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Are spicy foods healthy for digestion?

By Apollo 24/7, Published on - 09 March 2021

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For a long time, spicy foods were blamed for stomach problems and digestive health. It was thought that spicy foods irritate the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in stomach ulcers, vomiting, or diarrhoea. People believed it because the pain and cramping in the stomach occurred after eating spicy meals. The treatment for this involved a bland diet, avoiding most spices. However, several recent studies reveal that spices are good for digestive health and have various other health-promoting properties. Studies also indicate that spicy foods are known to cause problems mostly in those who have digestive issues such as acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, or irritable bowel disease.

Spicy foods and their health benefits

Spices such as turmeric, ginger, and chilli peppers add good flavour, colour, and heat to food without added salt, sugar, and saturated fats. The spices not just enhance flavour but come with potential health benefits. A lot of spicy foods are loaded with nutrients. For example, chilli peppers are an excellent source of vitamins C, A, E, B6, K, iron, and fibre. Spices like chili, turmeric, and black pepper are known to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Spicy foods can offer several health benefits which include:

  • Boost metabolism
  • Prevent cancer
  • Promote heart health
  • Aid in digestion
  • Improve immunity
  • Uplift mood.

What makes food spicy?

Capsaicin, the active ingredient of spicy foods, is an irritant responsible for the burning sensation that occurs as soon as one bites into a hot chilli. Capsaicin binds to pain receptors TRPV1 (transient receptor potential vanilloid 1) on the nerve endings in the tongue. This binding triggers a chemical response that sends signals to the brain, indicating the presence of spicy stimuli. Capsaicin also binds to receptors that detect heat making it feel ‘hot’. Once the food is swallowed, capsaicin activates the pain receptors on the membrane lining the oesophagus (food pipe) causing a burning sensation in the chest. As it moves further down, it may affect the lungs causing hiccups. But these effects of capsaicin are normal and temporary.

The positive effects of spicy food on the digestive system.

Recent studies have focused on the effects of two main spices – chilli pepper and turmeric. The ingredients of these spices that provide digestive health benefits are:

  1. Capsaicin in foods with chilli pepper.
  2. Curcumin, an active component of the spice turmeric.

The positive effects of capsaicin on the digestive system:

  • Inhibits acid production in the stomach.
  • Stimulates the production of saliva that helps in the digestion of food.
  • Improves digestion by increasing the secretion of digestive fluids in the stomach.
  • Improves the function of the digestive system by inhibiting enzyme production.
  • Stimulates alkali, mucus secretions, and the blood flow to gastric mucosa that help in the prevention and healing of gastric ulcers.
  • Helps combat bacterial infections of the stomach such as that caused by Helicobacter Pylori.
  • Helps fight diarrhoea caused by bacterial infections.
  • Protects the stomach from injury-causing agents.
  • Reduces inflammation that causes discomfort in the digestive system.

The positive effects of curcumin on the digestive system:

  • Possesses antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that promote healthy digestion.
  • Helps to treat acid reflux, flatulence, and functional dyspepsia (recurring symptoms of indigestion).
  • Improves digestive efficiency by helping with gut inflammation
  • Blocks specific pain receptors that may help treat digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.

What causes gastrointestinal symptoms after consuming spicy foods in sensitive individuals?

When spicy foods are consumed moderately, they offer several digestive health benefits. The stomach discomfort that many people experience may not be because of spicy food but other factors such as caffeine, alcohol, fatty or fried foods, tomatoes, and acidic citrus fruits.

However, a few people with bowel disorders may experience gastrointestinal symptoms following a spicy meal. When capsaicin enters the stomach, it stimulates gastric mucus production and speeds up digestion. The process of digesting spicy food may cause stomach pain and cramping. Later in the intestine, capsaicin triggers some reactions that speed up digestion. This helps digest foods that otherwise take a long time for digestion. However, during this process, sometimes, capsaicin stimulates a few nerves and draws more water into the colon. This can cause excessive contractions of the colon causing diarrhoea.

Conclusion

Spicy foods have amazing health benefits and hence can be added to the diet certainly. Unlike sauces and condiments that contain refined sugar and other processed ingredients, spices help to enhance the taste of food without adding extra calories. According to recent research, frequent spicy food is also associated with a longer life.

Talk to a gastroenterologist if you have any questions related to digestive health.

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