It sounds counterintuitive, but eating spicy food can actually help reduce heartburn symptoms for some people.
When was the last time you indulged in some spicy Thai food? Or enjoyed jalapenos on top of your nachos? If you’re like many people with GERD, just the thought sends you running for a bottle of antacids, since most lists of “foods to avoid” when you have GERD include “spicy foods” right near the top. But the relationship between spicy foods and heartburn symptoms isn’t so clear-cut.
Health benefits of capsaicin
Chili peppers have been used as a digestive aid in cultures around the world for centuries, and capsaicin, the compound in peppers responsible for the heat, has been shown to relieve pain and itching, boost weight loss relief, and fight inflammation. One study even found that capsaicin seems to slow the growth of prostate cancer. So what does this have to do with heartburn? Well, while spicy food can be a trigger for some people, some studies have shown that capsaicin can actually reduce heartburn symptoms.
Capsaicin and GERD symptoms
Capsaicin binds to receptors present in the cells of the stomach called TRPV1 receptors. This binding has many physiologic effects, including increased gastric motility and emptying. If you’ve ever had the unfortunate experience of acute diarrhea after an especially hot, spicy meal, then you’ve experienced that increased gastric motility and emptying first hand. But that increased activity can have a plus side (and doesn’t have to be quite so extreme). When you increase the rate at which the stomach empties during a meal, you prevent it from filling and placing excess pressure on the LES, thereby decreasing reflux.
Learn more: What causes heartburn? The role of the LES
Want to add a little spice to your meals?
Be careful! Spicy food has a variable effect on symptoms of reflux. In some patients, it maybe a trigger of symptoms and must be avoided. In other patients, spicy food may actually decrease reflux. The intensity of “hotness” increases based on the amount of capsaicin in the pepper and is graded on the Scoville scale:
Scoville heat units
|0||Sweet bell peppers|
|100-900||Pimento, Peperoncini, Banana peppers|
|1,000-2,500||Anaheim, Poblano, Ancho|
|2,500-10,000||Jalapeno, Serrano, Chipotle|
|50,000-100,000||Thai chili pepper, Tabiche pepper|
|100,000-350,000||Habanero, Jamaican hot pepper|
|1,000,000||Naga Jolokia (ghost pepper)|
If you want to try spicy food, try the least spicy chili peppers to see how your body and your taste buds respond. This is definitely a case where you can have too much of a good thing! Do not let the spice spoil your entire meal. If used intelligently, a little spice can add great flavor to your food!
Reviewed by Dr. Chandrasoma, RefluxMD Scientific Director