Health and Harm

The benefits of eating chilli are well reported. Vitamins, metabolism, dietary etc. (see article ‘Heat Up Your Health’ on Chilli Magazine). However, we all know there are hazards too, and some are more costly than just a day-pass to the toilet.

There are those who will voice that eating spicy foods is dangerous – that ‘you get ulcers’ as a direct result of eating chilli, and heaven forbid that a child might encounter a Madras or a Nandos!

Nonetheless, there’s debate to be had about whether spicy foods are healthy or dangerous – and evidence for both. Certainly when consuming chilli in extremes – like doing anything extreme – there are dangers to be wary of.
Let’s take a journey through the body, acknowledging the nasty side of capsaicin and our bodily reactions to it, as we pretend to try our extreme chilli… in it goes.

Mouth

There are heat/pain receptors around your lips, mouth and tongue which are activated when you bite into a chilli, releasing the capsaicin. (They’re called TRP1V’s – see article “the feeling of flavour”). The chain reaction begins here. Nerve fibres release chemicals, increasing blood flow, and causing oral & lip swelling. Your mucus membranes will attempt to flush out the offending substance, causing a watery mouth, weepy eyes and runny nose. During and after you swallow, your throat burns inducing coughing and/or gagging. Fear not, it’s a natural defensive response – it’s the body saying “get it out”. Enjoying it so far?
Drinking water will just spread the capsaicin around, milk or yoghurt are more likely to break down the chemical reaction, but don’t hold your breath, there’s no quick fix once that bad boy has gone in.

Sweating

Depending on the pepper you’ve chosen, those receptors are now telling your brain that its getting physically hot out there. (FYI: Your brain will not differentiate a thermal burn from a chemical one). So the brain activates sweat-mode, the body’s coolant system. As blood vessels closest to your skin attempt to push the heat out, your face reddens and possibly chest and neck too. You begin to release sweat. Pretty.

Stomach

Your lips and tongue are left alone to suffer/recover as the pepper exits the mouth and makes its way toward the stomach. Any pain and inflammation gladly follows it. Here is where you might experience the first thoughts of vomiting and also where we can address one of the biggest myths, ulcers.

The brain will be receiving memo’s to expel the contents of your tummy due to the ‘pain’ it thinks is happening. So it will try vomiting it out.
It is not true that chilli can burn your insides nor promote ulcers. There is evidence however that the vomiting reaction caused by eating hot chilli can do some damage. Below is a link to a medical report from 2016 whereby a patient appears to have ripped a hole in his throat while his body tried to regurgitate a ghost pepper. A nice bit of bedtime reading for the kids.

Case Study: Vomiting induced by ghost pepper causes hole in esophagus:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0736467916302566?via=ihub

Let’s be clear then. Vomiting ‘chilli induced belly acid’ is a more realistic threat to our wellbeing than a chilli-induced ulcer. Spicy food will not create ulcers, but may certainly aggravate those which already exist and true, chilli consumption can cause great discomfort to people with pre-existing symptoms of indigestion, IBS, Crohn’s. But it does not create those problems.

Eternal expulsion

Vomiting might have been successful in expelling the spicy beast, or might not. Either way there’s probably still some nasty prickly residue that your tummy doesn’t like, and needs rid of. No pretty way of doing this, so read this next bit quickly… an increase of mucus production in your gut offers the last effort to expel the food out as quickly as it can, ultimately resulting in diarrhoea. There, said it.

Other affects:

Headaches

The BMJ filed a report in early 2018 about a man who’d eaten just 1 Carolina Reaper during a chilli-eating contest in New York, and very soon experienced excruciating ‘thunderclap headaches’. These were highly intense head pains each lasting several seconds, and spanning a number of days. They were accompanied by neck pain and dry heaving. The man took himself for medical assessment fearing something more sinister, and the results determined an unnatural ‘constriction of the major arteries within his brain’ (look up RCVS), never-before-seen as a result of pepper consumption, but familiar to doctors who’d seen it on patients suffering from Class A substance abuse. It is the first (and I think, only) reported instance of such violent headaches resulting from pepper eating, but we do know the medics attributed the pain as a direct reaction to eating the chilli and we do know the patient eventually made a good recovery.

What we don’t know is… who won the competition?

Outer body, eyes

Science tells us that dairy fluids like milk and yogurt are best at depleting the effects of chilli burn. But seriously, who’s going to reach for the milk bottle when you’ve just rubbed your eye with chilli-finger? Most of us will nose dive into a bowl of water, right? Or soak the nearest towel, tissue or t-shirt with soapy water and press it on our skin, rubbing away the badness. Nevertheless, I have read accounts of people – sensible, calm people – using milk to douse their inflammation to some affect. I only hope they then used soapy water get rid of the sour milk smell. Eeew.

Summary

So to finish, I suppose the golden rule is to be sensible with your intake of chilli and where you put your hands after touching them. Products like Tabasco and Military-grade Pepper Spray really can co-exist. Enjoy chilli within your tolerance. There are so many varieties to choose from and so much you can do with them, that we can embrace their positive, health-promoting properties without your body fearing those nasty, atomic-burny attributes that the extreme end of the chilli spectrum will also readily deliver.