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Spicy foods contain capsaicin that raises the temperature and burns any tissue that it comes into contact with. Extremely spicy food, such as hot chili peppers, may, therefore, produce a burning sensation on the skin, mucous membranes, and the inside of the mouth, as well as blisters on the lips and palate. This holds especially true for those not used to eating spicy foods.
The capsaicin in spicy food may also cause heartburn, which is a burning sensation in the middle of the chest that occurs immediately after a meal. Let's examine the harmful effects of spicy food.
Image Credit: flickr.com/Mack Male
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Acid Reflux and Gastritis
The relationship between spicy food and acid reflux, or Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is the fact that extremely spicy foods cause acid reflux, a condition where the stomach acid rises into the esophagus and causes damage to the mucous tissues. Acid reflux may also aggravate the symptoms of heartburn, and frequent heartburn serves as a symptom of acid reflux. Acid reflux occurring at night can erode teeth and in rare cases may cause esophageal cancer.
Surplus intake of spicy food causes gastritis or inflammation of the stomach lining, causing stomach acids to eat away its own lining. Gastritis is triggered by infections, and the damage to mucous caused by spicy food reduces the stomach’s protective barrier and cause inflection.
Research, however, is not conclusive on this aspect. The popular notion that hot, spicy food causes ulcers and small intestine irritation on its own remains unsubstantiated by research. Research has so far only established that spicy food adds to the pain and irritation. Whether it serves as a cause remains unknown. Similarly, refraining from spicy food need not reduce the instances of heartburn.
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Damage to Taste Buds
The harmful effects of the constant consumption of hot, spicy food extends to damage of the taste buds, causing a reduced sensation of taste, and making it difficult to discern subtle flavor differences.
Research conducted at the University of California at Davis finds that the capsaicin found in spices numbs the tongue's pain sensors and interferes with the taste signals of the brain. This condition is temporary, but repeated numbness owing from frequent and excessive consumption of spicy food may cause long term damage to taste buds.
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One of the proven negative effects of spicy food is that it can cause insomnia, especially when consumed at night.
A study by Australian researchers at the University of Tasmania published in The International Journal of Psychophysiology (1992 Sep;13(2):97-100) shows that people who consumed spicy food experienced a change in sleep patterns. They took more time to sleep and experienced less sleep than normal, spending less time in the light sleep phase, known as Stage 2 and the deep, slow-wave sleep, categorized as Stage 3 and Stage 4 of sleep.
The cause for spicy food contributing to poor sleep is the capsaicin inherent in the spicy food raising body temperature. Other studies have linked high temperatures to poor sleep quality. Another possible cause for the poor sleep may be indigestion.
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Conclusion and Disclaimer
To conclude, while spicy foods provide health benefits such as increased metabolism, improved blood circulation, breathing and heart function, excessive consumption may cause acid reflux, insomnia, and damage to the taste buds. Research on whether spicy food aids or impedes digestion is still inconclusive. Whether spicy food serves as a boon or a bane, and in what quantity it should be consumed, ultimately depends on individual circumstances, especially the extent to which a person’s body constitution can tolerate spicy food.
This article does not intent to treat or offer dietary advice. Please consult your doctor or a certified dietitian before acting on the information found in this article.
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- Brody, Jane, E. “Eating Spicy Food: What are the Effects?”. http://www.nytimes.com/1983/09/21/garden/eating-spicy-food-what-are-the-effects.html?pagewanted=all. Retrieved 16 December 2010.
- Swan. Darren. “Peppers are hot -- as a health and diet aid.” http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=62587. Retrieved 16 December 2010.
- O’Connor, Anahad. “The Claim: A Spicy Meal Before Bed Can Disrupt Sleep.” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/17/health/17real.html. Retrieved 16 December 2010.
- Dotinga, Randy. “Some hot and spicy foods can actually deaden your sense of taste.” HealthDay. http://myhealth.ucsd.edu/healthnews/HealthNewsFeature/hnf122208.htm. Retrieved 16 December 2010.