You know the drill: running nose, burning mouth, breaking a sweat. Whether you’re digging into homemade chili, habanero fajitas, or chicken vindaloo, nothing lights up your taste buds quite like spicy food. But aside from causing your sinuses to clear and your eyes to water, what other effects do those types of foods have? As it turns out, what happens to your body when you eat spicy food is pretty wild.
Hot peppers have a host of health benefits. Research has even suggested that capsaicin, a chemical compound found in chili peppers, may act as a natural pain reliever. Not only that, but a 2015 study also found that embracing the heat may actually lengthen your lifespan. People who consumed spicy foods six or seven days a week showed a 14% relative risk reduction in total mortality compared to those who only had spicy food less than once a week. All that said, spicy food can also cause some GI distress and other unpleasant side effects for certain people.
There’s definitely nothing wrong with a fiery kick—but if you’re the type to dump Sriracha over pretty much everything, there are a few things to know about what happens when you go heavy on the heat. And if you’re looking for even more healthy eating tips, be sure to check out our list of The 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now.
While the capsaicin in hot peppers is often blamed for ulcers, Dr. Leann Poston, a licensed physician and contributor for Invigor Medical, says the opposite is actually true.
“Capsaicin inhibits acid production, increases blood flow to the stomach, and increases mucus production,” she says. “All these factors actually reduce the risk of ulcers.”
There’s plenty of research to back this up, too. According to Dr. Poston, one of the more common culprits for ulcers is frequently taking NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as ibuprofen.
Don’t forget to read up on the Ugly Dangers of Eating Spicy Foods, According to Science.
Even though spicy food may not be to blame for ulcers, Dr. Poston says it can trigger or worsen acid reflux, causing indigestion and heartburn.
“Spicy foods can cause the small round muscle that separates your esophagus from your stomach pouch to become slack and remain open when it should be closed,” says Celine Beitchman, Director of Nutrition at the Institute of Culinary Education. “This can lead to reflux in the upper GI tract. Spicy foods can also be irritating to tissue all the way down the gastrointestinal tract. And some evidence suggests that eating spicy foods multiple times a week can increase the symptoms of IBS.”
If you have IBS, Crohn’s disease, Celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, or acid reflux, be aware that spicy food can worsen symptoms by irritating the lining of the stomach. And you may also want to read up on our list of 15 Popular Foods Proven to Wreck Your Stomach, According to Dietitians.
Some good news if you’re looking to shed pounds: certain compounds commonly found in spicy food have been shown to support weight loss by reducing your appetite and boosting your energy expenditure.
“Capsaicin has multiple benefits for metabolic health, especially for weight loss in obese individuals,” says Dr. Uma Naidoo, MD, nutritional psychiatrist and author of This Is Your Brain on Food.
A 2014 research review demonstrated that when people consumed capsaicin compounds before eating, they consumed 74 fewer calories during their meal. Not only that, but another 2012 study also found that consuming capsaicin resulted in burning about 50 more calories per day—which researchers concluded could add up to “clinically significant weight loss” within one to two years. Other studies suggested that capsaicin and other compounds in chili peppers may increase fat oxidation.
“Studies have mostly looked at this effect in pill form, but research is ongoing,” says Morgyn Clair, RDN for Sprint Kitchen. “I wouldn’t necessarily recommend spicy foods on their own for weight loss, but as part of a healthy balanced eating plan, they may give you that extra push toward weight management.”
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“Cultures that eat spicier foods have been shown to have fewer occurrences of cardiovascular diseases such as strokes and heart attacks,” says Dr. Carrie Lam, MD. “It’s believed that the foods they primarily consume such as jalapeños, cayenne peppers, and red chili peppers lower cholesterol levels and fight inflammation. Capsaicin also blocks a gene that narrows the arteries, thus increasing the blood flow in the vessels. With the blood vessels dilating, blood pressure can be lowered and help prevent blood clots. The heat the body produces from eating spicy foods also increases blood flow.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, capsaicin has anti-inflammatory properties, which is important for heart health since inflammation leads to plaque buildup in blood vessel walls.
As an added bonus, Dr. Lam notes that many hot peppers are loaded with vitamins A and C, which strengthen the heart muscle walls. The bottom line? Eating spicy foods could result in a mighty strong cardiovascular system over time.
2007 research showed that the family of molecules to which capsaicin belongs has a pretty amazing superpower: it can bind to proteins in tumor cells and kill them off without harming surrounding healthy cells.
There are plenty more animal studies to support this, too. One study published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation revealed that capsaicin activated cell receptors in the intestinal lining of mice, thus reducing their risk of developing tumors. And another 2006 study showed that capsaicin actually drives prostate cancer cells to kill themselves off.
Need more proof? A 2015 Harvard study determined that people who ate chili peppers on most days experienced an 8% risk reduction for cancer.
It sounds counterintuitive to load on the hot sauce when it’s a sweltering summer’s day, but as it turns out, spicy food can help cool you down.
According to Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD at Balance One Supplements, this happens through a process called gustatory facial sweating. Essentially, eating fiery food causes your face to sweat, and when your sweat evaporates, you feel cooler.
Apparently, a hot pepper a day can keep the doctor away. Countless studies have shown that capsaicin has super potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which help the immune system fight off infection.
Ever heard of endorphins? Those pleasure-inducing chemicals that get released when you exercise, ride a rollercoaster, or laugh with a friend? Well, capsaicin can have the same effect.
Here’s how it works. According to a Northwestern University research center, capsaicinoids trigger signals that trick your brain into thinking you’re in pain. And in response, your brain releases those feel-good hormones to combat the perceived pain.
Speaking of spicy foods, did you know Eating This Spicy Food Can Help You Live Longer, Doctors Say?