What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Spicy Food

Hot sauce may just become your new favorite condiment, especially when you want to take care of your heart.

From Buffalo chicken to kimchi and Tajín, spicy food is a part of many different cultures. The type of chile pepper may vary, but the kick is still there. Even if you grew up eating spicy food, you may not know how it impacts your health. In this article, we sum up the research on spicy food and share our favorite ways to add heat to your plate.

Health Benefits of Eating Spicy Food

A plate of Grilled Creole-Style Jambalaya
Photography by Blaine Moats; Kelsey Bulat (food) Sue Mitchell (Props)

Pictured Recipe: Grilled Creole-Style Jambalaya

You May Reduce Your Blood Pressure

When you have hypertension (high blood pressure), it's generally recommended that you reduce the sodium in your diet. But what does that have to do with spicy food?

In a study on Chinese adults, females who reported that they "usually" ate spicy food had 26% lower odds of having hypertension compared to those who did not eat spice, according to a 2019 study in the European Journal of Nutrition. (The association did not hold true for males.) Though the reasons why are still being studied, preliminary animal research suggests that capsaicin, the compound that gives chile peppers their spicy punch, may help counteract hypertension caused by a high-salt diet, the researchers say. Interestingly, food that was self-rated as "moderately" spicy by study participants was found to be the most blood pressure-friendly. So spice it up, but you don't have to go wild.

You May Have Better Heart Health

Spicy food may make you sweat, but it's also good for your heart. A 2022 umbrella review in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research found an association between regularly eating spicy food and reduced risk of death from heart disease and stroke. This study found a correlation, not a causation, between the two, meaning we can't be certain that the spicy food itself resulted in better heart health, but something about those who regularly eat spicy food led them to have reduced mortality rates.

This may be in part because of improved cholesterol numbers. "Although more conclusive studies are needed, eating spicy chiles rich in capsaicin is linked to increased levels of HDL cholesterol, which is protective against heart disease, and decreased LDL (the type of cholesterol responsible for heart disease)," says Alice Figueroa, M.P.H, RDN, CDN, founder of Alice in Foodieland.

You May Feel More Satisfied

The powerful zing-and-zip flavor of spicy food may also affect your appetite. Spicy food may make you feel more satiated sooner, and this can actually help foster a positive relationship with food, says Figueroa: "Feeling both full and satiated is key to nurturing a balanced relationship with food."

You May Have a Lower Mortality Risk

A greater intake of spicy food was associated with lower mortality rates, according to a 2021 meta-analysis in the journal Angiology that accounted for more than 500,000 adults. Compared with people who did not eat spicy food, those who ate it more than once a week had a 12% lower risk of dying from any cause over the 10-year follow-up period. It may be that capsaicin acts against obesity, and therefore reduces the risk of diseases (such as type 2 diabetes) associated with obesity. In addition, capsaicin may also provide antioxidants, as well as improve the gut microbiome, both of which may help protect the body against disease, the researchers suggest.

Potential Downsides

You May Aggravate Gastric Reflux

Whether you have occasional acid reflux or full-fledged gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), know that spicy food is a known trigger, according to a 2021 review in Preventive Nutrition and Food Science. "Folks with heartburn or a condition like gastritis might want to be mindful of how often or how much spicy food they are eating, because it can be irritating," says Zariel Grullón, RDN, CDN, of Love Your Chichos and co-founder of the bilingual virtual nutrition practice Radicare.

You May Have Digestive Conditions

The potential for digestive side effects from spicy food are not limited to reflux. Figueroa cites a 2020 study in the Journal of Crohn's and Colitis, which found that "a majority of people with IBD (ulcerative colitis and Crohn's) reported that spicy food triggered a relapse in symptoms." In addition, if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may also want to be mindful of eating spicy foods, as these may also aggravate your symptoms.

How to Spice Up Your Dishes

While you may be ready to dive headfirst into reaping the health benefits of spicy food, it's probably best to start slow. For newbies to the heat, this gives you a chance to step back and check to make sure spicy foods aren't causing you digestive distress.

Figueroa suggests starting with milder peppers that have less capsaicin, like Anaheim, ancho, poblano or jalapeño. You could also use dried chile or pepper flakes. Here are four fiery foods to add more heat to your meals:

  • Chili oil: This versatile condiment is made from oil infused with chile peppers. It makes a great addition to eggs, noodles and veggies. For starters, check out the Spicy Cucumber Salad with Chili Oil.
  • Kimchi: Kimchi is a traditional spicy Korean side dish made with fermented veggies. It can be made at home or purchased in Asian markets and eaten with rice, noodles, soup and more. Try the Pork & Kimchi Fried Rice.
  • Pickled veggies: "One of my favorite ways to add spice, besides hot sauce and chili oil, is a pickled onion and jalapeño side my mom would make for us growing up. Not only does it add some heat, it also adds some acid to brighten up your dishes," Grullón says. Try these Spicy Pickled Carrots for a similar vibe.
  • Hot sauce. There are so many hot sauce options out there with varying heat levels and flavors. To easily add spice to your meals, keep a bottle on hand and add it to tacos, rice bowls or eggs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is spicy food good for your heart?

Spicy food may play a role in promoting heart health. Research shows a correlation between a higher intake of spicy food and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Studies have also found a relationship between spicy food intake, higher HDL cholesterol levels (the "good" kind of cholesterol) and lower blood pressure.

Should you eat spicy food when you're sick?

If you have a stomach bug or gastrointestinal illness, spicy food will likely make your symptoms worse because it can trigger nausea. However, if you have a cold or congestion, the heat may help clear up your sinuses by breaking up the mucus.

Does spicy food support your immune system?

Chile peppers are a good source of vitamin C, so by eating spicy food you're getting a boost of vitamin C. Your gut also plays a big role in your immune health, and there's some early animal evidence that capsaicin may promote a healthy gut microbiome. However, more research is needed.

The Bottom Line

Spicy food is linked to various health benefits including reduced mortality, better heart health, lower blood pressure and increased satiety. However, if you have a digestive illness, spicy food could make your symptoms worse. If you're not already a spicy-food lover, but you want to add more heat to your meals, resist the temptation to go all out right away. Start by adding a little spice, see how you feel, and then amp it up from there.

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