing ulcers aren’t true. Spicy foods themselves don’t cause ulcers. In fact, they actually help prevent them by stopping the growth of the bacteria H. pylori, which causes them, according to a laboratory study. Capsaicin also prevents acid from forming because it’s alkaline (the opposite of acidic).

But if you already have an ulcer, you’ll want to avoid eating spicy foods. They may not cause gastric ulcers, but they can worsen already existing ones.

Can eating spicy foods kill you?

“The hottest peppers, like ghost peppers, can kill you. But it’s highly unlikely,” states Dr. Capin. “You would have to eat a huge amount of them. For instance, if you weigh 150 pounds, you would have to eat 3 pounds of ghost peppers to cause a deadly reaction.” The rule of thumb, he says, is to not eat more than 1/50th of your weight in hot peppers.

What to do if you’re having a reaction to spicy food

If you’re having severe symptoms after eating spicy food, seek immediate care. But let’s say you just ate something a little too spicy. Your mouth is burning, your eyes are watering and your nose is running.

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Don’t reach for water. As capsaicin is an oil-based substance, water won’t help reduce the painful sensation. It only spreads it around your mouth. To quench the fire, Dr. Capin recommends:

  • Bread.
  • Lemonade.
  • Milk.

Should you avoid eating spicy foods?

People with conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), indigestion or other digestive issues should avoid eating spicy foods. Otherwise, most people can safely tolerate some level of spiciness. In fact, eating spicy foods you enjoy is good for you.

Benefits of eating spicy foods

So, with all these cautions, should you avoid eating spicy foods entirely? Not at all! In fact, when eaten in moderation, fiery foods have a lot of health benefits. They can:

  • Help manage weight.
  • Boost heart health.
  • Reduce cancer risk.

So, go ahead — reach for that bowl of curry, chili or salsa, just make sure the spice level is appropriate for you.

And while eating spicy foods in moderation is good for you, it’s best to avoid any spicy-food challenges if you’re not used to high levels of capsaicin.

But if you’re itching to up your spice game, you can gradually build a tolerance to spicier foods. Just go slowly and listen to your body, advises Dr. Capin. “Everyone has a limit to what they can tolerate. If you have pain when you eat spicy foods, then stop.”

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