When you’re a spicy food lover, you probably have a favorite brand and spice level that you regularly eat. One day, you might suddenly find that your usual spicy foods are causing you to feel ill or run to the restroom. Why is that?
Spicy foods can suddenly bother you because your body reacts adversely to capsaicin, a chemical compound in spices. This reaction is typically caused by medical conditions that were not present before. If you are repeatedly unwell after spicy meals, you should seek medical intervention.
This article will explain what happens in your body when you eat spicy foods and the adverse reactions of ingesting too much spice. I’ll also discuss the possible conditions that cause spicy foods to bother you when it has never happened before.
What Is It in Spicy Food That Causes Discomfort?
When you eat something spicy, the heat you feel in your mouth is part of why spicy food is addictive and keeps you coming back for more, but what causes the sensation?
Capsaicin is the chemical compound in spices and peppers that causes discomfort. This chemical compound gives your mouth a burning sensation when you eat something spicy. As the food travels downwards, you may feel the same burn in your throat, stomach, and anus.
Therefore, this explains why you feel uncomfortable when your body rejects your capsaicin intake.
However, if you previously had no issues eating spicy food but are having problems now, it could signal an underlying medical issue. Sudden sensitivity to spice is unlike naturally low spice tolerance, the latter being something you can train if you want to eat spicier food.
How Capsaicin Affects You
As you eat something spicy, capsaicin triggers a reaction from the receptors in your mouth and around your tongue. These receptors, known as TRPV1, send messages associated with pain and temperature to your brain.
However, the “burn” from capsaicin does not erode the surface it touches. The burning sensation you experience is more psychological than physical — capsaicin has tricked your brain into thinking you are on fire by exciting the receptors in your mouth. Your nervous system then triggers a full-body reaction as it attempts to cool you down.
Although the fire isn’t real, its effect on your body is another matter. The more capsaicin you ingest than your body can handle, the more severe your reaction to the excessive spice.
How Capsaicin Affects the Digestive System
Several processes happen in your body when you eat spicy food. For starters, the brain is not the only organ affected by capsaicin: other organs involved in digestion are also involved.
When you swallow something spicy, the burn from your mouth extends to your esophagus. You might feel discomfort in your throat from the inflammation, giving you a hoarse voice accompanied by some pain. Additionally, the heat can trigger your salivary glands, which produce extra mucus in your throat.
A study conducted in 2017 by Korean researchers suggests spicy food has the potential to cause heartburn. Heartburn symptoms worsen when capsaicin irritates the opening of the stomach, causing acid to reflux upwards into the esophagus.
Our small and large intestines also contain receptors that detect capsaicin. When the walls of the intestines feel the burn, they work up a defense mechanism to protect the body from the pain, which leads to increased gut movement.
As your intestines work extra hard, you feel abdominal cramps from the contractions pushing the food through the passage. Because food is transported so quickly through your gut, when it reaches the large intestine, you feel the urge to empty your bowels. At this point, you experience diarrhea as excess water from the food isn’t absorbed by the colon in a rush to expel the offending chemical.
So, watch out for the following symptoms if you think you’re intolerant to something too spicy:
- Sore throat
- Stomach pain
Reasons for Sudden Sensitivity Towards Spicy Food
Now that you know capsaicin is the main culprit in spicy food, I will discuss the possible reasons for unexplained intolerance. If you’re unwell after eating something spicy when you usually don’t, it could mean you have an undiagnosed medical complication.
Although the few reasons below will give you a general outline of what could be bothering you, consult a doctor to address your concerns.
Painful Oral Issues
Any oral pains should be evident immediately since your mouth and tongue are the first things to come into contact with capsaicin.
If spicy food causes persistent pain on your tongue, it could mean that you’re suffering from glossitis. Symptoms of glossitis include a swollen and inflamed tongue, which appears to have a smooth surface. Capsaicin can exacerbate this inflammation, making your tongue sensitive to spicy food.
Your gums can also be a source of discomfort if you suffer from gum disease or have sensitive gums. Gums may appear red and feel tender, especially after eating something extra spicy. You can rinse your mouth with a saltwater mixture to soothe the irritation.
Sudden Gut Sensitivity
People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) suffer from altered bowel movements after consuming particular food triggers — spicy foods being one of them. Laura Clark, a registered dietician, says that while spicy foods are a common gut irritant, IBS only becomes a problem when capsaicin interacts with a specific number of receptors in our intestines. Therefore, not all spicy food lovers are aware of this problem until they experience it.
If you develop gastritis symptoms after spicy food, you could be suffering from acute gastritis, a sudden and temporary form of the disease. Acute gastritis occurs when your stomach lining becomes inflamed; you could experience nausea or bloatedness after meals.
Lifestyle Changes and Prescription Medication
Changes to your lifestyle, advancing age, and taking prescription medications can also factor into sudden sensitivity towards spicy food.
According to Dr. Howard Mertz, Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University, extreme stress can lead to increased sensitivity in the intestine and cause more colon contractions. Although capsaicin is not directly related to the root of this problem, it can exacerbate the symptoms of stomach cramps and diarrhea.
Advancing age can also be a reason for intolerance to spice. As our bodies get older, so do our digestive organs. If you’re a senior citizen, you might find that spicy food does not get digested as easily as before, leading to acid reflux in some cases.
Additionally, some prescription medications interfere with the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. If you’re taking high blood pressure or high cholesterol medication, it’s good to check with your doctor to ensure it’s safe to eat spicy food. Capsaicin can aggravate the sensitivity of your stomach lining, which is caused by some of these medications.
To conclude, you can suddenly develop an intolerance toward spicy food for several health-related reasons. Spicy food can bother you if you are suffering from:
- Oral issues such as glossitis and gum disease.
- Gut sensitivity from irritable bowel syndrome and acute gastritis.
- Lifestyle changes and prescription medication.
The presence of capsaicin will aggravate these issues due to how your body’s mechanisms react to the spice. If you’re wondering whether you suffer from any health problems, stop eating spicy food for the time being and seek medical intervention.
- CEENTA: Love Spicy Food? Here’s How It Affects Your Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Throat
- John Hopkins Medicine: Gastritis
- John Hopkins Medicine: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- MDPI: Capsaicin, Nociception and Pain
- MedlinePlus: Glossitis
- National Library of Medicine: Foods Inducing Typical Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Symptoms in Korea
- River Rock Dental: How Do Spicy Foods Affect Gum Health
- The Telegraph: Diarrhoea after eating spicy foods
- UNC School of Medicine: Stress and the Gut