Living With IBS? Gastroenterologists Say Spicy Food Can—and Should—Stay on the Table

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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!) In short: IBS and spicy foods don't always mesh.

For many people with IBS, spicy food can cause digestive disturbances—similar to caffeine and coffee. Hot sauce loaded with onions and chili peppers, wings (even ones made of cauliflower), curry...they all taste amazing, but could also leave you up all night later. But just because you have IBS doesn't mean you're destined to a life of bland food and exclusive "mild" salsa. (SNORE!)

Experts In This Article

Here, two MDs who regularly work with patients with IBS reveal the hard-and-fast rules to live by if you want to spice up your life—without paying for it later.

What is IBS: The basics on irritable bowel syndrome

Before we jump right in, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a group of symptoms that affects the digestive system by causing painful and uncomfortable abdominal reactions often comprised of diarrhea, gas, constipation, or all of the above. And while it's generally believed that IBS doesn't cause long-term damaging effects, it can be tricky to navigate in the day-to-day—but certain medications and changes to dietary or lifestyle habits can potentially help reduce IBS flare-ups.

Can spicy food trigger IBS?

Research shows there's a correlation between the consumption of spicy food and IBS. A study on over 4,700 adults found that over 20 percent of the participants noted experiencing symptoms of IBS1 when they consumed 10 or more spicy meals per week. Overall, participants were 92 percent more likely to have IBS compared with those who never consumed spicy foods during the trial.

How to eat spicy foods with IBS

1. Enjoy spicy foods in moderation

According to integrative medicine doctor and gastroenterologist Marvin Singh, MD, moderation is key when learning how to eat spicy foods with IBS. Is hot sauce healthy? For some, yes. But for those with IBS, it may lead to a flare-up.

Dr. Singh 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 reiterates. The correlation shows that if you want your gut to heal, you have to be choosy with your heat. That said, there are ways to help build resistance and mitigate symptoms.

2. Avoid super spicy foods whenever possible

Savor the spicy moments, but also choose the heat source wisely. Dr. Singh points out that the hotter the dish, the more likely it is to upset your stomach. So instead of thinking that you can never have jalapeños, for example, know you can probably tolerate a teaspoon in your guac more regularly, just not the whole ingredient diced and worked in every single time.

3. Be mindful of what you pair spicy food with

According to integrative medicine doctor and Happy Gut author Vincent Pedre, MD,  spicy foods aren't the only type of food that can trigger IBS. 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. Avoid having spicy food with, like, fried dessert," he says.

Settling your stomach after eating spicy food

According to Dr. Pedre, incorporating certain types of spices can actually help with IBS, such as cardamom, cinnamon, or ginger2, which help settle a jumpy gut. Other ways to help settle your stomach after eating spicy food includes adding more easy-to-digest foods for IBS into your diet.

Foods that help with IBS

This includes fermented foods packed with probiotics that support gut health like sauerkraut, kimchi, or yogurt. Meanwhile, there are additional foods that can help quell some of the common symptoms of IBS, like diarrhea and nausea. Think: low-fiber foods (white rice, potatoes, pasta), cooked veggies (spinach, pumpkin, carrots), or a very ripe banana (the riper, the better for digestion).

Drinks that won't help with IBS

On the other hand, what won't help you find relief from IBS is peppermint tea. Although peppermint tea may be a great at-home remedy for other ailments, contrary to popular belief, sipping peppermint tea with spicy foods can actually backfire if you have IBS, says Dr. Pedre. That's because mint can potentially relax 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.

How do I increase my gut tolerance to spicy food?

In order to increase your gut tolerance to spicy food, it's important to establish some sense of balance first. That's why Dr. Singh stresses 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," Dr. Singh says. "Once we address underlying issues causing and contributing to IBS, then you may find that it is easier to liberalize your diet," he says.

Dr. Pedre adds that doing what you can to correct imbalances in your microbiome is going to make your gut stronger 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:

How to find relief for IBS discomfort

If you totally ignored all of this advice (who can resist the siren song of spicy meatballs?) and now you're feeling, well, not great, both experts have some advice so you can get back to feeling normal ASAP.

If you're feeling constipated

If spicy food has left you constipated, Dr. Pedre suggests sipping aloe vera juice, which keeps the digestive tract moving as it's full of gut-loving nutrients like several important vitamins and nutrients, such as vitamins B, C, E, and folic acid. What's more aloe vera helps maintain a healthy, well-balanced microbiome by supporting the "good" bacteria in the gut. Additionally, the high fiber and water content of the plant helps boost digestion, as it keeps things running smoothly.

If you're experiencing diarrhea

Meanwhile, if diarrhea is more the issue, Dr. Singh suggests brewing a cup of lemon balm or chamomile tea, which can help calm down stomach spasms.

If you have indigestion

If you get hiccups after eating spicy foods, try taking an antacid or gas relief pill, to limit the amount air in your system.

If you're feeling stressed out

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. (In fact, stress and IBS are just as interconnected as food and IBS.) That said, maybe going a little easier on the sriracha sauce next time may go a long way.

Discover the low FODMAP foods, according to dietitian:

—reviewed by Jennifer Logan, MD, MPH

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Esmaillzadeh, Ahmad et al. “Consumption of spicy foods and the prevalence of irritable bowel syndrome.” World journal of gastroenterology vol. 19,38 (2013): 6465-71. doi:10.3748/wjg.v19.i38.6465
  2. Fifi, Amanda C et al. “Herbs and Spices in the Treatment of Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders: A Review of Clinical Trials.” Nutrients vol. 10,11 1715. 9 Nov. 2018, doi:10.3390/nu10111715

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