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Hot Peppers for Heartburn?

Occasional spicy dishes might trigger indigestion, but some people regularly eat hot peppers for heartburn.
Hot Peppers for Heartburn?

If you have ever complained about indigestion, chances are someone told you to stay away from spicy foods. Although certain patients with chronic reflux may find that a hot spicy stew makes symptoms worse, others have a different reaction. We don’t know quite why, but several readers say it’s helpful to eat hot peppers for heartburn. 

Munching Hot Peppers–for Heartburn:

Q. I grow hot peppers, ferment them, and make hot sauce. I also eat a couple of Thai chiles a day. They have completely cured my heartburn!

I used to eat Tums like crazy and take heartburn medication. I couldn’t go without it.

Now I’m heartburn-free. It took me a little while to get used to the capsaicin burn, but now I’m a beast!

A. It comes as a huge shock to both patients and physicians to learn that spicy food might not be the enemy of heartburn. Although many individuals cannot tolerate the burn from hot peppers, others, like you, seem to benefit. One study from Thailand suggested that regular consumption of hot peppers might help control symptoms of reflux (Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility, April, 2010)

More recently a paper presented at the 2020 Scientific Sessions of the American Heart Association reviewed research on the cardiovascular effects of hot peppers.  Over 500,000 participants were involved in the four studies. The authors report that pepper heads like you had less cardiovascular disease and were 23 percent less likely to die of cancer.

For people who cannot tolerate eating spicy peppers for heartburn, however, our eGuide to Overcoming Digestive Disorders may be helpful. In it we discuss nondrug options, including chile peppers, and OTC treatments for indigestion.

Jalapeño Peppers Helped Reader Get Off PPIs:

Q. I was on reflux drugs like omeprazole (PPIs) for over ten years and even had surgery for severe reflux. I was determined to get off the PPIs, so I started drinking ginger tea, eating crystallized ginger when acute pain hit, snacking on several almonds every few hours, and taking a teaspoon of honey at night before bed. It definitely helped ease the symptoms but did not eliminate the heartburn.

Feeling discouraged, I ate some jalapeño-topped snacks even though my doctor had warned me to avoid anything hot. My reflux is now kept in check by jalapeños every few days without needing anything else! The reflux pain only returns if I go a week without eating any jalapeños.

I have been PPI-free for over 18 months now and feel so much better. Why would jalapeños make such a difference so quickly? The pain eases within an hour of eating them and lasts for several days.

A. Capsaicin (the hot stuff in jalapeño peppers) may be protective for the stomach lining (Journal of Physiology, Jan-Dec, 2001). Although some people experience discomfort when they eat hot peppers, regular use appears to decrease reflux symptoms (Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility, April, 2010). This may be related to the way regular use of capsaicin cream on the skin can reduce pain, by depleting the nerves of substance P that transmits pain.

Another Testimonial on Peppers for Heartburn:

Q. After reading comments regarding the hot pepper remedy for heartburn at PeoplesPharmacy.com, the scientist in me couldn’t resist giving it a try. For several years I have taken omeprazole, ranitidine or antacids to combat occasional acid reflux, especially after a large or fatty supper.

Nine days ago, as an experiment, I began adding hot peppers to my supper meals–a grilled hamburger patty with a bunch of onions and some sliced cayenne peppers. Although I was anxious the first night, I had no heartburn and needed no medicine. I have been adding hot peppers to scrambled eggs, meat dishes, macaroni and cheese and fried fish without problems.

My mouth burns from the peppers but I like that sensation, and it goes away shortly. Still no heartburn, even when I eat late, which used to guarantee a maximum-strength antacid about 1:00 am.

This morning I had fried eggs (and peppers), bacon and biscuits. Without peppers, this would usually cause me trouble by 10:00 but today, nada. I haven’t given pizza and beer a try yet, but I plan to.

I will have to verify this by going off the peppers to see if the heartburn returns, but right now I’m enjoying this too much to go back. This is a continuing experiment on myself.

A. We agree that hot peppers seem like an improbable remedy for heartburn, but there is some scientific support. You can attribute your success, at least in part, to your continued use of hot peppers for heartburn. According to scientists in Taiwan, a single exposure to capsaicin, the compound that makes chile peppers hot, can burn (World Journal of Gastroenterology, Dec. 7, 2016).

Repeated exposure, though, eases symptoms:

“Acute esophageal exposure to capsaicin enhances heartburn sensation and promotes secondary peristalsis in gastroesophageal reflux disease, but repetitive capsaicin infusion reverses these effects.”

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
Citations
  • Gonlachanvit S, "Are rice and spicy diet good for functional gastrointestinal disorders?" Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility, April, 2010. doi: 10.5056/jnm.2010.16.2.131
  • Yi C-H et al, "Influence of capsaicin infusion on secondary peristalsis in patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease." World Journal of Gastroenterology, Dec. 7, 2016. DOI: 10.3748/wjg.v22.i45.10045
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