Why Eating Spicy Food Can Give You Diarrhea

Spicy Thai dish

Verywell / Zorica Lakonic

Whether you’re eating Mexican, Indian, or Cajun meals, or just enjoying some zesty Buffalo wings during the big game, spicy food is a popular treat for lots of people. But it’s no fun when these spicy foods cause some of us to run to the bathroom with diarrhea a few hours later.

But why does that happen? This article will discuss why you sometimes get diarrhea after eating spicy food and what you can do to prevent it.

How Spicy Foods Cause Diarrhea

Sometimes people think that this unpleasant experience may mean something is wrong in their digestive tract. However, the body’s reaction to spicy foods is completely normal. It's just a sign that your body is hard at work protecting you from possible harm.

Foods prepared with hot spices such as cayenne or chili peppers contain a powerful ingredient known as capsaicin. This ingredient can irritate your skin and other tissues. When you eat hot peppers or salsa, capsaicin is what causes the burning.

Capsaicin and the Stomach

Capsaicin can irritate the stomach lining or intestines. Some people may be able to handle it. But if you have a more sensitive gut, it often causes diarrhea.

Digestion is a highly organized process that begins from the first bite until we go to the bathroom to have a bowel movement. Along the way, food travels through the gut, which has various parts. Each part has an important job to do.

As we eat capsaicin, it stimulates a protein known as vanilloid receptor 1 (also known as TRPV1 or the capsaicin receptor). This protein tells our brains we are burning from the inside.

The brain tries to understand what's going on and begins to release the body’s own pain blockers known as endorphins. This is why you feel happy while eating spicy food. It's also why the more spicy wings you eat, the more you want.

To protect your body from what it senses as harm, the small intestine quickly pushes the capsaicin through the gut. When food reaches the colon, digestion usually slows down, and the colon absorbs water. But capsaicin activates the same receptors there, too. As a defense, the colon speeds the whole process up, and it makes us run to the restroom with diarrhea.

As a parting gift, people sometimes feel like their anus is on fire. That's because there are more of these pain receptors in the anus.

Recap

Capsaicin in spicy food irritates pain receptors in the digestive tract. To protect itself, the gut speeds up to get rid of the capsaicin quickly. This leads to diarrhea.

When You Should See a Doctor

Diarrhea triggered by hot or spicy food usually clears up in a day or two. In most cases, taking it easy on your gut and eating non-spicy foods for a few days will get you through the worst.

In other words, you probably won't need to see a doctor. It's important to also stay well hydrated (drink plenty of water) and avoid caffeinated beverages that can make diarrhea worse.

However, if your symptoms don't get better in a day or two, or they worsen and/or lead to signs of dehydration, go see a doctor.

Prevention

If you often have diarrhea when you eat hot or spicy foods, learn to recognize and avoid your trigger foods. But if you still want to enjoy them, here are a few tricks to try:

  • Eat the spicy food with some dairy. It helps to wash away the spicy sensation.
  • Eat a small amount of something sweet with the spicy food. This lessens or neutralizes the spiciness.
  • Prepare for the morning after by having some hypoallergenic wipes handy. They'll be a big help if you end up with diarrhea.

Summary

Some people's guts are sensitive to spicy foods. Eating too much spicy food can cause them to experience diarrhea. If this describes you, there's nothing wrong with your digestive system. It's just your body's way of protecting itself from potential harm.

A Word From Verywell

With Super Bowl parties or tailgating, sometimes you just have to eat some spicy food. However, there's a reason your friend can eat those super-hot wings with no problems and you spend all day in the restroom. It all comes down to your TRVP1 receptors in the small intestine and the colon.

Take steps to prevent diarrhea by recognizing your trigger foods, learning how to avoid them, and finding ways to enjoy spicy meals without experiencing unpleasant bathroom situations.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I eat spicy food while pregnant?

    Yes, most people can eat spicy food while pregnant. Eating spicy food will not harm the health of a parent or their child. The same is true of breastfeeding. However, nausea is a common symptom in early pregnancy and eating spicy food can make symptoms worse. In later stages of pregnancy, some people experience heartburn and indigestion that can be exacerbated by spicy food.

  • Are spicy foods good for you?

    Spicy foods can be good for you in moderate amounts. Eating spicy food may reduce bad cholesterol levels, increase metabolism to assist in weight loss, and help prevent tumors in the gastrointestinal tract. These benefits are attributed to capsaicin, a compound found in chili peppers. Everyone's body works differently, so these benefits may be more apparent in some people.

  • What helps settle your stomach after eating spicy food?

    Ice cream, milk, cottage cheese, and bread or another starchy food might help settle your stomach after eating spicy food. A small amount of peppermint oil may help reduce inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. Be careful eating any dairy items if you are lactose-intolerant.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Chang A, Rosani A, Quick J. Capsaicin. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.

  2. Frias B, Merighi A. Capsaicin, nociception and painMolecules. 2016;21(6):797. doi:10.3390/molecules21060797 

  3. American Chemical Society. Hot Peppers: Muy Caliente.

  4. Penn Medicine. Spice Up Your Life: The Health Benefits of Spicy Foods.

  5. Chumpitazi BP, Kearns GL, Shulman RJ. Review article: the physiological effects and safety of peppermint oil and its efficacy in irritable bowel syndrome and other functional disorders. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2018;47(6):738-752. doi:10.1111/apt.14519

By Kenneth Brown, MD
Kenneth Brown, MD, is a board-certified gastroenterologist specializing in digestive health, including irritable bowel syndrome, colon cancer screening, and GERD.