The Dangers and Benefits of Eating Hot Peppers

Read this before entering a hot pepper-eating contest.

It's standard for spicy food to cause your upper lip to sweat, your eyes to tear up, and your mouth to feel on fire.

But can eating hot peppers negatively impact your health? The question is worth considering—what makes chilies so darn fiery, and what are the dangers of eating them? 

Here, Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RDN, nutritionist and author of Eat Clean, Stay Lean, answers all those burning questions. Before you eat a heap of habaneros, here's what you need to know about the dangers (and possible benefits).

What Makes Peppers So Hot

The main compound that gives chilies their signature kick is a phytonutrient called capsaicin.

"Capsaicin attaches to the receptors on the taste buds that detect temperature and sends signals of spicy heat to the brain," explained Dr. Bazilian.

The amount of heat a pepper packs has to do with the level of capsaicin it contains. To figure out how spicy a scorching pepper is, adventurous eaters can refer to the Scoville scale. 

The measurement tool ranks varieties of peppers from most to least spicy based on their capsaicin concentration. The Scoville scale ranges from standard bell peppers with no capsaicin to ghost peppers and the Trinidad scorpion—the spiciest chilies.

Dangers of Eating Hot Peppers

"It's a bit of a myth that hot peppers can actually create physical damage to the esophagus or tongue," explained Dr. Bazilian. 

But that doesn't mean no dangers are associated with eating fiery foods. Why? Dr. Bazilian clarified that when we eat very hot peppers, the brain receives pain signals that can result in an upset stomach, nausea, or vomiting.

And while hot peppers themselves may not cause damage to the esophagus, those symptoms, like vomiting, can.

"If vomiting occurs, the acid that comes up from the stomach can irritate the esophagus," noted Dr. Bazilian.

Other potential reactions to super-spicy peppers include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Pain and redness on the skin
  • Pain and redness in eyes (if squirted into the eye)
  • Respiratory distress (when inhaled)
  • Breathing difficulties

You should drink milk to alleviate the symptoms of eating hot peppers. But don't drink water, which may worsen the symptoms of eating hot peppers. That's because water can spread capsaicin around the mouth, potentially intensifying the pain.

If the hot pepper comes into contact with your skin or eyes, you can rinse with water or apply a cool compress.

When eating hot peppers, choose varieties that aren't too high on the Scoville scale and consume them in tasty meals rather than by themselves. 

"This way, the impact on the tongue, esophagus, and stomach is less, too," said Dr. Bazilian.

Health Benefits of Hot Peppers

Hot peppers can also deliver health benefits. People often use capsaicin to treat arthritis and other pain-related conditions. Others also use the phytonutrient as an ingredient in topical medications. In those cases, capsaicin works by stimulating pain fibers.

One specific medication, called Zostrix HP (capsaicin), treats diabetic neuropathy, which refers to nerve pain associated with diabetes. There are also pain patches containing capsaicin that treat diabetic neuropathy. The effectiveness of those patches compares to other oral medications (like gabapentin and duloxetine) that also treat the condition.

In addition to diabetic neuropathy, capsaicin may also effectively other signs and symptoms of several illness, such as:

  • Back pain
  • Headaches
  • Runny nose
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Pain from trauma
  • Nausea and vomiting after surgery
  • Pain after surgery

A Quick Review

Some people prefer to eat on the spicy side. But too much heat can result in unpleasant side effects, like nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, or diarrhea

Capsaicin is the culprit of the spicy heat in hot peppers. And while capsaicin can irritate our digestive system and cause those unpleasant side effects, it is also a beneficial ingredient in medications that treat pain-related conditions.

"When we consume things that aren't appetizing to us and in quantities that are unreasonable, the possibility for adverse outcomes and discomfort is very real," noted Dr. Bazilian. 

So, consider yourself warned if you're planning on entering a hot pepper-eating contest.

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