Whether you’re eating ethnic foods, such as Mexican, Indian, or Cajun, or just enjoying some zesty Buffalo wings during the big game, spicy cuisine is a popular treat for many. However, it’s no fun when these spicy foods cause some of us to be running to the bathroom with diarrhea a few hours later.
Understanding why can help prevent any unfortunate situations. Sometimes people think that this may be a sign or symptom that something is wrong in their digestive tract. However, the body’s reaction to spicy foods is completely normal and it is merely a sign that your body is hard at work protecting you from any perceived harm.
Foods prepared with hot spices such as cayenne or chili peppers contain a potent ingredient known as capsaicin, which is an irritant to the body.1 This explains why, when your skin comes into contact with hot peppers or salsa, it can cause burning. Likewise, when you eat spicy food, chasing it down with cool water can help ease the feeling that you just swallowed a fireball.
It’s no surprise that capsaicin can also irritate the lining of the stomach or intestines. Some people may be able to tolerate it, but for others who have a more sensitive gut, it sets in motion the process that results in diarrhea.
How Capsaicin Causes Diarrhea
Digestion is a highly choreographed process that begins from the first bite until we eliminate our waste. Along the way, food travels through various organs, each with an important job.
As we eat capsaicin, the molecule will stimulate something known as the transient potential vanilloid 1 receptors (TRPV1) receptor, which tells our brains we are burning from the inside.2
The brain tries to interpret this stimulation and begins to release the body’s own pain blocker known as endorphins. This is why you can have a slight euphoric feeling and the more of those spicy wings you eat, the more you want.
As the capsaicin irritates the small intestine, it moves along more quickly than normal and arrives at the colon.2 Here, the process normally slows down, but those receptors are being excessively activated and as a defense, the colon speeds the whole process up. This does not allow the colon to absorb water and ultimately makes us run to the restroom with diarrhea.
As a parting gift, people sometimes feel like their anus is on fire. Don’t worry; this is just the same receptors being activated as the capsaicin passes below the dentate line in the anus where we have more pain receptors.
When You Should See a Doctor
Diarrhea triggered by hot or spicy food typically is self-limiting and will resolve in a day or two. In most cases, home care such as taking it easy on your gut, eating non-spicy foods for a few days will get you through the worst. It is important to also stay well hydrated and avoid caffeinated beverages that can exacerbate diarrhea.
Symptoms that do not resolve in a day or two or that worsen and/or lead to signs of dehydration would warrant medical attention for further evaluation.
If you frequently experience diarrhea associated with hot or spicy foods, recognizing and avoiding trigger foods is always best. But if you’re still tempted, here a few tricks to try:
Eat the spicy food with some dairy, which has been shown to neutralize the effect.3
A small amount of something sweet binds the receptors in the mouth.
Prepare for the morning after by having some hypoallergenic wipes handy.
With Super Bowl parties or tailgating, sometimes you just have to eat some spicy food. However, the reason your friend can eat those super hot wings with no issues and you spend all day in the restroom, comes down to your TRVP1 receptors in the proximal small intestine and the colon.
Just remember that if you are one who suffers from spicy foods, it is not a bad sign. It is your body’s way of protecting you from strong irritants. Next time someone offers you another wing, just say, “No thanks, my receptors are already activated. I will have a glass of milk though, and how many bathrooms do you have?