What happens to my body when I eat spicy food? From health benefits to extreme reactions
For starters, spicy food lovers are likely to be familiar with one immediate physical reaction – sweating. But there's more.
Many of us eat spicy food. Some of us eat it almost every day. We all love the taste and the tingle, but how is all that heat affecting our bodies?
Eating spicy food can produce a variety of physiological reactions, like a tingling in the tongue and lips, as well as sweating, said David Julius, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco.
“We all enjoy sensory experiences; spicy foods make life more interesting,” he said.
But not all of the potential responses are welcome, even for those who enjoy the taste.
Here’s what we know about how spicy food affects the body — in both good and bad ways.
IT MAKES YOU SWEAT
Spicy food lovers are likely to be familiar with one immediate physical reaction – sweating.
That’s because some of the spiciest foods contain compounds that bind to nerve receptors along the gastrointestinal tract, including the mouth, that are activated by heat.
Chillies, the flavourful backbone of many spicy dishes, contain the compound capsaicin, which binds to those receptors when eaten and then sends a pain signal to the brain, as Dr Julius discovered in his Nobel Prize-winning work on the topic.
The main chemicals found in peppercorns, horseradish and mustard also bind to the same receptors, albeit less potently.
These nerves send similar signals to the brain as they would if you came into contact with actual fire, which is why you might start sweating or become flushed; that’s the body’s way of cooling itself down.
“Capsaicin fools your body into thinking the temperature has risen, and so your brain thinks it needs to shed heat,” Dr Julius said. “In humans, we mostly do that by sweating.”
IT CAN CAUSE GASTROINTESTINAL DISTRESS
Eating spicy food in moderation is generally safe for people who don’t already have stomach issues. However, it can cause inflammation to the areas that aid digestion and can sometimes lead to heartburn, stomachaches or diarrhoea.
People with gastritis, which occurs when the lining of the stomach is inflamed, may be especially susceptible to increased abdominal pain.
IT MAY BENEFIT HEALTH, THOUGH MORE RESEARCH IS NEEDED
Studies have shown that consuming spicy foods can be associated with some health benefits. For example, one study found that taking a daily supplement of capsaicin (containing the same amount in four or five habanero peppers) sped up metabolism, where participants burned the equivalent of an extra 200 calories per day over a 14-week period.
And in a 2022 study involving more than 6,000 adults, scientists found that chilli intake was linked with a reduction in calcium buildup in the walls of the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart.
It’s unclear, however, whether eating spicy foods regularly can reduce the likelihood of obesity or heart attacks in the long term.
The evidence is mixed on whether spicy foods raise or lower your cancer risk. A few studies have found that daily consumption of chillies is associated with an increased risk of esophageal cancer, but not of gastric or colorectal cancers.
And while several experiments performed on cells in labs have found that capsaicin and piperine – the chemical found in peppercorns – may help impede or destroy human breast cancer cells, scientists don’t yet know if these findings might one day lead to potential treatment.
One study published in 2015, of nearly half a million people in China, did find that those who ate spicy food six to seven times per week for several years had a 14 per cent reduced risk of death compared with those who ate spicy food less than once per week.
The researchers thought these results were possibly related to the spicy foods’ antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which can protect against many health conditions such as diabetes and certain types of cardiovascular disease.
RARELY, EXTREME REACTIONS MAY OCCUR
In rare cases, very hot peppers have caused extreme physiological reactions, like thunderclap headaches or vomiting so severe it ruptured someone’s oesophagus – though such situations aren’t typical for the average person or pepper.
If you’ve just taken a bite of food that has more spice than you can handle, it’s best to reach for something with high fat content, like a glass of milk or a spoonful of sour cream, Dr Julius said.
Capsaicin is a fat-soluble compound, meaning it won’t dissolve in water no matter how much you chug.
“Eating something with fat helps draw the capsaicin out of your tissues when you’re in pain,” he said. “Water usually doesn’t do a whole lot at that point.”
It’s important to respect your own limits and not overestimate how much heat your body can take, Dr Julius added. With the right balance, you may find that a mild scorch is what makes the meal satisfying.
And whether you are eating for health or for taste, experts say, if you love spicy foods and your body can handle it, there’s no reason to avoid them.
By Trisha Pasricha © The New York Times Company
The article originally appeared in The New York Times.