Nutritional Epidemiology

Can You Get Ulcers Eating Spicy Food?

Max Carmody, MSc

You cannot get ulcers from eating spicy food, although they can make ulcers worse. Although there is some risk of gastrointestinal issues being caused or worsened by spicy foods, they have also been shown to have many health benefits as well, such as increased longevity and even reducing cancer risk.

What are Ulcers?

Ulcers are sores that are either slow to heal or keep returning. They can be found on any place in the skin you can see, like a leg ulcer on the skin,  and in places you can’t see, such as a peptic ulcer in your stomach lining. For the purposes of this article, we will be discussing stomach ulcers. Peptic ulcers are open sores that develop on the inside lining of the stomach, and on the upper portion of your stomach lining. The most common symptom of a peptic ulcer is stomach pain. There are two main different types of peptic ulcers. They are gastric ulcers that occur on the inside of the stomach, and duodenal ulcers that occur on the inside of the upper portion of your small intestine. A stomach ulcer occurs when some gastric acid eats away at your protective stomach lining. This acid then produces open sores that can bleed and cause the stomach pain. They are pretty common and treatable, but should still be taken seriously.

What Are the Risk Factors for Stomach Ulcers?

One in ten people will develop an ulcer in their life. One of the risk factors for stomach ulcers include frequently using non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which includes common pain relievers such as aspirin. Other risk factors are a family history of ulcers, illness such as liver, kidney or lung disease, regularly drinking alcohol, and smoking. According to many previous studies, ulcers are also linked to advanced age, or obesity.  People used to think that things like stress or spicy food causes ulcers, however there has been little support for that.

What Effects Does Spicy Food Have On You?

There are a wide variety of potential effects that spicy food can have on the body. Spicy foods may actually raise your resting metabolic rate, and speed weight loss. Capsaicin, which is an active component of chili peppers, has been shown to slow and destroy cancer cells. One UCLA study found that capsaicin inhibited growth of prostate cancer cells in mice, while leaving the mice unharmed. 

However, spicy foods may also worsen things like acid reflux, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and gastritis. They may cause digestive issues, such as heartburn, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting. Spicy foods can trigger abdominal pain in some people.

Can You Get Ulcers Eating Spicy Food?

The general consensus seems to be that spicy foods do not actually cause ulcers, but they can make them worse. For decades, perhaps as much as 100 years, it has been assumed that spicy foods cause ulcers, as well as stress. However, modern studies have not been able to find a significant link between ulcers and spicy food. If you have irritable bowel syndrome or heartburn though, or you already have ulcers, you may want to watch out for spicy food!

Impact of Spicy Foods on Mortality?

In one study from China, following roughly 200,000 men, and 300,000 women, the effect of eating spicy food on mortality was studied. Compared to those who ate spicy foods less than once a week, those who ate spicy food 6 or 7 times a week had a 14% relative risk reduction in total mortality, so they were 14% less likely to die than those who ate little spicy food. There was a stronger association with eating spicy food vs. not eating spicy food and living longer, than there was with drinking alcohol even. People who ate more spicy food compared to those who ate 1x a week were less likely to die than those who drank alcohol vs. those who did not. People who ate more spicy food were also less likely to die of cancer, ischemic heart disease, or respiratory diseases than those who did not. So there is a chance, that even if it exacerbates existing ulcers, spicy food could be good for your health overall! I eat spicy food every day, usually multiple times a day myself, I put hot sauce on almost everything I can.

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