If you’re one of the millions with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you’re probably well-versed in the game of risk. No, I don’t mean the board game; I’m talking about going to a restaurant, looking over all of the options, and trying to decide what’s worth the very real chance of an upset stomach later. (Fun for the whole family!)
For most people with IBS, spicy food is the ultimate risky move. Salsa loaded with onions and chili peppers, hot wings (even ones made of cauliflower), a Thai curry with three flames next to it on the menu…they may all look amazing, but could also leave you up all night later.
Fortunately, just because you have IBS doesn’t mean you’re destined to a life of bland food and perpetually “mild” salsa. Here, two MDs who regularly work with IBS patients reveal the hard-and-fast rules to live by if you want to spice up your life—without paying for it later.
1. Create some balance
Integrative medicine doctor and gastroenterologist Marvin Singh, MD, says it’s important to keep in mind that no one’s body is the same, so just because your sister or friend with IBS can’t eat certain foods doesn’t mean they’re necessarily off-limits for you too. “Each of us has such a different gut microbiome that two people eating the same foods do not necessarily get the same reactions occurring in their digestive tracts,” he says. “Once we address underlying issues causing and contributing to IBS, then you may find that it is easier to liberalize your diet.”
Integrative medicine doctor and Happy Gut author Vincent Pedre, MD, says that doing what you can to correct imbalances in your microbiome is going to make your gut stronger overall and better able to tolerate spicy foods. A gastroenterologist can help put together a treatment plan that could ultimately heal your gut. Other ways to create balance: taking a probiotic, eating more fermented foods, slowly increasing your fiber intake, and managing anxiety.
2. Savor the spicy moments
Dr. Singh also advises people with IBS to be picky when choosing to eat spicy foods, eating them only occasionally and not on a regular basis. “It was found that people who eat spicy foods more than ten times per week were 92 percent more likely to have IBS than those who didn’t,” he says. The correlation shows that if you want your gut to heal, you have to be choosy with your heat.
Both doctors also point out that the hotter the dish, the more likely it is to upset your stomach. So instead of having it in your mind that you can never have onions, for example, know you can probably tolerate a teaspoon in your guac more regularly, just not the whole veggie diced and worked in every single time.
3. Be strategic about what you pair it with
Fried foods, beer, and dairy are all other common risk foods for people with IBS, so Dr. Pedre advises people to stay away from them when they’re consuming anything spicy. “You want to be careful. Don’t have spicy food with, like, fried bread,” he says. Instead, he suggests incorporating some spices that can actually help with IBS, such as cardamom, cinnamon, or ginger, which help settle a jumpy gut.
You might have heard that sipping peppermint tea with spicy foods can help settle the stomach, but Dr. Pedre says mint can actually backfire if you have IBS because it relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter (essentially the valve between your esophagus and your stomach) which you don’t want to do if you’re prone to acid reflux or heartburn.
Okay, so you overdid it—now what?
If you totally ignored all of this advice (who can resist the siren song of curry?) and now you’re feeling, well, not great, both experts have some advice so you can get back to feeling normal ASAP. If spicy food has left you constipated, Dr. Pedre’s recommends sipping aloe vera juice, which keeps the digestive tract moving. If diarrhea is more the prob, Dr. Singh suggests brewing a cup of lemon balm or chamomile tea, which can help calm down stomach spasms.
Above all, even though digestive probs can seriously suck, be kind to yourself and remember it will pass soon; stressing out definitely isn’t going to help. And maybe go a little easier on the sriracha sauce next time.
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