Myth or Reality: Is Spicy Food Bad for Your Gut?

In last week’s blog post, we discussed how to cook and enjoy food without using onion or garlic. This week, we’re keeping things flavorful with another hot topic: is spicy food bad for your gut? Let’s dive in!

What Makes Spicy Food Burn?

Spicy food is not bad for your gut – technically. Spicy food has been shown to have numerous health benefits, from weight loss to anti-inflammatory properties, but to understand spicy food and gut health, it’s important to first understand the science of spice. 

Most spicy foods, seasonings and sauces derive their heat from a compound called capsaicin, which is found in plants of the capsicum family—more commonly known as peppers. From the humble jalapeño to the California Reaper, capsicum come in all shapes, sizes and intensities. This family of fruits originally evolved their heat as a defense mechanism against predators–ironically, that defense mechanism has become their most prized property!  

When you eat capsicum or capsicum-derived products, the capsaicin triggers receptors in your mouth known as capsicum receptors, or TRPV1 receptors. As you’re eating spicy food, these receptors get activated and send pain signals to your brain. In an interview with Scientific American, David Julius, the researcher and Nobel Prize co-recipient who discovered these receptors, described the process this way: “it [the TRPV1 receptor] sends the electrical signal from the periphery—let's say, your lips or your eye, wherever you feel the hot chili pepper—and it takes the signal to the spinal cord. [...] Then, through a relay of neurons, this eventually gets taken to the brain to centers where you perceive it as being something noxious and painful.” 

In short, eating spicy food literally tells your body that you’re experiencing something painful–so why do we do it? One, many people enjoy the taste, and two: when the brain understands that we’re experiencing something unpleasant, it releases pain-blocking endorphins to compensate, in turn making us feel good. But at what price? 

Why Does Spicy Food Irritate My Gut?

If you tolerate and even enjoy spicy heat while you’re eating, you may find that digesting these peppers is another story completely. Is spicy food bad for your gut? No. Is it pleasant for your gut? It depends. 

Spicy foods can cause diarrhea a short time after they’re eaten, and they can also exacerbate the symptoms of digestive issues such as IBS and Crohn’s disease. Remember those TRPV1 receptors? Well, they’re located throughout your body, including in the furthest reaches of your digestive system. As spicy food passes through your gut, these receptors send those “noxious” signals to your brain, causing it to make your gut expel the spicy food as quickly as possible.

This is why spicy food can send you running to the bathroom. The sensitivity of TRPV1 receptors is believed to vary from person to person, explaining why some people can load on the hot sauce, while others stick to good ol’ bell peppers, and why some people experience dramatic digestive repercussions while others do not. In the end, the question “is spicy food bad for your gut” is less important than its caveat: you need to listen to your gut! If eating spicy food makes your sensitive gut feel bad or causes you to experience IBS flare-ups, that’s reason enough to find alternate flavors to enjoy. A final word on spice: if you believe that your reactions are cause for concern or you experience prolonged symptoms, consult a medical professional.

How Can I Replace Spicy Foods in My Diet?

If spicy food isn’t for you, but you miss that kick of flavor, there are lots of ways around the heat. When you’re eating out, don’t be afraid to ask servers or friends for their takes on spice levels, and don’t be too shy to choose the mild option. In your home cooking, you can try varying the spices you use–flavor doesn’t only have to come at the expense of your tongue and gut! Explore different combinations of gut-friendly herbs and spices to unlock new tastes, and layer with gut-friendly flavored oils.

Finally, if you’re missing a je-ne-sais-quoi in your meals, don’t just reach for the same old hot sauce! Fody Foods has a wide selection of gut-friendly sauces and seasonings that can deliver a pre-made kick without the unpleasant gut symptoms. From a chipotle–yes, you heard that right–barbecue sauce to an anaheim chili-based enchilada sauce, Fody prepares all its foods by removing triggering ingredients in order to produce bloat-free deliciousness. Made without onion, garlic or other irritants, these sauces are an ideal way to create delicious meals even on short notice, and get just a hint of spice without the worry.

Looking for a way to enjoy spicy food and gut health? Check out Fody’s wide range of sauces, oils and seasonings to discover new flavors, and visit our recipes section to explore new ways of preparing them!

So, what are you waiting for?

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