As we settle into what we hope is our last (fingers crossed!) cold snap of a particularly cold winter, the survival skills are well in place. Running from the car to buildings, double down (two down jackets, not the KFC kind), and warm comforting foods. On a cold winter day there is nothing better than hot and spicy foods. Chili, hot and sour soup, and curries can warm us up from the inside out.
For many people, however, spicy foods are on the no-go list as they may be linked to a variety of gastrointestinal disorders. Is adding spice to your foods playing with fire or can you heat it up as much as you like?
We’ll look at the evidence for and against spicy foods and a variety of gastrointestinal disorders, but before we do a little warning. The majority of these studies look at food consumption and risk of disease through self-reported food intakes and the prevalence of disease. In no way are these studies controlled or designed to determine cause and effect. The best they can do is suggest connections. See our War on Spurious Science post for a cause-and-effect refresher.
The technical term for chronic heart burn is gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD) because it occurs when acid from your stomach gets up into your esophagus. The “burning” sensation is due to the fact that the lining of your esophagus is not designed to protect it from the acid. A phone interview of 1,473 people in Iran found a link between gastro-esophageal reflux and consumption of salted or smoked foods, but not spicy foods (1). Another study reports that a high fat intake increased the risk of GERD, whereas a high fibre intake reduced the risk (2). Alcohol and coffee are also frequently blamed; however, the link between these and acid reflux is controversial at best (2).
Historically, it was thought that spicy foods could increase the risk of stomach ulcers; however, we now know the culprit is most likely Helicobacter pylori. H. pylori is a bacteria that can burrow into the protective mucosal lining of the stomach, thereby damaging it and allowing the stomach acid to attack the sensitive tissue below. There is also some suggestion that H. pylori can increase gastric acid secretion in people with ulcers. It is important to get tested and treated if you think you may have a stomach ulcer as this bacteria also increases the risk of stomach cancer (3).
Although spicy foods have been cleared as the cause of stomach ulcers there is some suggestion that they can irritate the stomach if an ulcer is already present causing increased discomfort (4).
Gastric (Stomach) Cancer
A study in China (5) looked at people with superficial stomach inflammation as compared to those with precancerous lesions of gastric cancer (often a step along the way to stomach cancer, if you will). They found that “frequent ingestion of spicy food – at least twice per week” was one of the factors that could increase the risk. Of course, they also found that alcohol, skipping breakfast, eating smoked or fried meats regularly, and frequent consumption of foods containing nitrates or sulphites also increased your risk.
Clearly there are a lot of dietary factors at play here not to mention genetics and medications (such as those prescribed for heart burn).
Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)
NAFLD is a disease whereby fat accumulates in a person’s liver. If it progresses, it can lead to scarring, impaired liver function, and eventually liver cancer. Logically, one of the greatest risks for NAFLD is obesity; however, one group of researchers did find an increased risk of NAFLD in those who consistently consumed salty and spicy foods (6). The NAFLD group also had higher intakes of red meat, candies, pastries and overall calories. Conversely, in this sample of 9,397 participants from universities in China, diets rich in high fibre cereals, potatoes, vegetables, fruits and milk seemed to reduce the risk.
Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a gastrointestinal disorder that causes stomach pain and diarrhea, among a variety of other symptoms. A study looking at 4,763 Iranians (7) found that those who consumed spicy foods 10 or more times per week were 92% more likely to develop IBS compared to people who never consumed spicy foods. Interestingly, when they looked at the effect that gender could have on this relationship, they found that the link was only found among women not among men.
They suggest that in those with IBS, avoiding spicy foods could help reduce the symptoms.
No Baloney’s advice? A little heat won’t hurt but don’t overdo it! Most of the connections mentioned above are tenuous at best and are only found with consistently high intakes. There are also many other dietary factors that can promote the gastrointestinal disorders mentioned above.
If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that high fibre intakes and lower fat intakes offer you the best chance of a happy digestive system. Oh, and don’t forget about those fermented foods!