It is a common perception that spicy food causes heartburn.
In fact many people would list spicy food to be one of the worst offenders for triggering the heartburn.
Yet when it comes to scientific studies, there is little evidence that spicy or hot food can cause heartburn or the acid reflux disease.
How can this be?
Let’s revisit what is the real cause of GERD or the acid reflux disease. GERD is caused when acid spills into the esophagus from the stomach. This can happen for a couple of reasons.
When the lower esophageal sphincter, which is the valve between the esophagus and the stomach is relaxed the acid from stomach spills into the esophagus. Or when the stomach is overfilled, it puts extra pressure on the valve and acidic contents may leak into the esophagus.
The esophagus is not used to acidic content and when acid spills into the esophagus you get the feeling of burning near the area where the heart is. We call this heartburn.
Spicy foods contain capsaicin. This is the compound responsible for the burning sensation that we feel when we eat such food. But capsaicin is not acidic. It is actually basic.
If capsaicin in the spicy food is not acidic, how can it contribute to heartburn? We just saw that acidic content in the esophagus is the main reason for the heartburn.
When we eat spicy food we do feel a burning sensation in our mouth and esophagus. Because capsaicin causes the burning sensation along the digestive tract. Capsaicin causes burning sensation not only in the mouth or the esophagus but also in the colon or the rectal area.
But burning from the spicy or hot food is a distinct feeling compared to the heartburn. People may be confusing these two feelings.
If you have suffered from the acid reflux disease, your esophagus lining may be inflamed and it may be more severely irritated by the spicy food compared to the esophageal lining of a person who don’t have GERD.
Another suggested theory is that capsaicin may be triggering more acid production in the stomach. If this were true, it would explain why such foods would trigger heartburn.
Unfortunately there isn’t enough scientific evidence to prove this theory. Some trials have in fact shown that capsaicin does in fact triggers increase in the gastric acid production.
But other scientific trials have shown exactly opposite to be true. These trials have shown that capsaicin actually reduces the gastric acid production. It has also been shown that capsaicin actually has preventive or beneficial effects against too much gastric acid production.
It has been observed that certain cultures where hot food is more popular, the occurrence of stomach ulcers are less compared to the cultures where spicy foods are not that popular.
Many times when people eat spicy food they actually overeat and their heartburn is triggered by overeating and not the spicy food itself.
For some people capsaicin may very well be triggering extra gastric acid production. This may be leading to the heartburn for them. The key is to see what exactly is causing your heartburn.
You should keep a food diary and when heartburn strikes you have to recall and write what it was that you ate. You need to experiment to find out whether you are sensitive to capsaicin or not.
Eat hot food but don’t overeat and see whether you get heartburn. The next time eat hot food and overeat and see whether your acid reflex is triggered or not. You may find out that you were unnecessarily avoiding spicy food, fearing that it was causing heartburn for you.
To summarize, spicy and hot foods do not necessarily cause acid reflux. You may or may not be sensitive to such food when it comes to the heartburn.