We all react differently to spicy food. While some people relish the challenge of a tongue-meltingly hot curry, others will break into a hot flush at even a hint of chilli in their meal.
This raises a lot of questions. What happens to your body to cause these reactions? Why does a spicy dish make you sweat, or have a bad stomach? Is spicy food good for you, or should you be wary of how much you include in your diet?
Let’s find out.
What causes your reaction to spicy food?
Many of the reactions we associate with spicy food can be traced back to chilli. Specifically, chilli peppers contain a compound called capsaicin, which causes burning or irritation when it touches any surface containing nerve endings, such as the tongue.
A 2001 study by natural history professor Joshua Tewksbury revealed that capsaicin actually evolved as a way for chilli peppers to keep mammals from eating them, instead encouraging birds to tuck in.
The reason for this is that birds tend to eat in such a way that the plant’s seeds will be dispersed over a wide area, whereas mammals tend to grind all the seeds in their molars, ruining any chance of them germinating.
The mammals’ taste buds couldn’t handle the capsaicin, whereas the taste buds of birds are not as sensitive to spice, allowing them to gorge away freely.
Of course, not all chillies are the same. There are many different varieties and some are naturally hotter than others. According to Guinness World Records, the hottest pepper in the world is the ominously named Carolina Reaper, which is around 3,200 times hotter than your average jalapeno!
There are many reactions we all associate with a spicy dish.
What does spicy food do to your body?
Spicy food is often judged by the effect it has on the digestive system. Indeed, the perceived response a hot curry can provoke has given rise to phrases such as ‘Delhi belly’. But is spice really to blame for what’s brewing in your bowels?
A 2008 study in the British Medical Journal found that people with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease were more likely to be sensitive to spices. However, it’s important to note that many spicy dishes contain lots of ingredients, often including known triggers for digestion issues.
For example, red meat, dairy and other fatty foods could all be the cause of any bathroom-related consequences you experience as a result of eating spicy food.
If your meal is so hot you find yourself mopping the sweat from your brow, don’t worry. This is a natural response when you eat spicy food.
The capsaicin in chilli causes your brain to determine that your body is overheating. Whenever this happens, sweat is produced to cool you down, which is perfectly normal.
Of course, if you’re sat at home, or in a restaurant, the temperature of the room might not be that hot. Therefore, your sweat doesn’t evaporate, which explains the need to wipe your face so frequently, even after you’ve finished your meal.
Your nose does a great job of stopping anything harmful getting into your body. If it detects a foreign object, such as dust or bacteria, there are steps it takes to prevent them getting in, or help the body get rid of them as quickly as possible.
When you eat spices, the capsaicin irritates the mucous membrane in your nasal cavity and your nose automatically leaps into action to defend itself. In this case, mucus (snot) is deployed to get rid of the problem, which admittedly isn’t ideal if you’re sat at the dinner table!
Spicy foods are often associated with heartburn, but the science doesn’t actually back this up. Heartburn is a form of indigestion that occurs when stomach acid or undigested food passes back into your throat, causing a burning sensation.
There’s lots of potential triggers for heartburn, including fatty foods, alcohol and fizzy drinks, as well as non-dietary factors, such as smoking, hernias and stress.
Once again, symptoms such as stomach cramps are sometimes blamed on a fiery curry, but it’s not necessarily the spicy ingredients that are causing your discomfort. There’s plenty of research suggesting that spicy food will not harm the stomach, not least the fact that it features so highly among so many cuisines across the world.
However, if you have a pre-existing medical problem, such as a stomach ulcer, it’s possible that spicy food could irritate this further and slow down the healing time.
Is spicy food good for you?
For the most part, spicy food is a perfectly acceptable component of a healthy, balanced diet. Once you’ve found your spice tolerance, it certainly won’t do you any harm, while there’s even evidence to suggest that it can improve your health. Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent claims.
1) You could live longer
According to a 2015 study carried out by researchers at Peking, Harvard and Oxford University, a spicy diet could actually prolong your life.
Their work looked at half a million Chinese adults and showed that people who ate a spicy meal at least once per work were 10 per cent less likely to die over the following seven years. Before you get too excited, it’s worth noting that the team concluded: “Given the observational nature of this study, it is not possible to make a causal inference”.
They added that more studies need to be done on other sections of the population, while there are other factors that could’ve skewed the results, such as alcohol consumption and how food was prepared.
2) You could lose weight
There are various theories that contribute towards this idea. Last year, researchers at the University of Wyoming suggested that spicy food speeds up your metabolism, allowing you to burn calories faster. There’s also a popular (albeit untested) theory that because hot dishes are more difficult to wolf down, you’re less likely to eat too much.
Despite this, the fact that so many spicy meals are high in fat, or paired with a nice cold beer, will certainly have a negative effect on any potential weight loss advantages.
3) You could end up with a healthier heart
Spices have been claimed to improve circulation, widen arteries, lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of blood clots. Research carried out at the University of Maryland Medical Center also indicates that spices such as ginger and turmeric could decrease cholesterol.
4) Your arthritis could improve
This one’s a bit of a cheat, as you won’t see any improvement in your osteoarthritis from eating chilli peppers. However, you can purchase creams or gels containing capsaicin that are reported to provide pain relief for people suffering from joint complaints.
What to do if your food is too hot to handle
So, you’ve just eaten a mouthful of food that’s way too spicy for your taste buds to deal with. What do you do?
As much as you’ll be wishing you could turn back time and not inflict this fireball on yourself, instead, you need to dilute the spiciness as quickly as possible.
The natural response would seem to be drinking as much water as you can, but this will actually make the problem worse. That’s because capsaicin is an oil, meaning it won’t dissolve in water and all you’ll do is spread the heat around your mouth.
Instead, try a milky drink that contains the fat needed to take the edge off. A tasty mango lassi at your local curry house will do just the job. If you’re avoiding dairy, eat carb-rich foods such as bread or rice to combat the heat.
Have we helped?
We hope this has answered some of the questions you may have about spicy food and its effect on your body.
If you're experiencing digestion issues after a particularly spicy meal, find out more about what your symptoms could mean.Find out more